Monday, June 07, 2010

Charlie Chaplin: Lost and Found

Few things are more satisfying than watching an early Charlie Chaplin comedy... except for discovering one that's been lost for about 95 years.

The blogosphere is abuzz with the news that Slapsticon - a four-day silent comedy festival held annually in what is practically my back yard, Rosslyn, VA - will be screening a previously unknown and undocumented comedy in which Chaplin appeared during his first few weeks at Keystone in early 1914. According to the press release, "The print of A THIEF CATCHER was discovered earlier this year by Film Historian / Preservationist Paul E. Gierucki, current head of restorations for CineMuseum LLC, and one of the 'Godfathers' of a group of Comedy Film Historians known as the 'Silent Comedy Mafia' who help to organize the yearly Slapsticon festivals." A frame grab from the film can be viewed here; it's clear that Chaplin had already adopted his "little tramp" mustache and makeup.

Via some websites that host old newspaper pages, I've come across a few vintage images for this film. The one at the top of this post is actually for a reissue release in May 1915, from the Syracuse (NY) Journal. Here are some other ads for the 1915 reissue:

If the newspapers of the day can be considered a barometer, Chaplin's name was singled out from among his fellow Keystone players starting in May 1914, after he'd been in films about four months. His work in a two-reeler called Caught in a Cabaret - released on April 27 and which, until this discovery, was thought to be Chaplin's 12th picture - made audiences take notice; from that point on, Chaplin's films were usually promoted as such by the studio. By 1915, Charlie Chaplin was a known - and much anticipated - film favorite. The issue of the Portsmouth Ohio newspaper that yielded the blurb above listed four other Chaplin Keystones in various theatres during that same week. Even though Chaplin was by then working for the Essanay Company and turning out a new release every 3-4 weeks, patrons couldn't get enough and Keystone kept the pipeline filled with reissues. In 1919, a company called W.H. Productions reissued the Keystones and created new titles for most of them. This flooding of the marketplace is why nearly every Chaplin film survives, while the legacies of other Keystone stars (such as Charlie's brother, Syd) are incomplete.

A Thief Catcher was Chaplin's second, or third, or possibly fourth film. Its release was listed in this ad from the February 14, 1914 New York Clipper, a show business periodical:
This would make A Thief Catcher Chaplin's fourth Keystone to be released; his third, Mabel's Strange Predicament, was issued on February 9 and the next one, Between Showers, came out on the 28th. Chaplin's first film, in which he hadn't yet created his famous mustache, was shot during the week of January 5; his second release, Kid's Auto Race, was filmed in Venice, California on Saturday, January 10. Mabel's Strange Predicament was also started during that first full week of January, then presumably finished from Monday, January 12 through the morning of the 14th. That Wednesday afternoon, rain moved into the Los Angeles area and didn't depart until the 27th. It was a monumental, record-shattering series of storms, and suburbs such as Edendale, where the Keystone Studios were located, were particularly hard-hit. In fact, Between Showers makes use of a massive puddle, a remnant of the rainfall.

Somewhere in there, as the press release affirms, A Thief Catcher was shot... possibly even before Kid's Auto Race.

In keeping with the earliest days of Chaplin's career, newspaper ads from 1914 simply list the film as a "Keystone Comedy" with no players mentioned - even though Keystone's then-reigning star, Ford Sterling, was heading up the cast.
And so, if you've ever wanted to acquaint yourself with the world's finest film historians, you won't get a better opportunity than at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater on the evening of July 17, for many of them will be surely be attending this monumental screening.

And finally, if any of the "Silent Comedy Mafia" happen to be reading this... could this be the next "lost Chaplin" discovery?


Joe Thompson said...

Thank for an interesting article on a hot topic. "Zu Zu the Band Leader," huh? Could be worth looking into...

Michael J. Hayde said...

Brent E. Walker, author of MACK SENNETT'S FUN FACTORY (McFarland, 2009), had this to say about "Zu Zu the Band Leader" on the Silent Comedy Mafia's message board:

That was a kind of weird two-reeler in that it seems like Sennett all or partially distributed it outside of Mutual (this was when he was still getting flak from them about delivering two-reelers instead of the contracted one-reelers). However, it was filmed in September 1913 and finished in mid-October 1913, a couple months prior to Chaplin's arrival. And it seems very common on Keystone ads (though this one is for a theater and not for Keystone specifically) to list all their stars in a film in which only one or two appeared. The earliest Keystone releases list Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling and Fred Mace in the cast of almost every film, though when you see the film you discover it only contains maybe one of them. I've seen a couple of stills from ZUZU, but the film isn't known to exist. However, by August 1914, they might have even put it out again with some footage of Arbuckle and Chaplin edited in from something else. But until an actual print shows up, we'll never know for sure.

Chris Edwards said...

Do you know of a good DVD set of Chaplin's Keystone work? Everything else--Essanay, Mutual, First national, etc., I've been able to find easily.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how patrons in 1915 reacted when they realized that Chaplin wasn't the star of the film?

Michael J. Hayde said...

Anon: So do I! ;-)

Chris: The British Film Institute has been working on restoring Chaplin's Keystones for several years. Latest word, as I understand it, is that DVDs will be available "this December, or if not by then, shortly afterwards." Of course, the set won't include "A Thief Catcher," unless the BFI choose to make arrangements with Mr. Gierucki, nor will it include the long-gone "Her Friend the Bandit"... which, some historians have theorized, may not actually BE a Chaplin film. (Word is, "A Thief Catcher" was dropped from an early Chaplin filmography from the 1930's because it was thought to be a reissue title for "Her Friend the Bandit.")

Chris Edwards said...

Thanks for the info, Michael. I'll watch for that set.

Michael J. Hayde said...

Looks like the "Chaplin at Keystone" set is ready for pre-order:

preeti kaushik said...

Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) Free Movie Online