Posted by davidkalat on November 6, 2010
The welcome unveiling of Flicker Alley’s superb CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE set offers me an opportunity to get up on a particular soapbox. I’ve always admired KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE as a vital entry in Chaplin’s CV, but that has put me at odds with the vast majority of Chaplin fans and scholars who are content to gloss over its extraordinary charms. Simply put, KID AUTO RACES don’t get no respect.
For a while I thought it got short shrift because the only copies were so cruddy. But the definitive restoration offered on the Flicker Alley DVD is not new—it has been available in this form in the US for a few years now, on Flicker Alley’s SAVED FROM THE FLAMES collection. So if a decent presentation was all it needed, we’d have seen the rehabilitation of KID AUTO RACES by now. Obviously something more is called for—perhaps the impassioned defense of a film critic. So, here goes nothing.
First off, I might as well acknowledge what the film isn’t. It isn’t what you expect.
Let’s say you just saw THE GOLD RUSH, or CITY LIGHTS, and are overwhelmed with the genius of Charlie Chaplin. You want to see more of this genius, you want to chase it back into the past to see from whence it came. If you sit down to watch his short comedies from 1917, the ones he made at Mutual, you’ll be delighted. They are at least the comic and cinematographic equal to his later features. Here in the Mutual comedies is a fully formed comic personality, full of humanity and tolerance, whose films are innovative works of cinema, trenchant social critiques, and transcendent physical comedy all in one.
But skip back just one year, to the shorts he made at Essanay in 1916, and suddenly that perfection is tarnished. Here we find rough edges and primitivity. The Essanay shorts must be rough drafts, we conclude.
Skip back just one or two more years, to Chaplin’s arrival in Hollywood in 1914. Watch his Keystone shorts, the ones collected on this spiffy new box set, and it’s hard to see these as rough drafts. It isn’t just that they are cruder than that would imply—it’s that they seem to have wholly different comic ambitions altogether.
Part of the problem is that Mack Sennett’s style of comedy was built on riffing on a specific kind of melodrama that was common then and extinct today. To draw a modern analogy, imagine a space alien who had never before encountered human civilization arrived and you wanted to introduce him to sitcoms. Would you opt for COMMUNITY, which bases so much of its comedy on a shared cultural experience of other TV shows? The alien would be baffled—he would lack the basic cultural assumptions that underlie the humor. Encountering these Keystone farces, we may as well be space aliens—they presuppose a cultural stance we can no longer easily share.
There are other things influencing the Chaplin Keystones, too, that sometimes get in the way of the comedy. And sometimes, as with KID AUTO RACES, conjure it out of thin air.
Now to establish what was going on here, let’s jump back even further. Charlie Chaplin and his half-brother Syd are ragamuffins in London, so poor they have to trade who gets to eat on which day. Nobody knows who Syd’s father is, and while the identity of Charlie’s papa is known, fat lot of good it does since the man himself is gone. Mama Chaplin is succumbing to a family history of mental illness. Charlie and Syd are in and out of orphanages and institutions. If Charlie’s future films will ruminate on social injustice and the arbitrary cruelties of life, we should not be surprised.
Syd and Charlie have a way out of this daily nightmare: they go into show business. Charlie joins Fred Karno’s troupe of music hall entertainers. In America they called it “vaudeville.” Same difference really. You should have something like SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in your mind at this point–an ensemble troupe of performers offering a live show with comedy sketches and music. Charlie is but one of a number of talented performers—and if he “pops” out of that background, it is akin to someone like Eddie Murphy suddenly outstripping his co-stars on SNL (I’m sorry—was that reference too old? How about Tina Fey?)
The main show Karno does is a sketch called “Mumming Birds.” It went through a number of name changes and cast changes over the years, but we don’t need to worry ourselves over little details—the thing is, it’s a show-within-a-show in which a vaudeville (sorry, music hall) performance is heckled and interrupted by an unruly audience, in particular one conspicuous drunk. Various comedians played that drunk—Billy Reeves, Billie Ritchie, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin did not originate the role, but he perfected it, and became a megastar. And got himself headhunted by Hollywood.
So, let’s recap where Charlie’s head is at. One day he’s literally a starving artist, facing down a family implosion, and the next he’s a much-sought-after entertainer. His ability to make people laugh is a gift that can transform his life—but while we know how this story ends, Charlie has no way of knowing where this is leading, when his luck will run out.
Charlie’s earliest days at Keystone were legendarily awful. He had difficulty ingratiating himself with the established comedians on the lot (who may have worried about his prima donna way of stealing the limelight), and he fought with director Henry Lehrman. Unfamiliar with the mechanics of film production, he missed his cues, was stiff in front of the camera, lost. According to Denis Gifford’s biography of Chaplin, the first film Lehrman shot with Charlie went so badly, the thing was junked (Gifford does not reveal the title of this aborted project).
Chaplin was humiliated. Moreover, he was scared. Mack Sennett, the impresario behind Keystone, was now making noises about canceling the contract with the unreliable Englishman and letting Charlie go back to London. So Charlie reached deep into himself to try again—and the next film they shot was MAKING A LIVING.
Here’s where you need to take that Flicker Alley disc, pop MAKING A LIVING in, and give it a look-see. Having seen it, if you can recall any of it meaningfully, then you’re a better person than me. I’ve seen it dozens of times in different versions, I even own a couple of prints, and I don’t recall a single frame. It’s as forgettable and disposable as they come. Sennett laid Chaplin off for a week, and returned to considering firing him.
Then, on January 10, 1914, in the city of Venice, California there was a race. I grew up calling these things “box cars,” but they called them “kid autos.” Either way, we’re talking about gravity-operated miniature cars driven by children. Lehrman and Chaplin trundled off to improvise a film there.
This was standard practice at Keystone. Most of the films were properly scripted and worked out in advance, more or less, but the grueling pace of production was so demanding that it simply wasn’t an option to do this for every picture. Some were just made up on the spot, if there happened to be a convenient location or event that could be used to prompt the act of creation.
Chaplin fans and scholars generally dismiss KID AUTO RACES as not evidencing enough in the way of forethought or creative imagination to warrant much attention. It’s got just one joke, repeated and stretched out for ten minutes. There’s no deep social critique, no elaborate miming, no interplay with other characters—none of the details that critics go looking for when they dig through these early seminal works. Legend has it Charlie improvised this in 45 minutes—it hardly took much longer to make the movie as it takes to watch it.
To the extent it gets much notice in the critical press it is for Charlie’s appearance. This was the first time audiences saw Charlie in his “Little Tramp” costume, and that has historical significance no matter how you cut it. By the way, the phrase “Little Tramp” has been completely taken over by Chaplin’s legacy such that if you’re talking about a Tramp, you’re talking about a funny little guy with a Hitler moustache and a bowler hat. But for audiences at the time, this iconic image was meant to carry its own connotations. A “tramp” was what we might today call a homeless drunk. So, in the interest of making you think about Chaplin’s character in the proper context, that’s what I’ll call him here.
There are as many different legends about how Chaplin came up with his Homeless Drunk costume as there are historians to tell them. No two are the same, and they tend to contradict each other quite dramatically. I don’t trust legends. But if you ignore them, one thing jumps out—this character was in appearance, behavior, and comic constitution the same as the one Charlie played on the Karno stage. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Chaplin comes to Keystone, has trouble slotting into the expectations the company has for him, his job is on the line—so what would you do? Rely on the tried and true—go back to the character that made you a star in the first place.
So here’s where it gets interesting—the character of the Drunk that Chaplin played in “Mumming Birds” was a disruptive element who derailed a performance by professional entertainers. The character of the Drunk that Chaplin plays in KID AUTO RACES is a disruptive element who derails a documentary film by professional filmmakers.
The genius of KID AUTO RACES is that like any contemporary “fictuality” or fake documentary it pretends to be a straight documentary recording of the race. Nothing in the film aside from Chaplin’s intrusion is played for laughs—this is a newsreel record of a real event. And at this real event, some stray homeless drunk wandered into the frame, obscuring the action. When the camera crew waved him off, he noticed the camera—and became fixated on the idea of getting himself into the movie. “Hey, ma!” Over and over again, in every shot, here comes Charlie. He doesn’t do anything especially funny once he’s there—the joke is how he continually insinuates himself into the frame, unwanted. He becomes the self-appointed star of a hi-jacked movie.
He’s smitten. He won’t take his eyes off the camera. He flirts with it. It’s been said that certain charming movie stars knew how to “make love” to the camera. This fellow rapes it. Sorry for the rude language, but there it is—he’s forced himself on this movie. The camera pans away, burly men shove him away, the crew switches the camera off and relocates altogether… and he returns, always, center of the frame.
Bear in mind: Charlie had been hired by Keystone to be a part of a comic ensemble that included such established stars as Mable Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Ford Sterling. There was no intention to turn him into a standalone star (or at least, if that was Charlie’s desire, it wasn’t shared by his employers). But that’s what he would do–the real-life Charlie Chaplin hi-jacked his movies as thoroughly and selfishly as his character here invades this one little movie.
“Mumming Birds” worked a clever meta-textual trick: it was a music hall show about a music hall show being disrupted. Take away the disruptions, and you’d still have an intact show. Translating that into cinematic terms was tough. KID AUTO RACES maintains the meta-textual element, but it was the only instance in the entire history of silent comedy that it was done like this. The idea of interrupted performances became a reliable workhorse for slapstick comedians. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Harry Langdon, Charlie Chase and Snub Pollard… you’d be hard pressed to find a notable comedian of the period who didn’t make a movie about some kind of show being turned on its head. But once and only once was this disrupted show presented as if it had actually happened.
Oh, but wait. It did happen.
There was an actual race, remember? Those were actually professional filmmakers recording that race. Some weird-looking guy who appeared to be drunk did disrupt the filming of the race. These events happened as we see them—it’s just that the filmmakers were cognizant of the eventual entertainment value of what they were doing.
It is the same joke structure of BORAT and BRUNO, of a reality-age culture that seeks the thrills of commingling fiction with fact. It’s not enough to watch a soap opera these days—we need one that pretends to be a reality show (THE HILLS). Never mind that its fictional nature is obvious, the joy is in the pretense. The makers of satirical news programs like BRASS EYE and THE DAY TODAY reveled in conning genuine politicians and publicity-hungry celebrities onto what they believed to be a real news show, only to be punk’d. THE OFFICE and MODERN FAMILY are but two of the increasingly common trope of the faux-documentary sitcom (and by the way, check out the way Charlie stares into the camera lens, transfixed, and compare it to the janitor in the original BBC OFFICE). KID AUTO RACES is a reality-age silent comedy, minted nearly 100 years ahead of its time.
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