Early Chaplin Appearance Discovered

Although he played several memorable roles throughout his career, silent screen legend Charlie Chaplin is best known for his Little Tramp character. With a bowler hat and a toothbrush moustache, Chaplin’s hapless and lovable creation became one of the biggest box office draws of the silent era. For decades it was thought by film scholars that the first two appearances of Chaplin’s Tramp were the 1914 Keystone Studios shorts Kid Auto Races At Venice and Mabel’s Strange Predicament, but that notion has been overturned with the discovery of a Keystone Cops short where Chaplin makes an appearance.

The newly discovered film is A Thief Catcher, a Keystone Cops comedy found by film historian and collector Paul Gierucki at a Michigan antiques show. Upon watching the film, Gierucki realized that he had a previously thought to be lost film on his hands. And then he noticed the appearance of one Keystone Cop sporting a rather famous mustache and moving in a very familiar way. He showed the film to fellow Richard Roberts and the two agreed that they were looking at hitherto unknown Chaplin film appearance.

But this should not be construed as a starring role for Chaplin. The real stars are Ford Sterling, Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy.

Although Chaplin headlined his debut film Making A Living, Keystone Studio boss Mack Sennett wasn’t too happy with the results. Keystone star and director Mabel Norman convinced Sennett to keep developing Chaplin and used him herself in Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Chaplin only appears on screen for about two of the short’s ten minutes of run time.

Released first, Kid Auto Races At Venice was actually the second film where Chaplin played the Tramp. Chaplin introduced the character in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which was produced first but released a few days after Kid Auto. But A Thief Catcher actually started shooting the day before Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Roberts explains the significance of finding Thief Catcher

It’s either his second moustache picture or his first. It cements the concept that he had the character before he came to Keystone and didn’t slap it together on the way to the shooting stage one day. Even when he’s doing a minor part he’s doing that character. It’s a new brick in the Chaplin biography. And this opens up the door to other unknown Chaplin appearances at Keystone.

Thief Catcher would be released on February 19, 1914, just ten days after Mabel’s Strange Predicament, but no one could have guessed at the significance of it at the time. It was only later in 1914 that Chaplin’s Tramp character would catapult the actor in to super stardom.

A Thief Catcher will be screened for an audience for the first time in probably 95 years on July 17 at the Slapstickon film convention Rosslyn, VA.

Source- Palm Beach Post

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About Rich Drees 7195 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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September 3, 2010 5:25 pm

The west coast will see the re-premiere of The Thief Catcher during the 46th annual Cinecon Classic Film Festival at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood California on Saturday, September 4th at 1:45pm.