BOOTLEG FILES 273: “Chimmie Hicks at the Races” (a short comedy made in 1900 and starring Charley Grapewin).

LAST SEEN: The film is available on the Internet.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Not as a standalone film, though perhaps it was included in a silent film collection.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A public domain title.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: As a 47-second public domain film, it is unlikely it will have its own DVD release.

There is a huge difference between the concepts do-it-yourself and do-it-correctly – enthusiasm is not synonymous with skill or knowledge, and too often amateur endeavors result in foolish, sloppy and irritating failures. That is one reason why I loathe the web site Wikipedia, which presents itself as an open encyclopedia written by anyone who wishes to contribute. The problem, of course, is that people with no expertise in researching and writing wind up publishing information that poorly referenced and badly composed.

Everyone knows Wikipedia is not reliable as a serious scholarly resource. On the flip side, however, is a curious corner of Wikipedia that few people know about: the site’s so-called Articles for Deletion section, where registered Wikipedia users can nominate articles to be taken offline. This week’s Bootleg Files title is a film that nearly got killed from Wikipedia – which is remarkable when you consider its content and history.

The film in question is the 1900 production “Chimmie Hicks at the Races.” It appears that someone on Wikipedia using the name “StarM” decided last month that coverage of this old, old film wasn’t good enough to keep. Or, in StarM’s sneering declaration: “There is no evidence that this short is notable. While its age is an issue, there is no evidence that it was notable at the time and ghits don’t explain its significance.” Ten hours later, StarM reluctantly withdrew the request for deletion when it was shown the film was worthwhile, although the withdrawal statement was laced with bitter immaturity: “I concede. I don’t agree but others have made good points.”

Personally, I don’t give a s**t what the pseudonymous (and, it appears, fairly stupid) StarM thinks about movies – people who don’t sign their names to public statements don’t deserve respect. And in the case of “Chimmie Hicks at the Races,” it is painfully obvious that this film represents a fascinating, forgotten gem in the development of the American motion picture industry.

“Chimmie Hicks at the Races” only runs 47 seconds, yet it packs a wealth of emotions in less than a minute. The film was shot on what is obviously a bare stage – a black curtain is in the background, but there are no props or sets to be found. Standing front and center, however, is a man wearing a three-piece suit, an overcoat and a hat. He is looking off-camera with a vaguely satisfied expression. He is holding what could be a newspaper or some sort of a program. His vague satisfaction quickly erupts into highly energetic and wildly kinetic glee, complete with arm waves and leg kicks. It appears he was watching a race and his horse came in first.

Another man enters the scene. He is wearing a suit and a hat, and he pulls out a wad of dollars. He begins to make a big payout to the happy man. The newly-enriched bettor gives the second man some of the money back, with the instruction for placing a new bet. Almost immediately, the bettor watches the next race. At first it appears the new race will be a reprise of the previous running, and the gambler is jumping with glee. But the euphoria is quickly dashed when it becomes clear the off-screen horse lost the race in the final seconds of the run.

After throwing his hat on the ground in anger, the bettor is greeted by his bookie. The bettor hands over all of his money and even fishes his pocketwatch from his vest. Alone and broke, the bettor falls to the ground, looks up to Heaven while shaking his fist skyward in anguish. He then tears up his racing program, gathers his head, rises and walks away.

“Chimmie Hicks at the Races” provides a rare and important filmed record of vaudeville actor Charley Grapewin, who plays the riches-to-rags gambler. Grapewin’s Chimmie Hicks clearly had a high degree of popularity when the film was shot in 1900, hence the identification of the character’s name in the title (Grapewin also starred in another short at the same time, “Chimmie Hicks and the Rum Omelet”). Even though the film was silent and shot in black-and-white, Grapewin’s pantomime was loud and colorful in its wild emotional pendulum swing. Grapewin’s screen time is bold, outrageous and utterly fascinating – one could make an argument that he was the first true comic captured on film.

Strangely, Grapewin stayed away from films for nearly three decades after shooting “Chimmie Hicks at the Races.” During the 1930s and 1940s, he found a successful niche as a character actor, appearing in such classics as “The Good Earth,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Tobacco Road.” However, most people will probably recognize him as the crotchety but loveable Uncle Henry from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Sadly, we have no way to identify the actor who played the bookie opposite Grapewin’s gambler, nor do we know who directed the film. The name of the cinematographer, F.S. Armitage, is preserved.

Now, you may recall that I said “Chimmie Hicks at the Races” only ran 47 seconds – that’s a bit short, even for a short, yes? Well, the film was not meant to be seen in a projected format on a big screen. Instead, the film was presented in a device called the Mutoscope, which presented films for individual viewing in a cabinet-sized device. Viewers would drop a coin in the device’s slot and peer into a small lens. The film did not run automatically – instead, the viewer controlled the film’s speed with a hand crank.

Even more curious was the lack of film. “Chimmie Hicks at the Races” and other film presented in the Mutoscope was presented on a series of paper flip cards. This helped prevent wear-and-tear on the presentation, since the repeated running of a celluloid strip would quickly create damage. A key reason the film exists today is because it was shown on paper print.

Strangely, the production company behind this film (American Mutoscope & Biograph Co.) did not register a copyright for this title until 1902. There is no explanation as to why there was a two-year gap between production and copyright registration, but one can easily guess that the film was heavily bootlegged in its day. Bootlegging was highly common in the nascent days of the film industry, and there is no reason to think this title would not have fallen victim to that chicanery. In fact, the film is also known by another title – “Above the Limit” – and, ironically, this is the title affixed to it by both Wikipedia and another exasperating user-driven web site, the Internet Movie Database.

Today, “Chimmie Hicks at the Races” is a public domain work and it can be found on numerous Internet video sites. Even in today’s frenetic CGI environment, the brash, crass charms of Chimmie Hick’s rapid ruin can still raise a quick laugh and a deep appreciation for its importance as a pioneering work of film comedy.

Hmmm…if StarM spent less time on Wikipedia and more time reading Film Threat, then that person could actually learn something about movies!

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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