Sunday, February 2, 2014

Chaplin's first appearance on film took place 100 years ago today, or did it?

Our first glimpse of Chaplin in Making A Living.

Making A Living was released on February 2nd, 1914, but was it really Chaplin's first appearance before a camera?

According to The Chaplin Encyclopedia by Glenn Mitchell:
It is believed that Chaplin may have made his first appearance before a movie camera when still a child. Harry M. Geduld's Chapliniana quotes a New York Times article of 2 September, 1921, which claims he was caught on film (while playing truant in St. James Park!)by a newsreel cameraman.1 Geduld is one of a few sources to mention a further chance appearance in newsreels, when Chaplin was engaged with the Karno Company at St. Helier, Jersey, during 1912 (there is a parallel story of a newsreel cameraman who later claimed to have filmed Chaplin on stage in Britain during that year, which may or may not tie in to this account). Chaplin observed a cameraman filming the annual "Battle Of The Flowers" event and offered some impromptu mime for the benefit of cinemagoers. Neither of these items is known to have survived. 
Nevertheless, Making A Living is the first entertainment film featuring Chaplin to be shown to the general public, therefore it occupies a significant place in film history.

For his costume, Chaplin chose a top hat, frock coat, droopy mustache, and monocle. He wore a similar outfit on stage in some Karno sketches, including "The Football Match," and it reappears in Cruel Cruel Love and Mabel At The Wheel (but with a goatee and smaller mustache). Although the film is a typical, fast-paced, Keystone comedy, Charlie's performance did stand out among contemporary critics:

Moving Picture World, February 7th, 1914

For me, it is hard to watch this film and not think about how Charlie had spent the last several years of his life practically living on a train as a vaudeville entertainer. He has no idea what his future holds. He has no idea that within a year or two, he will be one of the most famous and highly-paid people on the planet.

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1The following is an excerpt from the September 2nd, 1921 New York Times article: "Mrs. Elizabeth Jackson [wife of the William Jackson, co-founder of the Eight Lancashire Lads], who is described on one school register as guardian of the film star, tells an amusing story of his first screen appearance. Mrs. Jackson's husband happened to be one day at Oxford Music Hall in London and saw a film of Scots Guards marching through St. James Park and there was Charlie with the other boys keeping step alongside the soldiers. He was supposed to have been at school on the day the film was taken." Barry Anthony, author of Chaplin's Music Hall, gives a likely date for the film as November or December 1899.

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