In this feature, I’ll be taking a look at the films of Charlie Chaplin. I’ll be including the shorts (where possible) and will hopefully delve into what makes him such an indomitable social and cultural figure to this very day. As with my Hitchmania feature, my approach will be somewhat haphazard. Things will run chronologically and there may be an essay or two to further discuss a particular period (for example, the Keystone period and so forth). I hope you’ll join me for what should be a lot of fun.
Charlie Chaplin debuts his Tramp persona in Kid Auto Races at Venice, a silent short that clocks in at just over six minutes. This 1914 motion picture was released just a few days after Making a Living and is once again written and directed by Henry Lehrman with Mack Sennett serving as producer. This is Chaplin’s second movie with Keystone Studios.
It’s a matter of trivia that the Tramp character was devised “by accident” for Mabel’s Short Predicament, which was released two days after Kid Auto Races at Venice. The former was shot before the latter, but the germ was clearly planted for something remarkable. With his pants too big and his coat too small, Chaplin’s Tramp takes over.
Kid Auto Races at Venice takes place at what could best be described as an early form of a soap box derby. Sometimes the viewer can see kids shoving cars up a big ramp and letting the wheels go, letting the cars charge around the bend. There’s a pretty big crowd for the event and Lehrman’s character is trying to get the whole thing on camera.
But every time the director tries to line up his shot, a spectator (Chaplin) wanders into the shot. He wants to be on camera. His face brims with the possibility of being seen. He’s self-interested and the lens thrills him to no end. Sometimes he employs trickery to get in the way. Sometimes he puts himself in danger and runs into the track. Lehrman diligently tries to preserve his vision.
Kid Auto Races at Venice presents Chaplin’s character improvising his various intrusions before a very real crowd of spectators. It’s not unlike what one might see when a news crew ventures off somewhere and finds drunks and douchebags trying to scramble their way in front of the cameras. There’s a certain conceit and Chaplin picks up on it.
Part of the fun is how indignant he becomes, like he’s capitalizing on his previous scuffle with Lehrman in Making a Living and is back for more. The director pushes him to the ground and tries to find various options to work around this intrusive little bugger. He’s just, in effect, trying to make a living.
And Chaplin is, in effect, trying to get on camera. He has nothing else in mind and his egocentricity is apparent from the moment he lights up his smoke. There’s something about this guy, something that suggests he’s going to be trouble. It’s hard to drum up much empathy, especially as he inconveniences everyone and everything in sight to exact his self-centred wishes.
Chaplin’s expertise in situation-based slapstick really takes hold with Kid Auto Races at Venice and his persona’s evolution is tangible. That said, he’s kind of the same jerk he was in the unfairly-maligned Making a Living and there’s something to that. While the Tramp would go on to develop into a man Chaplin always regarded as having a degree of dignity, there’s little of that here.
Chaplin’s belief that the “camera should not intrude” is interestingly turned on its ear with this early jaunt. He is encroaching on the camera’s space, suggesting that it’s his ground. The director is incidental to the whole thing. So too, for that matter, are the races. In Kid Auto Races at Venice, it’s all about the cane-twirling man in the dusty-ass coat.