Though he hailed from the music halls, Chaplin was a natural born film performer, and it is clear that even in this embryonic stage, he was already blessed with an instinctual gift for relating to the camera. He knows how long to look at it and how long to look away, how modest he can make his gestures, where to place himself within those frames, and exactly how long to wait out of the frame before stumbling back in. “Kid Auto Races” is a throwaway, but it’s clear in every second of its six-and-a-half minutes that Charlie Chaplin is a movie star.
This wasn’t necessarily a given. His debut short for Keystone, Making a Living, wasn’t terribly promising; Chaplin plays a drunken swindler far removed from the Tramp, and doesn’t make much of an impression. Had he continued in that vein, he’d have likely been just another (mostly forgotten) Keystone stooge. Luckily, he realized he’d have to create a memorable screen character, and his initial concept was simple, almost abstract: a study in opposites. “I wanted everything a contradiction,” he would later write. “The pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small mustache, which I reasoned would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born.”
And that may be the most remarkable thing about “Kid Auto Races”: Chaplin’s Tramp (or, as he preferred to call him, “the Little Fellow”) doesn’t feel thrown together in the wardrobe room, but lived-in, developed, and understood. He was a perfectly formed character just waiting to be found and featured, and Chaplin did so, just as Lehrman’s camera would in that first shot.
Within months, Chaplin was a star — and in the 20-plus years that he inhabited the Tramp, he would come to personify our modern understanding of the “movie star.” By May of 1914 he was directing his own comedies, taking control of his character and his image, and while the inclination wasn’t unique, the scale was; his contemporaries Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and (briefly) Fatty Arbuckle built careers, but Chaplin built an empire. He left Keystone by the end of the year, and each of his subsequent deals (at Essanay, Mutual, and First National) shattered the record he’d set with the previous one. He built his own studio, where he worked exactly as he pleased, taking longer between films, treating comedy moviemaking as serious work, and serious art. Instead of losing his impatient public, the increasingly longer waits between pictures built up anticipation, and made him an even bigger attraction.
There were rumors and scandals (like too many great artists, Chaplin had a disturbing taste for very young women), and whispers of moral and political improprieties cast him out of America later in his life. Though his resistance to talkies would nonetheless result in two of his best pictures (City Lights and Modern Times, silent films released in the sound era and no worse for it), he would eventually fall out of step with public taste. But in the early days of the motion picture, when it was still regarded as a passing fad, Charles Chaplin made this novelty into an art. And even as he became the one of the richest and most recognizable men in the world, his Little Fellow, the perpetual underdog who wasn’t going down without a fight, remained the screen’s most beloved and relatable character — his trials and tribulations, in the workplace and the war and the world, mirroring the foibles of the early 20th century’s common man. Just like in that first, tossed-off film, he’s part of the audience, one of us; and then he walks into the frame, and stays there.