Friday, February 7, 2014

Stubs - Kid Auto Races at Venice

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) aka Kid Auto Races in Venice Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Henry Lehrman, Frank D. Williams. Directed by Henry Lehrman. Written by Henry Lehrman. Produced by Mack Sennett. Run Time: 6 minutes 33 seconds. U.S. Black and White, Comedy, Silent

While Trophy Unlocked doesn’t usually review shorts, the exception is made here for Kid Auto Races at Venice, released one hundred years ago on February 7, 1914. While not the first short Charlie Chaplin appeared in, this is the first film released to feature the Tramp character that is synonymous with the actor/writer/director/producer and a character he would play for the next 22 years.

Chaplin had been recruited by Mack Sennett after seeing his performance in the travelling Fred Karno company from England then touring America. Chaplin arrived at Keystone in December 1913, but wasn’t called in for work until January 5, 1914, because Sennett was initially concerned that the 24 year-old Chaplin looked too young.

Chaplin went to work right away, shooting the short Making A Living (1914) that day. In that film, Chaplin plays a con man who charms the fianc√©e of a newspaper reporter. Making A Living was directed by Henry Lehrman, a Austro-Hungarian born actor turned director. Lehrman got his start with Biograph Studios as an actor for D.W. Griffith. There he met another aspiring actor, Mack Sennett. Lehrman’s first directorial assignment was in 1911, actually co-directing with Sennett.

Mack Sennett
Sennett founded Keystone Studios in 1912 and started producing comedies. In addition to Chaplin, Sennett and Keystone are responsible for launching or shaping the careers of Mabel Normand, Marie Dressler, Harold Lloyd, Roscoe Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson, Ford Sterling, Ben Turpin, Chester Conklin and Harry Langdon. Sennett also brought Lehrman to Keystone as an actor, writer and as a director. Lehrman would become known as Mr. Suicide for his willingness to place his actors in dangerous situations.

Henry Lehrman’s reputation is certainly evident in Kid Auto Races at Venice, where many times the action is only feet away and a wayward car, driven by a child, could have ended Chaplin’s film career before it had really begun. Several times you can see the kid drivers maneuvering to avoid hitting the comedian.

Henry Lehrman
The thin plot of the film is that a newsreel crew is attempting to record a kid’s car race on the streets of Venice, California, but their filming is disrupted by what we would now call a persistent “photo bomber”, The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin). Despite the best efforts of the Director (Henry Lehrman) and the Cameraman (Frank D. Williams) to clear him out of the way, the Tramp keeps returning, standing in the way. The Tramp is pulled out of view of the camera and pushed to the ground several times, only to bounce back and get in the way.

Lehrman (l) plays the Director with an annoying man, the Tramp, who keeps getting in his way.

Kid Auto Races appears to be six and a half minutes (I've seen reports the film was 11 minutes long, but I can only find versions that are about half as long to view.) of improvised scenes in front of the crowd gathered to watch the Junior Vanderbilt Cup on January 10th and a follow up pushmobile event the following day. The shots intercut between the two events, so there is really no effort to tell a linear story here.

Here the Tramp clowns in front of the Pushmobile ramp.

The Vanderbilt Cup Race was an international car race founded by philanthropist William K. Vanderbilt in 1904 on Long Island. The race was held in Santa Monica in 1914. The city decided to sponsor a junior version of the race, which is what provided the background for the Tramp’s antics. News reports of the day refer to 40 fourteen-aged participants driving one and two cylinder homemade cars around a ten mile course. The push-mobiles went down a broad wooden incline which “most of the boys had trouble in getting to the bottom right side up." Take a look at the drivers and they’re only wearing a hat, if that. Hard to imagine authorities would approve of anything like that nowadays.

At the end of the film, the Tramp gets right up on the camera lens.

While Kid Auto Races at Venice was the first film released to feature the Tramp, it was not the first film shot with the character. Earlier in the week, Chaplin had shot Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) and according to Chaplin’s autobiography, he put the costume together on the way to the set with every article being a contradiction: baggy pants, tight coat, small hat, large shoes. The small mustache was added to age the character.

The Tramp first appeared in Kid Auto Races, but would evolve over the years.
Over the years, the Tramp, or The Little Tramp as he was sometimes called, mellowed from being drunk as he is in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, and appears to be in Kid Auto Races, to a more childlike, but good-hearted character, a vagrant who tries to act with the dignity and manners of a higher social status. Chaplin’s Tramp is the most iconic and most copied character to come out of silent cinema. The Tramp made Charlie Chaplin one of the world’s biggest stars. He played the character in films until 1936’s ModernTimes. The Barber in The Great Dictator (1940) may have many of the same characteristics as the Tramp, but Chaplin was emphatic that he was not. During the Tramp’s run, Chaplin would not only learn the craft of making films, but become one of the great film directors of all time in the process.

The Tramp character would make Chaplin an international celebrity.
Overall, Kid Auto Races at Venice comes off as rather disjointed with repetitive action. It’s a little like a Beta test of the Tramp character. There are only so many ways someone can disrupt a camera crew, but this is only the beginning of a long creative process to fully develop the Tramp. Seeing the short, after having seen many of his films, there doesn't appear to be anything new, but at the time it was all new. Kid Auto Races at Venice, as an example, is the first film recording of Chaplin's signature flick kick, which he used many times since.

As they say, from small things big things one day come, so while the first appearance of the Tramp may not be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, you do see the kernel of what would become one of the most beloved characters of all time.

You can view a public domain copy of history below:

or you can buy a restored copy as part of the Chaplin at Keystone Collection from Flicker Alley.

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