Unsuspecting extras go down in film history
Angelenos take it for granted that at some point in the near future, their lives will be interrupted by a film shoot. Whether it’s traffic blocked by location trucks, cables outside an old downtown hotel, reflectors and klieg lights in front of a favorite bar or a strange sight on the lawn of a craftsman house in Pasadena, location shooting is part of L.A.-area life.
Early on, in the silent movie era, the line between location shooting and “stealing shots” was rather blurred. In a few famous cases, residents were barely aware they were acting as backdrops for major stars.
“Hollywood in the teens and in the early 20s was an arena, and a Roman one, to boot,” producer Mack Sennett recalled with nostalgia many decades later. As the former head of Keystone Studios, the man who created the Keystone Kops and discovered both Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin, he was in a good position to know.
In late 1913 Keystone’s star comic, Ford Sterling, announced that he was moving on to greener pastures. Panicked, Sennett wracked his brain to remember the name of an English comedian he recalled seeing on stage in New York as part of the London-based Fred Karno troupe. Sennett asked his financial backers in New York to send a telegram to Karno: “Is there a man named Chaffin in your company or something like that stop if so will he communicate with …" and gave the backers’ address. Charles Chaplin, 24, responded.
When Chaplin arrived for work at Sennett’s knockabout factory in Edendale, near Echo Park, he didn’t get along well with the studio’s stars. Mabel Normand took an instant dislike to “the Englisher,” who almost came to blows with Henry “Pathe” Lehrman, an impatient director who didn’t give two figs about the new comic and his opinions. The first Lehrman-Chaplin film, “Making a Living,” was a frenetic short about a ne’er-do-well (a pre-Tramp Chaplin) who tries getting a job as a reporter. One climactic shot was reportedly “taken” in the L.A. Times’ linotype room. The film pleased no one, least of all Chaplin.
Auto racing fever was in the air during this period, and Sennett himself owned a high-powered Fiat race car. He knew the Vanderbilt Cup race was scheduled for February 1914 in Santa Monica, and planned to enter the Fiat.
But in Venice, a Vanderbilt Junior Cup was planned on Jan. 10 for boys and their homemade “pushmobiles.” In all likelihood, Sennett told Lehrman to take Chaplin out to Venice and shoot some improvised high jinks using the races as a backdrop. The film, just six minutes long with the oddly flat title, “Kid Auto Races At Venice,” was released on Feb. 7. This was the first public appearance of Chaplin’s Tramp character.
The day of the junior cup, the Venice Daily Vanguard announced, “Hurrah! They’re now off. The races are on as this issue of the Vanguard goes to press…it being probable that the races will continue until 5 o’clock or later…" Lehrman and cameraman Frank Williams pretended to be a news crew filming the race from the sidelines on Westminster Avenue. Another cameraman, of course, filmed them.
The still-unknown Chaplin ambled out onto the track in his new, but surprisingly well-formed, “Little Tramp” costume: bowler hat, baggy pants, bamboo cane, small moustache. In a few short years this character would come to be celebrated as a symbol of battered, resilient mankind. But here he’s just a camera hog with an attitude, getting in the way, wanting to be photographed. Lehrman angrily shoves him out of camera range. But Charlie springs back in, glares into the camera, struts, scratches a match on his thigh and lights a cigarette. Boys and other spectators watch, giggle, stick their tongues out at the camera, oblivious to the moment. The Tramp reappears, blocking Lehrman’s view repeatedly and nearly getting hit by a soapbox. A real Venice policeman shoos the crowd to stay back. It’s part documentary, part comedy, part pivotal moment in film history, all rolled into six short minutes.
Following a well-worn Keystone formula, Sennett then put Chaplin through his paces in a series of park comedies. These typically involved lovebirds sitting on a bench being harassed by a “masher,” and were routinely shot in Echo Park, Westlake (now MacArthur) Park and Eastlake Park. Formulaic or not, reviewers and the public were so taken with Chaplin that within a few years a prominent critic would say the entire world had contracted “Chaplinitis.”
But back on Jan. 12, 1914, the Venice Vanguard published the winning “pushmobile” racers’ names, Alfred Van Vranklin and Alex Papst, and made no mention of the disruptive clown. A day earlier, Venice Mayor C.W. Holbrook reviewed a parade of the contestants, all of whom no doubt soon succumbed to “Chaplinitis” in the months, years and decades to come.