Charlie Chaplin’s Once Lost Film – A Thief Catcher

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.

Looking north – the former Pathe West Coast Studio – 1807 Allesandro, between Branden and Clifford

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.

Please help support naming the Chaplin Keaton Lloyd alley by posting a review on Google maps below. Prototype sign design – Piet Schreuders. Download a 4-page brochure HERE.

A comparable modern view on Google Maps of the headquarters site, with the original Keystone shooting stage at back, now a Public Storage Warehouse.


This entry was posted in Charlie Chaplin, Edendale, Keystone Studio, Mabel Normand and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Charlie Chaplin’s Once Lost Film – A Thief Catcher

  1. rangerdon says:

    One comment – it may seem strange that Keystone began in a grocery store, but such humble beginnings were not unusual. The Disney Brothers’ first Southern California studio was in his uncle’s garage on Kingswell. The brothers soon moved to a nearby real estate office on the same street.

    One gift of the real estate office’s location was that it was on the way that Ruthie Tompson walked to school. Curious, she one day watched the filming. That began a career with Disney that in some ways still going along. She’s nearly 110 now, still editing video, now in the Motion Picture Retirement home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow – that’s some story about Ms. Tompson – thank you for sharing. And thanks for reminding us about the Disney Brothers garage. It was such a remarkable time then, the barriers to entry were so low.


      • rangerdon says:

        Ruthie, who I know, would be worth an interview – although at her age she may not be doing any of those now. But she used to say that she had the longest run with Disney – when the brothers came to Kingswell Street they stayed with the Uncle. The Uncle and his wife had a new baby. So Ruthie, who loves children and animals, went over so she could hold the newborn. I think the brothers were there that day, and she met them. Later, she and her grammar school friends were used by the brothers in an Alice comedy. Years after that, Ruthie was working at Dubrock’s stables when Walt came to rent a horse. After all those years, he recognized her and convinced to go to work for him. She retired in 1975 – so she worked for Disney over a period of about 56 years.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. at sears gmail says:

    Wow John, this is so amazing to see. I live up the hill on Duane St, so development of the area fascinates me. It looks like behind the Edendale Grocery storefront was a previous storefront set back from the street, and they left the old sign up behind the new facade when it became Edendale Grocery, so changing the facade once again, must have been pretty easy. The older sign looks like it starts with W. Joseph, but hard to tell. Do you know if that building had an earlier role in the studio area prior to becoming the grocery?

    Thanks for this post, it has the best shots of the west side of Alessandro I’ve ever seen.

    Best, Andrew


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kevin Dale says:

    Just another fantastic post John! Be well❤️ – Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “…did Charlie make any other (lost) cameos during those otherwise unaccounted-for two weeks?”

    Highly unlikely. The late Bo Berglund, in the Spring 1989 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, wrote how a massive rainfall that began on Wednesday, January 12 didn’t let up for nearly two weeks. This is why A THIEF CATCHER didn’t finish until the 26th, even though production started on the 4th. The rainfall led, of course, to the creation of BETWEEN SHOWERS.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent point Michael, I agree, but couldn’t resist making this little rhetorical flourish. Do you think Charlie likely completed his debut trio of films before starting A Thief Catcher? Thanks so much, John


      • Michael J. Hayde says:

        Between Chaplin’s and Sennett’s recollections, Bo’s article and the production data in Brent Walker’s book, I’d say so. I wrote in CHAPLIN’S VINTAGE YEAR that his first day in the Tramp costume was likely Friday, January 9, for “Mabel’s Strange Predicament.” This continued into Saturday morning, until someone noticed the ad in the LA TIMES about the pushcart races at Venice that weekend. Sennett sent him, Henry Lehrman and a crew there to shoot on Saturday & Sunday, and Chaplin simply used the costume he’d already assembled – no reason not to. He returned the following Monday to work on Mabel’s film, and likely did his cop cameo immediately after finishing that. It all went bang! bang! bang! and then the rains came.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Michael J. Hayde says:

    One correction: the photo that shows the “Keystone & Broncho Film Companies” cannot be from earlier than mid-1912, as both were launched at that time, with releases beginning in September.


  6. Pingback: CHASE! A Tribute to the Keystone Cops | Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

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