A thief catcher

Charlie Chaplin (left) in A Thief Catcher, courtesy of Paul Gierucki and Slapsticon, via the Nitrateville discussion forum

Last year we learned of the discovery of Zepped, a previously unknown (well almost) Chaplin film, though it wasn’t a Chaplin film as such but rather some sequences and outtakes from Chaplin films intercut with actuality footage of Zeppelins and some animated sequences. It received a genuine release in 1916, and it will be interesting to see how Chaplin filmographers treat it (it hasn’t made it onto the Internet Movie Database as yet).

But now there is news of another discovery, and this is that much more exciting because it is a genuine Chaplin film, and one previously unknown.

It is known, because Chaplin himself tells us in his autobiography [update: this is incorrect – see comments], that as well as the starring roles that he played in Keystone comedies, he also played bit parts as a Keystone Kop in several pictures. However, Chaplin does not mention any titles, and despite much searching and hoping down the years, no print of a Keystone film has emerged with just such a Chaplin cameo … until now.

To be unveiled at this year’s Slapsticon featival will be A Thief Catcher, directed by Henry Lehrman and originally released on 19 February 1914. The film stars Keystone regulars Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy with Chaplin making what the festival press release describes as “an extended and very funny cameo as a policeman”. The press release states that the film was shot between 5 and 26 January 1914, which to judge from release dates could make it the second or third film Chaplin made at Keystone, being released just after his third starring comedy, Mabel’s Strange Predicament, issued on 9 February 1914. Chaplin’s first film was Making a Living, released 2 February 1914, his second Kid Auto Races at Venice, released 7 February and the first film in which he donned the tramp’s costume.

The print of A Thief Catcher was discovered earlier this year by sharp-eyed film preservationst Paul E. Gierucki of CineMuseum LLC. The film is to be shown at Slapsticon 2010 as part of a Chaplin Rarities Programme on Saturday 17 July at 20:00 at the Spectrum Theater in Rosslyn, Virginia. The Rarities programme will be a newly recovered reel of Chaplin outtakes from his Mutual comedies, and a new print of Chaplin’s Liberty War Loan propaganda short, The Bond (1918) featuring outtakes from that film.

A bit part is just a bit part, but this is nevertheless a significant discovery. It is more film of Chaplin, it tells us a little more about his early career in film, it confirms what he reports in his autobiography, it shows us Chaplin in his pre-tramp form, and of course it will now send archivists and collectors anxiously to check out other Keystone films for other Chaplin Kop sightings. And how long before Her Friend the Bandit (1914), the one film in which Chaplin starred to remain a lost film, is re-discovered. As we said before now, there are no lost films, just corners where we haven’t looked yet.

Update: A frame still from A Thief Catcher has now been made available by its discoverer Paul Gierucki and is reproduced at the top of this post. Interestingly Chaplin is sporting his familiar moustache, indicating that the film was made after Kid Auto Races in Venice, and that he was using the moustache even for cameos.