Id Auto-Referencing at Venice

First thing’s first — a Late Show/Late Movies Blogathon late entry, from The Man on the Flying Trapeze — Frank Capra’s PLATINUM BLONDE, which tragically marked the end of a promising career for Robert Williams. Jean Harlow and Loretta Young add glam.

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Now, having finally wallowed in the sensuous nostalgia of Chaplin’s last film, I whimsically played through his not-quite-first, KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE. Film textbooks and Chaplin biographies of my youth unhesitatingly cited this as the first appearance of Chaplin’s Tramp character, but research since (including analysis of cloud patterns in the background of shots, compared to 1914 weather reports) seems to mark MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT as its forerunner, though KARAV was released just ahead of that one. They churned them out like sausages at Keystone.

One reason this movie may have held the spurious reputation it did is that it makes a better story. The film seems thrown together, set up without a script to take advantage of the “spectacle” of a soap box derby — so the legend of Chaplin throwing together his famous costume on the spur of the moment fits nicely. There’s also this intertitle (the only one in the film) ~

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~ which in a way seems to encapsulate Chaplin’s entire biography, before and after.

Added to that is the legend of Chaplin’s obstreperous behaviour at Keystone, quarreling with directors like Henry “Pathé” Lehrman — as he does, live on camera, as part of the plot of this film.

Incidentally, Lenore Coffee in her memoir Backstory wonders why everybody called Henry “Pathé” Lehrman by the strange nickname. I could have told her that — it seems he got his job at Keystone by pretending to have worked at Pathé, where Max Linder was wowing the world with his sophisticated slapstick (a big influence on Chaplin himself). The tag was either a reminder of his bogus credentials or a tribute to his chutzpah.

Fittingly, Chaplin’s character seems to be inebriated for the first part of the film at least (consistency isn’t an aim here) — the star, whose father drank himself to death, had caught Mack Sennett’s eye playing a drunk and that schtick is what was expected from him on the screen. So if this isn’t his first film as the Tramp, unfunny as it is, it still OUGHT to have been.

Chaplin later claimed that the only thing he learned from his first director was how to match shots so that a character who exited screen left would enter screen right in the following frame, preserving the flow of movement. It could be argued that, since that was Chaplin’s main filmmaking technique (apart from the crucial selection of angle and shot size, Chaplin’s artistry is usually purely performative), that was quite a big thing to learn. But in fact, Lehrman crosses the line with nearly every cut, so it may be that Chaplin learned this rule from watching Lehrman break it.

At any rate, it seems “Pathé” gave Chaplin his first extreme close-up ~

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