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By Phil Hall | April 24, 2009

BOOTLEG FILES 280: “Kid Auto Races at Venice” (1914 short comedy starring Charlie Chaplin).

LAST SEEN: Available on many online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO : In numerous anthologies of silent comedies.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A long-lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There is a fine British Film Institute restored version, but there are also tons of dupes on the market, too.

Contrary to popular belief, film history has very few genuine examples of actors who achieve superstardom seemingly overnight. Even performers who make a sensation in their first major role almost always come to films after having paid their dues for a number of years.

A case in point was Charlie Chaplin, who spent much of his youth and early adulthood in British music halls before being tapped for a chance in movies by Mack Sennett in 1913. Chaplin’s first film, “Making a Living” (1914), was notable as being among the worst comedies created by Sennett’s Keystone studio, and Sennett rued hiring Chaplin after seeing the disastrous debut.

However, Chaplin was able to get a second chance to make a first impression, and in this case he succeeded with a six-minute short called “Kid Auto Races at Venice.” With this brief film came the arrival of one of the most iconic figures in motion picture history.

“Kid Auto Races at Venice” brought Chaplin’s “Tramp” character to the screen for the first time. The character’s physical trademarks – a battered derby, a bushy little mustache dangling beneath his nose, ragged clothing that was either one size too tight or two sizes too big, oversized shoes on feet that jutted at odd angles – although the personality usually associated with the Tramp was not quite in place.

(Some film historians claim the character was originally used in “Mabel’s Strange Predicament.” However, the British Film Institute [BFI] has shown that both “Kid Auto Races at Venice” and “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” were shot simultaneously, and “Kid Auto Races at Venice” was theatrically released first.)

The concept here is simple: a newsreel crew is filming a soapbox derby-style tournament in the resort town of Venice, California. As the camera pans the crowds lining the streets to watch the races, a single man notices the camera. It is Chaplin’s Tramp, a scraggly misfit who clearly seems out of place amid the well-dressed race onlookers. As the camera pans slowly, the Tramp follows along, looking directly into the lens with a curiously determined expression that could be mistaken as belligerence. When it becomes obvious that the Tramp is not going to allow the camera to move without having him, a man comes in and physically removes him from the picture.

The camera is then set up at another spot along the racing route. Again, the Tramp shows up, eyes the camera, and makes himself the center of attention. The same man who ejected him earlier returns to push the Tramp out of range.

This continues, switching between visual perspectives. The first is the newsreel camera’s POV, with the Tramp looking directly at the camera and posing with a combination of insouciance and marked determination. The second enables the viewer to see the situation as an outsider: the hand-cranked newsreel camera, its operator, and the director are seen (the director is the man who keeps removing the Tramp) while the Tramp argues directly with them to be filmed. The director gets physically assertive at times, even pushing the Tramp into the sidewalk. Yet the Tramp keeps coming back and locating the camera at each new corner along the race route.

“Kid Auto Races at Venice” is a completely improvised film, reportedly shot in a 45 minute period. Chaplin and his director, Henry Lehrman, were sent by Sennett to the Venice races with the instruction to shoot something funny while the event was underway. The on-screen altercation between Chaplin and Lehrman may not have been pure acting, since the men disliked each other after Lehrman directed the comic’s disastrous “Making a Living” debut.

Off-the-cuff improvised filmmaking was not unusual for Sennett, and in many ways the film is no different from many of the Keystone romps that were churned out at the time. However, when viewed today, “Kid Auto Races at Venice” is a surprisingly prescient observation on the obsessive lengths that people strive for in order to achieve fame – or at least notice. Chaplin breaks down the proverbial fourth wall by demanding the camera (and, extension, the audience) pay particular attention to his antics and not to the racing or the other people in the crowd. Considering it was made in 1914, at a time when narcissism and celebrity worship were highly uncommon and few people thought about how movies were made, the film was very much ahead of its time.

But in its time, Sennett didn’t see anything extraordinary about the film or its star when the film was edited and ready for screening. “Kid Auto Races in Venice” was released in February 1914, one month after it was shot, as part of a “split reel” with an educational documentary called “Olives and Their Oil.” Chaplin continued with Sennett for the rest of 1914, and audiences spontaneously began to discover and appreciate his style. By 1915, he left Keystone and signed with Essanay Studios, where he enjoyed more creative control over his films.

Sennett didn’t quite appreciate what he had in Chaplin until he was gone. But as Chaplin’s star rose outside of Keystone, Sennett began reissuing Chaplin’s 1914 output, often using new titles to fool audiences. “Kid Auto Races at Venice” returned in 1916 as “Take My Picture,” and then a few years later as “The Pest.” Some later versions inserted new intertitles where Chaplin’s character supposedly writes a letter to his girlfriend about getting into movies.

Bootlegging of “Kid Auto Races at Venice” was prevalent throughout the silent era (but, then again, bootlegging was a major problem for all films during that period). When the film’s copyright lapsed and it became public domain, there was more bootlegging to be found. Not surprisingly, the film came down through the years as a visually crummy shadow of its original self.

The BFI made a fine effort to restore the film, combining materials from a 1920 tinted print made from the original negative and footage from the 1916 “Take My Picture” reissue. The BFI, however, acknowledged this is not a complete recreation of the original footage – the opening intertitle used in the 1914 version, which explained the purpose of Chaplin’s character at the event, was cut while a closing shot close-up of Chaplin that was absent from the original version was used.

Copies of “Kid Auto Races at Venice” can easily be found on numerous online video sites. For anyone interested in learning more about Charlie Chaplin’s movie career, this is literally where it all began.

/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 videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!/

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