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.

12 responses

  1. Chaplin’s splayed feet are prominent in the shot too. What I find fascinating are the shooting dates:

    Kid Auto Races 1/10/14
    Mabel’s Strange Predicament 1/6/14-1/12/14
    Thief Catcher 1/5/14-1/26/14

    A Thief Catcher actually began shooting before either of CC’s other two films and before the release of Making a Living. I half hold out hope that we might even get a glimpse of CC in the new find from New Zealand, Won in a Closet which was shot between 12/9/13-12/20/13, released 1/22/14. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/movies/07silent.html

  2. So maybe there’s just a hint that Chaplin came to Keystone with traits (moustache, splayed feet) that he was going to introduce from the outset, only to be thwarted by Henry Lehrman’s ideas for Making a Living where he had to dress as a dude with dropping moustache. It’s an interesting theory for someone to pursue further.

    I’ll have more on the New Zealand discoveries soon – it’s getting hard to catch up.

    Meanwhile, more information has emerged on A Thief Catcher from its discoverer Paul Gierucki. Once Chaplin started to become a popular draw, Keystone resdiscovered the film, and by 1915 some film theatres were billing it as a Chaplin film. Film historians seem to have picked up on this in the 1930s, but by the time of the first major attempt at a Chaplin filmography, published by Sight and Sound c.1945, the film had been dismissed. Also, several sources give A/The Thief Catcher as an alternative title for the later Chaplin/Keystone film Her Friend the Bandit. It’s not know how this came about, but we are definitely talking about two different films. More information from this thread: http://nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?t=6447

  3. Most of the text for the Thief Catcher post came from the Slapsticon press release, and I copied the text about Chaplin’s My Autobiography saying that he appeared uncredited in some Keystones. However, I’ve not skimmed through the Keystone section of his book and I cannot find any such reference. Does anyone know if any such exists?

    There have always been rumours about Chaplin appearing as a Keystone Kop, as Glenn Mitchell says in The Chaplin Encyclopedia. Mitchell says about A Thief Catcher that it was listed as Chaplin film by H.D. Waley in a Chaplin filmography he produced for Sight and Sound in 1938, but dropped from all subsequent lists.

  4. Perhaps the reference to uncredited appearance was not in “My Autobiography,” but in his earlier, discredited book, “Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story.” My copies of both are buried in the downstairs closet, so I can’t check.

  5. In David Robinson’s Chaplin, p130 in my Penguin pb edition, he writes; “More than fifty years later [than 1914] Chaplin told an interviewer that he had actually played bit roles as a Kop in Keystone films, though so far none of these appearances has been identified”
    No note as to who the interviewer was……

  6. An extract from A THIEF CATCHER is to be included in the forthcoming Flicker Alley 4-DVD set Chaplin at Keystone, released on 26 October (the BFI is issuing the set in the UK on 6 December).

  7. Pingback: Looking back on 2010 « The Bioscope

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