Director: Henry Lehrman
Writer: Henry Lehrman
Duration: 11 mins (split reel, with education film Olives and Trees/Olives and Their Oil)
Filmed: 11 January 1914 (the date of the public race in the short)
With: Henry Lehrman, Frank D. Williams, Billy Jacobs, Charlotte Fitzpatrick
Story: The ‘little tramp’, a spectator at a ‘baby-cart’ race in Venice, does everything he can to catch the attention of a film crew…
Production: This is the first film released to feature Chaplin’s signature ‘tramp’ character (or ‘the little fellow’, as he often referred to his cinematic alter-ego), but it was not the first made (see Mabel’s Strange Predicament, 9 February 1914: that entry also deals with Chaplin’s creation of his tramp costume). Largely an improvisation worked out by Chaplin and director Lehrman, the film was shot during a real race, the Junior Vanderbilt Cup, a motorised ‘soap box’ derby. The film features genuine spectators reacting to Chaplin’s antics, presumably under the impression he was a genuine tramp. This must’ve been just about the only occasion in which Chaplin could appear in public in his tramp outfit without being mobbed by fans. It would be lovely to know the response of members of that audience a few months later when Chaplin’s tramp figure had become a major star…
Overall, Kid Auto Races is a rather ignominious first appearance for the tramp. It is little more than just over 10 minutes of him mugging for the camera, getting in the way of the racers and the spectators, and occasionally coming to slight blows with the director. There’s no real plot or character development here, making the movie notable only for the fact that was the first released to feature the tramp. The whole thing was improvised during a period of around 45 minutes filming at the event.
This is a rougher, ruder version of the tramp than the character we would come to know over subsequent films. He’s a genuine nuisance to the spectators, the racers, and the cameraman. He repeatedly, deliberately ruins their shots, getting in the way of racers and blocking spectators’ view of the event. He’s surly, pulling faces directly into the camera, sticking his tongue out and strutting about as if he were already a movie star. He occasionally has a limp cigarette hanging from his mouth (and uses it do his first ‘cigarette kick’, tossing the butt over his shoulder and kicking it away with his heel). He’s certainly not likeable or very sympathetic, traits that Chaplin would rapidly adopt as defining characteristics of his on-screen persona.
Perhaps there’s a bit of genuine antagonism in the pushing and shoving between Chaplin’s tramp and Lehrman’s director in this short. The pair simply did not get on, with Lehrman determined to make Chaplin conform to the well-established Keystone way of making movies, while the British newcomer was keen to explore the new medium in ways that those around him had simply not yet conceived of. He was full of ideas, and was biding his time until he could fully exploit the medium of cinema.
In some ways, Kid Auto Races at Venice depicts Charlie Chaplin as just one man among the crowd, one who is drawn to the movie camera and emerges from the masses to become a singular face on screen and a great practitioner of the art behind the camera. In this film, we see him almost sizing up the instrument he will use to create his lasting cinematic art.
Slapstick: There’s little in the way of slapstick in this one, with the tramp being pushed out of the camera’s view several times, once falling backwards with Chaplin executing an inelegant backward roll. Near the end, Lehrman kicks the tramp’s backside, sending him sprawling. Chaplin has the twirling walking stick, splay-footed walk, and frequent tipping of the bowler hat down pat already, though.
Verdict: The costume arrives, but not the character, 3/5
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.