The first rule of running a fun factory is that you have to knock out plenty of laughs on the cheap. So Kid Auto Races at Venice, a short film made by Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in the early silent days of Hollywood, was a model exercise in cranking out gags for very little cash. It also made history. To shoot this bargain “farce comedy”, the Sennett team took their cameras down from Edendale to Venice Beach one morning in January 1914 to film a children’s go-kart race that was taking place there. They brought along one of their newest recruits, an English comic called Charlie Chaplin.
There’s little to no plot in the movie. Keystone director Harry Lehrman appears as more or less himself, a film director trying to capture newsreel footage of the children racing. Chaplin plays a belligerent hobo photobombing his carefully planned compositions. He waddles into shot, wobbling like a drunk, puffing on a cigarette and twirling his cane.
He jogs down the racetrack, desperate for attention, even stands directly in the path of an oncoming kart. No question why the film was also known as The Pest. Chaplin attempts to engage the cameraman in small talk and preens in front of his lens, his pigeon-chest puffed out, hand posed affectedly on his hip. He plays director as well as star: apparently able to make the camera follow him, rather than the other way around. Every time Lehrman shoves him out of the way or to the ground, with mounting violence, Chaplin springs back into the frame. He poses with his back to the camera as if to imprint his famous silhouette on the audience’s brains; he ends the film gurning grimly at the camera lens, determined to make his mark.
Chaplin had only been a Keystone employee for a matter of weeks, though he had already bumped heads with Lehrman in similar fashion off-screen. This was the third film he had made for Sennett’s team, and the second to be released. Crucially, it was the first time the public would see him in his Little Tramp persona. He invented the baggy-trousered, tight-jacketed, flappy-booted, bowler-hatted character for a film called Mabel’s Strange Predicament, but Kid Auto Races was released before that, and it made for a terrifyingly apt debut. It’s effectively a single-character, one-joke comedy: a star vehicle for a man who wasn’t a star yet. With Chaplin in costume and supplying this much “business” there was no need for a storyline, or a supporting cast.
There were movie stars before Chaplin, and beloved comic characters too, but the rapid onset and global extent of his fame, which came in rush in early 1914, was utterly unprecedented. Kid Auto Races isn’t just a premiere but a premonition – of how Chaplin’s stardom, his Little Tramp persona, and his directorial input (he helmed his first movie for Keystone, Twenty Minutes of Love, a couple of months later) would take over Hollywood.
This film showcases the actor, the character, his camera, and among the crowds at the track, the Tramp’s first public audience anywhere. Rewatching Kid Auto Races, as Chaplin bursts into view again – and again – we witness a future Hollywood icon marking his territory, on both sides of the camera.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill