By Phil Hall | June 20, 2014

BOOTLEG FILES 537: “Making a Living” (1914 comedy short starring a newcomer named Charlie Chaplin).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube and other online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been included in public domain anthologies of Chaplin’s shorts.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Anything related to Chaplin was automatically bootlegged.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is stuck in public domain hell.

One hundred years ago, the first movie superstar made his debut appearance on the big screen. However, that initial appearance was such a disappointment that it was surprising he was allowed to make a second film. The superstar in question was Charlie Chaplin and his first film, a 1914 short called “Making a Living,” is among the most unsatisfactory first films in cinema history.

In September 1913, the Keystone Film Company signed Chaplin for a $150 a week contract. In many ways, this was a major gamble for Keystone – Chaplin was known in England for his work with Fred Karno’s music hall comedy company, but he was unknown to most Americans. Even worse, the Keystone producers were unaware that Chaplin was only 24 years old. In the Karno shows, Chaplin used make-up and costuming to portray older characters; the Keystone filmmakers were uncertain how the youthful Chaplin would make the transition to their rough-and-tumble brand of comedy that had little use for youthful performers.

For his part, Chaplin was ambivalent about getting into the movie world. “I was not terribly enthusiastic about the Keystone type of comedy, but I realized their publicity value,” he later recalled. “A year at that racket and I could return to vaudeville an international star.”

Chaplin had no previous experience in filmmaking, and he was initially confused and uncomfortable about the production process that required scenes to be filmed out of narrative order. He was also ill at ease with the Keystone approach to comedy, which relied heavily on improvised antics and little on carefully rehearsed scene preparation. Even worse, he had a poor rapport with Henry Lehrman, the director/actor in charge of Chaplin’s first film.

The resulting production was originally titled “The Reporters,” but was changed to “Making a Living” prior to its release. In the film, Chaplin takes on the role of a petty swindler. To get into character, Chaplin gave the impression of European sleaze: a top hat worn at a flippant titled angle, a handlebar mustache that emphasized sneering lips, a monocle held in place with a wicked near-wink, an ascot and tight frock coat that signified continental decadence, and a walking stick that doubled (when needed) as a weapon.

“Making a Living” opens on a Los Angeles street, where Chaplin’s character stops a passerby (played by Lehrman) in an attempt to shake down the man for money. Chaplin pantomimes a tale of woe, pausing to gloat contemptuously as he views his target fishing about in his pockets for change. Alas for Lehrman’s character, this beggar would turn up to ruin his life.

First, Chaplin’s character makes the immediate acquaintance of Lehrman’s girlfriend, who is seen with her mother and their butler outside of a mansion. (Since Keystone frequently shot on-the-fly on the street, one can assume they quickly set up their cameras outside of a posh Los Angeles home without the permission of the wealthy residents.)  Chaplin immediately woos the fine young lady and puts an engagement ring on her finger. When Lehrman arrives with flowers, he is too late in his courting. A brief fight begins between the rivals, but the girl’s butler shoos Lehrman away.

Chaplin then spies a posting for a reporter’s job at a newspaper. He makes inquiries inside, only to discover that Lehrman is the star journalist there. Despite his attempts to sway the aged publisher, Chaplin is chased out of the premises by Lehrman.

On an assignment, Lehrman photographs a car accident. When he pauses to help the injured driver, Chaplin arrives and steals Lehrman’s camera. A chase ensues that, inexplicably, brings them to a cheap apartment where a housewife (Minta Durfee) is doing her cleaning. Chaplin manages to escape, but Lehrman somehow winds up in the bed with the woman – at which point her knife-wielding husband arrives. A couple of Keystone Kops arrive on the scene, but they inevitably make the situation even more violent and chaotic.

Chaplin races through the Los Angeles streets to the newspaper and delivers the camera to the publisher, claiming the film of the car crash is his. A new edition of the newspaper is rushed into print, with Chaplin receiving the credit for the coverage. Lehrman arrives and discovers, to his horror, that Chaplin has stolen his scoop. The men begin to brawl in the street until both are swept up by a passing streetcar, at which point the film abruptly ends.

When “Making a Living” premiered on February 2, 1914, it received a positive review from the trade magazine The Moving Picture World. “The clever player who takes the role of [the] nervy and very nifty sharper in this picture is a comedian of the first water, who acts like one of Nature’s own naturals,” said the magazine about Chaplin. “People out for an evening’s good time will howl.”

Yet Chaplin would look back on the experience with unhappiness. “Although the picture was completed in three days, I thought we contrived some very funny gags,” he recalled. “But when I saw the finished film it broke my heart, for the cutter had butchered it beyond recognition, cutting into the middle of all my funny business.”

Indeed, there is very little funny business to be found. “Making a Living” was typical of the Keystone output: feral slapstick that placed a greater emphasis on violence and chases rather than comic ingenuity, a somewhat incoherent storyline and a grotesque overplaying that made the proceedings seem like a filmed play with the actors emoting for the benefit of the last row of the theater. Chaplin attempted to incorporate some original sight gags into the mix – physically twisting the publisher’s head in order to make eye contact, grasping his chest in near-orgiastic rapture as he witnesses his purloined scoop go into print – but, for the most part, “Making a Living” was just a run-of-the-mill dropping that would have been forgotten today if Chaplin’s screen career fizzled.

Of course, Chaplin did not fizzle. He immediately rebounded from this minor debacle by creating a genuinely lovable screen character in his Little Tramp. By the end of 1914, Chaplin was the biggest screen star in America, and he was confident enough to abandon Keystone for more lucrative deals.

Keystone would recycle “Making a Living” under a variety of titles, including “A Busted Johnny,” “Troubles,” Take My Picture” and “Doing His Best.” As with other Chaplin titles, this film was frequently bootlegged during the star’s peak years. Today, the film is in the public domain and dupes of a mostly crummy nature can be found in cheapo DVD anthologies and online video postings. But for those eager to explore the Chaplin canon, “Making a Living” is little more than a weird curio that served little value except to get Chaplin started on his remarkable cinematic journey.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Robert Thompson says:

    What’s the story on David Niven’s Bedtime Story?

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