February 2, 2014 is a significant date in the history of cinema. One hundred years ago on this date, a face that was to become one of the most recognized faces in the world was first illuminated on movie screens. That face was Charlie Chaplin’s, and on February 2, 1914, his first film was released in the United States.
Chaplin’s character of “the Little Tramp” didn’t spring forth on that day fully formed in baggy pants and bowler hat. Almost, but not quite! The film was Making a Living and Chaplin donned a long frock coat, top hat, and sinister mustache.
A mere five days later, though, on February 7, 1914, Chaplin’s second film was released, and in Kid Auto Races at Venice, audiences first saw the character of the Tramp. Filmed at Venice Beach, the Keystone Film Company made use of a local event happening there – kiddy car races – and set up their cameras as if to film the races. The comedy resulted when Chaplin, in character, became a camera hog, wandering into the frame at every opportunity, and angering the director at every turn of the camera crank.
Although Kid Auto Races at Venice was the first film in which audiences saw Chaplin in what would become his trademark tramp costume, it was actually for Mabel’s Strange Predicament that he assembled and wore the costume in front of the camera. Mabel’s Strange Predicament was filmed before Kid Auto Races at Venice, but not released until February 9, 1914. Legend has it that Chaplin improvised the costume by selecting various pieces worn by other Keystone contract players, attempting to achieve a costume of contrasts – large pants and small jacket, large shoes and small hat.
Chaplin worked for the Keystone Film Company for one year, from December 1913 to December 1914. His short films for Keystone were released at a slapstick speed of 3-4 per month, so audiences never had to wait long to see the tramp appear in a new film. (Although it should be noted that Chaplin’s costume still varied from time to time from the tramp costume, depending on his role, whether working in a bakery in Dough and Dynamite or appearing as a woman in A Busy Day.) Chaplin’s popularity gained momentum while at Keystone, and he skyrocketed to cultural phenomenon the following year after he left Keystone to work for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.
The Stills, Posters and Paper Collections in the Moving Image Department include some rare and unique items of note related to Charlie Chaplin. The Theodore Huff Collection, which consists of thousands of stills, posters, lobby cards, and music scores and cue sheets for silent films, includes a wealth of Chaplin material. Huff was the author of one of the earliest biographies of Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin, published in 1951) and his collection offers insight into his research and study of Chaplin, such as the research notes and papers he used in writing his book. Pictured here are pages from a small notebook of photo reproductions of frames from Chaplin’s Keystone films that Huff created as a reference in writing about Chaplin’s films. The three frames above were reproduced from this notebook.
Also in the Moving Image Department is the Douglas Fairbanks Nitrate Still Negatives Collection. This collection includes the original negatives produced by Fairbanks’ production company for his major feature films in the 1920’s such as Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926). In addition to the stills shot for specific films, the collection include publicity stills taken around Fairbanks’ studio, showing him posed with notable visitors such as his good friend Chaplin. Their high-spirited friendship is especially evident here as they demonstrate for the camera just how much fun they had together:
Finally, the Moving Image Department has in its collection a rather rare self-caricature, drawn and signed by Chaplin himself:
For further study of Chaplin and his films, I highly recommend:
Chaplin at Keystone (dvd set of all of Chaplin’s surviving Keystone films, released by Flicker Alley)
My Life in Pictures by Charles Chaplin
Chaplin by David Robinson
Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema by Jeffrey Vance