A once lost Chaplin film rediscovered?! It made international headlines a decade ago when producer-historian Paul Gierucki found and preserved A Thief Catcher (1914), a Ford Sterling comedy featuring Charlie Chaplin in a supporting role portraying a Keystone Cop. You can read Paul’s full account of his remarkable discovery in Chapter 4 of the newly released anthology of historical essays Chase! A Tribute to the Keystone Cops complied and edited by Lon & Debra Davis. The vintage photos to follow were all generously provided by Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives.
Paul found the treasure inside a steamer trunk at an antique show, unaware of its significance until he screened it for the first time months later. The walk, splayed feet, trim moustache, and unique mannerisms, beyond doubt this was Charlie Chaplin! One can only imagine Paul’s excitement upon realizing he was the first person in decades to witness Charlie’s long forgotten performance.
While recovering any lost film is exciting, A Thief Catcher (ATC) provides great insight into Chaplin’s early career. As Brent Walker reports in his invaluable Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, ATC was filmed between January 4 to 26, 1914, overlapping the production dates for Chaplin’s debut trio of films (above): (i) Making A Living (Chaplin’s first film, dressed as a dandy, not a tramp) completed January 9, (ii) Kid Auto Races in Venice (Chaplin’s first appearance in public dressed as the tramp) completed January 11, and (iii) Mabel’s Strange Predicament (considered the tramp’s first appearance before a camera) completed January 12, and also featuring exterior scenes with Mabel Normand beside the Raymond Hotel (see end of this post.)
Given the relative production dates for each film, their tendency to be shot sequentially, and Charlie’s appearance towards the end of the story, he likely played his ATC cameo later in January after completing his debut trio of films on the 12th, making ATC his fourth film. Charlie started his next featured role Between Showers on January 27, the day after ATC wrapped production on the 26th, and 15 days after completing Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which begs the question – did Charlie make any other (lost) cameos during those otherwise unaccounted-for two weeks?
Scenes from ATC before Charlie appears, crime witness Ford Sterling, left, fearing for his life, with murderous thieves Mack Swain and heavily made-up Edgar Kennedy plotting his demise.
The discovery of ATC has more stories to tell. Just as my recent familiarity with Edendale led to posts about Chaplin and Keaton filming early scenes there beside the Selig Polyscope Studio (Chaplin – HERE, Keaton – HERE), and Lloyd filming there beside the Norbig Studio (HERE), yet another Edendale facility plays a role, this time the rarely photographed Pathe West Coast Studio pictured above.
To begin, chased by murderous thieves, Ford stumbles panic-stricken along the already badly decaying wall of the Pathe West Coast Studio. The Edendale studio once stood directly between the Norbig Studio to the south and Selig Studio to the north, all further up Allesandro from the Keystone Studio. The five Mission-style arches in the circa 1911 full view photo further above are missing in Ford’s ATC frame, while two store fronts (box) and the Selig Studio towers (box and image to the far right) up the street in the photo remain in view during his scene. The photo above, and ATC scenes with Ford, are the only images I’ve been able to locate of this short-lived studio.
Next, Ford’s dog races to warn the Keystone Cops of his danger. Paired with this circa 1910 image, we see the “police” station in ATC (left) is actually the Keystone Studio front office building at 1712 Allesandro (right – click to enlarge), formerly the Edendale Grocery (below).
The same “police” station appears during Roscoe Arbuckle’s 1913 comedy Fatty Joins the Force (above left), paired with a 1909 view of the lone building while it was still a grocery.
It seems beyond belief this humble grocery served as studio headquarters. But look above at this later view of the studio – where did the grocery go?
More confusing, the city directories and early maps continue to show 1712 as the studio office address, before and after 1914. How is that possible?
The answer? The matching pyramidal skylights above reveal the grocery wasn’t demolished, but given a face lift! The studio pulled a permit for this work on January 14, 1914, to “remove present front and build new front to be plastered and dashed” for the office at 1712 Allesandro.
They started reconstruction even while ATC was still in production, since this view of the cops racing to the rescue, looking north on Allesandro along the studio cutting room windows, already shows scaffolding and construction equipment in place. Those low palm trees at back, on the front lawn of the home to the left of the studio, appear behind Charlie in his Making a Living frame at the top of this post. At right, the building permit issued January 14.
So ATC wraps on January 26, Chaplin completes Between Showers on January 31, then starts his next movie, A Film Johnnie, on February 1. But wait a minute. Isn’t A Film Johnnie staged in front of the Keystone Studio? A title announces the Keystone players arriving at work, as Ford Sterling slips and falls, and then Roscoe Arbuckle exits his car.
(Above, star-struck Charlie jokes with Roscoe Arbuckle and Ford Sterling as they enter the studio.) So how could they stage A Film Johnnie beside the Keystone Studio in February during all this reconstruction? They didn’t. Rather than show the actors beside the humble grocery building as it was being retrofitted, they arrived for work instead beside the beautiful Bryson Apartments, then brand new (above right), and still standing at 2701 Wilshire Blvd. (see post HERE). That’s quite an upgrade.
With the store’s facelift completed, the aging star was ready once again for her closeups. By June 1914 the rejuvenated studio office portrayed a sporting goods shop in Chaplin’s Mabel’s Married Life, upper left with Mabel Normand, and a restaurant that September in Chaplin’s His Trysting Places, upper right with Mack Swain, and portrayed a restaurant again that November in Roscoe Arbuckle’s Leading Lizzie Astray.
The revamped office also resumed portraying police stations, here at left in Chaplin’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) with Marie Dressler, and in Arbuckle’s 1915 films Fatty’s New Role, upper right, and Fatty’s Plucky Pup, lower right. Notice “POLICE” painted on the sidewalk – it appears faintly beside Mabel’s sporting goods shop further above.
Wrapping up, in June 1914 the remodeled studio front even portrayed a dentist office for Chaplin’s Laughing Gas (above). The door mat likely covers the word “POLICE.”
So, ATC not only captures a long forgotten and revelatory early Chaplin performance, it provides a rare glimpse of the camera-shy Pathe West Coast Studios, and likely the final onscreen appearance of the Keystone Studio’s original grocery store facade. So much history hidden in a once-lost film.
Too good not to share – Mabel Normand filmed the exteriors for Mabel’s Strange Predicament (Charlie’s 2nd film) at the front entrance to the magnificent, and long lost Raymond Hotel in Pasadena (1901-1934). South Pasadena Public Library.
Thanks to the wonderful Flicker Alley Chaplin at Keystone DVD collection, and Paul Gierucki’s two releases The Mack Sennett Collection: Volume 1 Blu-ray and The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, for the comparison movie frames. Thanks too, once again, to Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives for the vintage photos.
A comparable modern view on Google Maps of the headquarters site, with the original Keystone shooting stage at back, now a Public Storage Warehouse.