Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)
Directed by Henry Lehrman
Produced by Mack Sennett
Written by Henry Lehrman
Frank D. Williams
Frank D. Williams
Enrique Juan Vallejo
Distributed by Keystone Studios
Release dates February 7, 1914
6 minutes, 19 seconds
Country United States
Language Silent film
English (Original titles)
Kid Auto Races at Venice (also known as The Pest) is a 1914 American film starring Charles Chaplin in which his "Little Tramp" character makes his first appearance in a film exhibited before the public. The first film to be produced that featured the character was actually Mabel's Strange Predicament; it was shot a few days before Kid Auto Races but released two days after it.
Made by Keystone Studios and directed by Henry Lehrman, the movie portrays Chaplin as a spectator at a "baby-cart race" in Venice, Los Angeles. The spectator keeps getting in the way of the camera and interferes with the race, causing great frustration to the public and participants. The film was shot during the Junior Vanderbilt Cup, an actual race with Chaplin and Lehrman improvising gags in front of real-life spectators.
Unusually the camera breaks the fourth wall to show a second camera filming (as though it were the first), to better explain the joke. At this stage Chaplin only gets in the way of the visible camera on screen, not the actual filming camera. In so doing it takes on a spectator's viewpoint and becomes one of the first public films to show a film camera and cameraperson in operation.
Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) was Chaplin's 2nd released film.
Charlie Chaplin – The Tramp
Henry Lehrman – Film Director
Frank D. Williams – Cameraman
Gordon Griffith – Boy
Billy Jacobs – Boy
Charlotte Fitzpatrick – Girl
Thelma Salter – Girl
Junior Vanderbilt Cup
By 1914, the Vanderbilt Cup had become an important automobile racing event in the United States, and the 1914 event was to be held in Santa Monica, California. The city decided to sponsor a junior version of the event, apparently with several classes of engines and with age limits for the drivers. Some classes had no engines and used a ramp to accelerate the cars in a manner similar to soap box derby races. Other classes used small engines. Chaplin's movie includes one scene shot at the bottom of the ramp used for the engineless races. There is no evidence that Junior Vanderbilt Cups were held either before or after the 1914 event. Actual silver cups were awarded.
This Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice, released on 7 February 1914, was only Charlie Chaplin’s second ever appearance on film and the screen debut of his famous Tramp character. Although it was the first film released involving the Tramp, Chaplin had actually devised the outfit for the film Mabel’s Strange Predicament produced a few days earlier but released a couple days after Kid Auto Races at Venice, on 9 February 1914.
“In picturing this event, an odd character discovered that motion pictures were being taken, and it became impossible to keep him away from the camera.”
History gives us beautiful symmetries, sometimes. It’s so right that this quote comes not from some mature piece of Chaplin comedy, but from the film that marked the Tramp’s very first public appearance. Doesn’t it just sum him up? All twenty-two years of him, from these early, blunt Keystone days to the almost post-comic icon he became for United Artists. Always odd, always outside, and always there: drawing our eyes from the centre of life to the periphery.
The Tramp never occupied less time on screen than he does here. Kid Auto Races is brief: just under seven minutes, with a plot equivalent to one gag in a later Chaplin short. The ‘odd character’ is a spectator at a go-kart race, more or less: kid drivers in motorless cars are pushed to the top of a steep wooden slide, then roll down it and along a winding track. The crowd swells at each turn and a local film crew (a Keystone crew, let’s say) positions its camera to catch the action. And time after time, their view is blocked by the Tramp.
Is he a different Tramp from the one we know? Incomplete? ‘Primitive’? No. We have all the parts: the look of the man, with his ill-fitting suit, bowler hat and cane, and the rocking-chair walk. His persona is familiar too, at least if you know Chaplin’s work prior the First National days. He’s more aggressive, greedier, more physical and less sympathetic—more, I think, like most people perceive vagrants to be. The sweetheart Tramp of later years was a man we knew from the movies, not a man we’d ever meet on the street, where so few of us would’ve deigned to shake his hand.
This is the big start for Charlie Chaplin. It is a simple, seven-minute comedy reel in which an odd fellow blunders in front of cameramen trying to film a local soapbox racing event, and then refuses to go away, even when rather forcefully asked to do so. It was the first time that Chaplin appeared in his “Little Tramp” outfit on film, so is a milestone of sorts. It’s also an example of Keystone Studios taking advantage of a local news event as the setting for one of their comedies, which gave them the opportunity to make what looked like “big” productions for very little money.
In later years, Venice police would have chased them off the track for filming without a permit, but here, Charlie is nearly hit by several race cars, and his only adversary seems to be the other actor. Much has been made about the “breaking of the fourth wall,” which refers to the point in the movie where we see the cameraman filming Charlie by virtue of a second camera, although I’ve seen examples of this going back as far as the 1890s. Cameramen were always fascinated by filming other cameramen.
And he’s persistent. The Tramp, for reasons of his own in this film, wishes to be filmed, and with each rebuff he finds a new way dominate the frame. At first jogs ahead as the camera pans past him; then, when the crew responds more violently, he acts as though he’s been doing it by accident. Finally he reacts as though he’s been offended; but again, it’s all in front of the lens. I don’t know why the Tramp wants this so bad. Early versions of him are often cloudy this way. Yet Chaplin created a character so refined in his motion and so closely mimicking natural human reactions that it never matters. You might say Chaplin collapsed the barrier between motivation and action. While the Tramp obsesses for reasons we can’t understand, his means of attaining a goal always has logic, and his emotional response to success and failure make him credible, even normal. It sets the Tramp apart—most glaringly in these Keystone shorts—from actors playing caricatured types, who react in caricatured ways to things such types are supposed to react to. The Tramp’s not a Bum; he’s a man who has no home.
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