Monday, 4 May 2015

Shorts! A Tiny Blogathon: "Kid Auto Races at Venice" (1914)

Directed by: Henry Lehrman

Writing Credits:
Henry Lehrman

Produced By:
Mack Sennett

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Henry Lehrman

Released by: Keystone Film Company

"I had no idea of the character, but the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born" - Charlie Chaplin

It only took 45 minutes for the most recognizable character in cinema history to be born. The year was 1914. The setting, the Junior Vanderbilt Cup races in Venice, California. Mack Sennett, the studio head at Keystone Pictures, had a penchant for using real-life events as a backdrop for comedic improvisation, and the Junior Vanderbilt Cup was the perfect opportunity to showcase his recently acquired English vaudevillian, Charlie Chaplin. Legend has it that Director Henry Lehrman and Chaplin only spent 45 minutes shooting on location in Venice- with the resulting short running a little over 6 minutes. When released to the public, it was packaged in a split reel with a short documentary on the production of olive oil entitled Olives and Their Oil. Regardless of it's less than glamorous theatrical debut, it was the first time the public would experience "The Tramp", thus the official beginning of Chaplin's illustrious and iconic acting career. 

The plot of Kid Auto Races in Venice is literally as the title card states below;

Kid Auto Races is simple to a degree seldom seen in filmmaking (past or present)- and yet it works. Chaplin elevates the premise from forgettable to memorable purely through his comedic improvisation. "The Tramp" persona has been so closely associated with Charlie Chaplin for over 100 years that it's incredibly easy to forget how great an actor (not just a comedian) he actually was. It's no mean feat to successfully carry an entire film on your shoulders (regardless of runtime)- especially with a premise akin in substance to a home movie. Chaplin made it look easy. He always made it look easy and perhaps that's why it's so hard to separate Chaplin from his "Little Tramp".

The reason I chose this film for the Shorts! Blogathon is that, every single time I watch it, I can't help but burst out laughing! I don't know what it is exactly, but there is something about Charlie Chaplin's style of comedy that really gets me. Perhaps it's the way he sashays throughout the frame, with a sense of self-importance that is clearly misplaced. I can't help but find him endearing.
"You know, this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he's a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo-player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of it's candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear- but only in extreme anger!" - Chaplin's own description of "The Tramp" to Mack Sennett

To me, Kid Auto Races in Venice exemplifies what the "The Tramp" character would become. He's brazen, brash, unapologetic and yet, somehow, entirely likable and relatable. There's no denying that this is only an early incarnation of the character Chaplin spent the next decade perfecting and fine tuning in dozens of silent short and feature films. And yet, the framework is there. Most of the personality traits and physical characteristics that define the character are all evident in this short film. The notable omission, however, is the emotional layering and depth that has kept "The Tramp" (and the films of Charlie Chaplin) relevant in the 21st century.

It's important to note that, despite being released first, Kid Auto Races was not the first film in which Charlie Chaplin portrayed "The Tramp". Mabel's Strange Predicament was the first time Chaplin donned his signature attire- however, due to it's superior run time (meaning more time had to be spent on editing and printing for distribution), Kid Auto Races pipped Mabel at the post by two days. A lot has been written about the timing of both features, with most film historians now convinced (due to the weather patterns in California in 1914- yep, film historians study weather patterns!) that Kid Auto Races was filmed during the production of Mabel's Strange Predicament, rather than after (as was thought for many years). 

In contrast to Mabel's Strange Predicament, Kid Auto Races is entirely Chaplin's film. Mabel's Strange Predicament was a showcase short directed for and by Mabel Normand, Keystone's most prominent comedienne. Chaplin's role is admittedly significant- but he is not the focus. "The Tramp" isn't a fleshed-out character, rather a catalyst for Mabel's own comedy. Kid Auto Races allows Chaplin to experiment with his character and, accordingly, he is the only star given screen-time (Director Henry Lehrman also appears as the frustrated victim of Chaplin's antics, but his role is entirely inconsequential).

The creation of Chaplin's on-screen persona happened by no grand design. Though he was under contract to Keystone, Sennett was unsure of how to use Chaplin and left him meandering around Keystone's Edendale Studios for several weeks before actually putting him to work. While producing Mabel's Strange Predicament, Sennett was conscious that the film didn't have enough gags, and asked Chaplin (who was merely observing the proceedingsto "Put on comedy make-up. Anything will do". In Chaplin's own words;

"I had no idea what make-up to put on....However, on my way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: 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 moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression".

One of the best things about this short is that it was shot on location, without extras. The people in the background witnessing Chaplin's antics are real people. When Mack Sennett sent Chaplin and Henry Lehrman to a soap box derby to make an improvisational comedy short, the American public had never seen "The Tramp" before. When you watch Kid Auto Races, pay particular notice to what is happening in the background. Instead of stone-faced extras (as you would see today), there are people laughing and pointing at this bizarre little man and his antics. As a modern audience, we get to witness the public of 1914's first impressions of the immortal Charlie Chaplin! That is pretty incredible when you think about it.

In  my opinion, Kid Auto Races succeeds as a film because it feels real. Shot on location with actual spectators, the film's premise heavily depends on realism...and it succeeds. "The Tramp" appears to be a real human being, watching the races and trying to get himself on camera. It's a testament to Chaplin's comedic prowess that the audience never once thinks "this would never happen". It's funny, real and epitomizes everything that Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" would become. Do yourself a favor and watch this hilarious short film. I promise you won't regret it.

You can watch Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) here;

The post is part of Shorts! a Tiny Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently;

You can view all the Blogathon entries by clicking the poster above.

Resources: Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios By James L. Neibaur (2011), Charlie Chaplin and His Times By Kenneth Schuyler Lynn (2002), Chaplin in the Sound Era: An Analysis of the Seven Talkies  By Eric L. Flom (2008),Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios  By James L. Neibaur (2011),The Art of Charlie Chaplin: A Film-by-Film Analysis  By Kyp Harness (2007),My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964) .


  1. I know exactly what you mean about this film – it makes me laugh every time I see it, too. And you're right about the simplicity. Nothing really happens, but you can't tear yourself away from the screen. Chaplin is utterly mesmerizing!

    1. Exactly! He is mesmerizing and I think that's why his legacy is still so strong today! Thanks so much for reading :)

  2. Nicely done. I agree that it's a laugh-making short. My single favorite movie is when he comes running down the hill as though he's one of the cars. Anyway, terrific blog!

    1. Thanks so much for reading! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. My favourite part is when he deliberately throws his hat into the way of the cars. So funny! Thanks again!

  3. Sorry, I meant to write "moment" instead of "movie." :>

  4. Sorry, I meant to write "moment" instead of "movie." :>

  5. Nicely done. I agree that it's a laugh-making short. My single favorite movie is when he comes running down the hill as though he's one of the cars. Anyway, terrific blog!

  6. Thanks so much for joining in! Absolutely agree that this little film has a marvelous documentary quality about it. And Chaplin is magical. Just as it's fun to watch the audience on the screen, it's fun to watch modern viewers get a taste of the Chaplin magic.

    1. Thank you so much! I had a lot of fun participating and reading everyone's entries- it was fantastic. Congratulations on the success of the event as a whole :)