In early 1914, movie audiences saw the Little Tramp for the first time and the world of comedy was never the same. This little short is refreshingly modern and is just as enjoyable today as it was a century ago.
Enter the Tramp
Before we get started, a little bit of clarification is in order. This is not the first film in which Charlie Chaplin starred (that would be Making a Living), nor is it the first film in which the Little Tramp appeared (that would be Mabel’s Strange Predicament). This is the first Tramp film to be released and the American public’s first glimpse at the character. Film history is so caught up in firsts but it does get a bit muddled at times.
Charlie Chaplin remains, arguably, the most recognizable comedian in the world. Over a century after his film debut, his silhouette is instantly identifiable, his props and walk are iconic and there are still well-attended lookalike contests in his honor.
The secret of Chaplin’s continued popularity and status as a film icon is simple: his films remain funny and since they are in the universal language of silent film, his fanbase remains international.
Kid Auto Races at Venice was a split-reel release from Keystone, Mack Sennett’s anarchic studio, and it shared that reel with Olives and Their Oil, an educational short. Not a terribly auspicious debut and, I think, a surprise to any olive fans in the audience. (Imagine if you were looking forward to fine information on olive oil but finding out that you have to sit through the antics of that Chaplin character. The nerve of some people!)
The plot of the film (if it can really be called one) is simple: a camera crew attempts to capture the action of a children’s cart race in Venice, California but a pesky bystander keeps trying to insert himself into the footage. The more they push him away, the more he tries to get into the shots. He will not be ignored! (The film was later re-released appropriately titled as The Pest.) Finally, he sticks his face directly into the camera and makes faces.
This film clocks in at approximately six minutes and that’s the perfect length for this simple concept. The event is real, the kids and their carts are real, so are the bystanders. Chaplin plays his Tramp character and director Henry Lehrman and cameraman Frank D. Williams play themselves. (This would have been typical for the studio; Sennett famously saved on production costs by sending film crews to local events and having them improvise antics. That being said, Kid Auto Races at Venice has far less plot than, say, A Muddy Romance.)
Nowadays, we would call this a precursor to prank comedies and mockumentaries and the familiarity of the concept helps Kid Auto Races at Venice succeed with modern viewers. A professional comedian messing up a serious or semi-serious occasion? That’s something we are all familiar with. (In my opinion, the success of these modern comedies depends on whether the comedian is punching up or down and whether they are verging into assault.)
Of course, such a picture would have been impossible for Chaplin to make once his star rose at Keystone, he was just too famous for the crowds to give him room for his antics. It seems that at least one distributor felt that the film needed some explanation as some re-release prints contain a letter from Charlie Chaplin’s girlfriend telling him that she has gone to the races.
Fans of Chaplin’s later work will notice that his character is rougher and lacks the emotion that he would later incorporate into his comedy. However, there is an appealing quality to the improvisational nature of Chaplin’s performance. Later on, he would grind through miles of film (he rehearsed on-camera) in order to get his gags just right and I certainly admire his dedication but seeing his comedic timing so well-honed at this point is a pleasure in itself. I guess you could say that this is similar to the difference between an artist’s polished studio album and a live performance. (By the way, I extensively discuss how Chaplin’s style clashed with Mabel Normand’s when she directed him in my review of Mabel at the Wheel.)
Chaplin is one of the most discussed figures of classic film and his every cinematic move has been mulled and examined so I going to quickly move on to my experiences with this picture.
I try to keep a positive attitude about it but it can be extremely challenging to convince people to even give silent films a chance. The very idea of such an old and (to them) archaic form of entertainment being relevant to modern audiences is baffling to some. I have had success with various films over the years (Judex is a newbie favorite) but there is something magical about Chaplin in general and this film in particular.
Here’s what has happened several times: I finagle and wrangle someone into seeing some silent films and they look like they are being frog marched to a root canal. Then they see that it’s Chaplin, somebody they recognize and their interest is piqued. As the short continues and Chaplin engages in familiar antics, they begin to chuckle. Then giggle. Then laugh.
This scenario has played out again and again and always with the same results. Not only is it a pleasure to see a newcomer begin to understand the joy of silent films, it is also a way to travel back in time and understand how audiences of 1914 must have reacted to the Tramp character. They weren’t familiar with Chaplin yet, of course, but that hypnotic magic was already present. To borrow a phrase of Elinor Glyn, he had IT!
The plotless nature of the short, the lack of words, the modern audience’s familiarity with this particular brand of comedy all combine to create a great introduction to the world of silent films. It’s also just a light, fun film that is sure to delight Chaplin fans. This one is a must-see.
Where can I see it?
You can catch the restoration of this film in the excellent Chaplin at Keystone box set from Flicker Alley. The entire box is well worth checking out as you can see Chaplin’s character developing before your eyes. His Keystone work is not as sophisticated as what would come later, of course, but it’s fascinating to see the origins of a comedy great.
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