The camera first finds the little fellow on the edge of the frame. A cop moves him along, and he wanders, quite accidentally, into the dead center, where he stands for a moment before turning around, presumably at the behest of the cameraman. And then, for the first time, he realizes he is on camera. He smiles, then immediately straightens up, doing his best to look distinguished, and spends the rest of the film “accidentally” walking into the camera’s view and pulling focus. The film, a modest split-reeler called “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” was released on February 7, 1914 by Keystone Film Company. The star was a new Keystone contract player trying out a new character. His name was Charles Chaplin.
Though it was the first one released, there is some disagreement, among Chaplin scholars, as to whether “Kid Auto Races” was, in fact, the first film where Chaplin played his iconic “Little Tramp”; Chaplin himself (in his autobiography) and biographer David Robinson (in his doorstop bio Chaplin: His Life and Art) say that the costume was first donned for Mabel’s Strange Predicament, released two days later, but Simon Louvish’s more recent books about Chaplin and Keystone mogul Mack Sennett make a persuasive case that the quickie “Kid Auto Races” was the Tramp’s debut — and here’s hoping he’s right, because it makes for a much better introduction. You see, “Kid Auto Races” (one of the few meta-textual items in Chaplin’s bulky filmography) is literally about the Tramp’s discovery of the motion picture camera. Or, more accurately, it is about the camera’s discovery of him.
The format for “Kid Auto Races” was a Sennett specialty: take the cameras out to an event and improvise a short comedy around it, using the existing crowd and event for automatic production value and excitement. In this case, the event was a soap box derby in nearby Venice, California; the short is built around the single joke (supposedly suggested by Chaplin himself, who’d once witnessed a public official similarly inserting himself into a newsreel) of Chaplin’s character irritating a director (played by the film’s own director, Keystone regular Henry “Pathé” Lehrman) who’s just trying to get some shots of the race.
What’s notable about the film — and can be said for precious little that made us laugh a century ago — is that it’s still so fresh and funny. It holds great historical value, obviously, but the film also has an off-the-cuff energy that is often lacking in the under-cranked chases and knockabout slapstick that has caused other Keystone shorts (including those Chaplin would follow it with) to age comparatively poorly. Much of this is attributable to the circumstances of the shoot — an improvised production (on a stolen location, basically) that Lehrman would later say was knocked out in the space of about an hour. So with no plot, no script, and no time, what we’re witnessing is the purity of comic craft, put across in the specificity of Chaplin’s pantomimes, his interactions with the camera, and (most remarkably) his crackerjack comic timing.
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.