A Thief Catcher (19 February 1914)

Chaplin04AThiefCatcherReleased: 19 February 1914, Keystone

Director: Ford Sterling

Writers: Unknown

Duration: 6 mins

Filmed: 15-26 January 1914

With: Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy

Story: A pair of thieves fall out with a third gang member, then chase down a witness to their altercation. The Keystone Kops are soon on the case…

Production: This is an odd one, as it’s not really a Chaplin film as such and it is an incredibly recent rediscovery that has meant a major update to all the Chaplin filmographies. In his autobiography and various interviews Chaplin recalled playing a bit part as a policeman in a Keystone comedy, possibly as one of the famous Keystone Kops or perhaps a barber. Chaplin’s autobiography had long been regarded as unreliable, so his story of having once played a Keystone Kop was disregarded, largely due to a lack of filmic evidence. Now the previous list of 35 films made by Chaplin during his year at Keystone has to be expanded by one to 36—it’s always a shock to remember that (at best estimates) almost half of all silent cinema is irretrievably lost, making every discovery, no matter how incomplete, very important.

Evidence of Chaplin’s cameo was rediscovered in June 2010 when silent film comedy specialist Paul E. Gierucki paid $100 for a can of film at a Michigan antique sale on a hunch. He recognised it as a Mack Sennett comedy, but had little idea which one until viewing the 16mm film reel several months after the purchase (the reason for the delay was he’d reckoned it would be just another already existing Keystone short). Six minutes into what was obviously a Ford Sterling short, Gierucki recognised a previously unknown two-minute cameo by Charles Chaplin as a cop. Chaplin played this part during his first few months working at Keystone and was probably roped in to make up the numbers rather than actively cast as a specific individual ‘Kop’.

Apparently made some time after Mabel’s Strange Predicament, but prior to Chaplin’s next film Between Showers, A Thief Catcher is really a Ford Sterling short, the credited director and star. Sterling had started at Biograph with Sennett, and followed him when he left to set up Keystone. He played the ‘Chief’ of the Keystone Kops in the majority of their film appearances (although here he plays the innocent witness who is pursued), while other recognisable stars of the series included Edgar Kennedy (a frequent Laurel and Hardy co-star) and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, who’d be teamed with Buster Keaton and enjoy a mixed solo career.

Unfortunately, the currently available extract of A Thief Catcher on the BFI 2010 DVD set ‘Chaplin at Keystone’ cuts off just as Chaplin’s appearance begins, with less than 20 seconds of it included. The full film is due for later release. This makes it currently hard to judge, although it has enjoyed several public showings, mainly at silent film festivals in the US.

However, even the brief extract available suggests that Chaplin was even at this very early stage in his film career out to distinguish himself from the more outlandish performers around him. The Keystone Kops were never the most subtle bunch of performers, but Chaplin stands out among them because we instantly recognise him as the figure he more usually plays of the little tramp. Film historian Leonard Maltin sees evidence of Chaplin’s more subtle approach in Chaplin’s use of ‘his eyebrows for comic emphasis’ and how the actor ‘makes his points without resorting to broad gestures, as some other Sennett players did…’ Each of these films display, one after the other, the early work of an artist just beginning to master his craft.

The rediscovered film was a re-titled 1918 reissue by Tower Film Corporation called His Regular Job. When Chaplin’s success first took off, many of his older films were put out under new titles by unscrupulous distributors looking to cash in on his new-found celebrity by pretending that an older short was in fact a new film.

Slapstick: None, unless you count slapping a villain in the face.

Verdict: Not really a Chaplin film and it is hard to judge on the available footage, 1/5

Next: Between Showers (28 Feb 1914)

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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.

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