Don’t look for references to "A Thief Catcher" in the traditional filmographies for Charlie Chaplin. But there he is in the 10-minute film playing a Keystone Cop, an unexpected discovery emerging from a flea market sale last year. Now, the film is set to have its first screening — at Arlington’s Slapsticon film festival this weekend — since it was originally presented to audiences in 1914.
"Even though he’s dressed up as a Keystone Cop, he’s still playing the famous tramp character that people associate with Charlie Chaplin," director of the film festival Richard Roberts said. "This is clearly something that he already had down pat rather than something that was just made up kind of on the fly."
Although Chaplin claimed to have invented the tramp character spontaneously before another 1914 film titled "Mabel’s Strange Predicament," Roberts said "A Thief Catcher" serves to undercut that theory because it was already well developed by the time he made "A Thief Catcher." Those who view the film at Slapsticon will see all the mannerisms of the character that made Chaplin a star.
"This is a once-in-a-generation event," founder of the film festival Rob Farr said. "The last time a major Chaplin discovery happened was in the 1970s, when a bunch of outtakes were found."
A THIEF CATCHER may have been relegated to obscurity because of its title. Another Keystone film of the era was "Her Friend the Bandit," which was later re-released as "The Thief Catcher." Because the titles were so similar, perhaps one was eliminated. Or maybe it wasn’t included because Chaplin plays merely a cameo role in two minutes of film.
"Even though he’s playing a bit part, Chaplin knows how to steal the show," Farr said. "He’s the one you’re watching."
Unlike most of the other silent film stars of that era, Chaplin did not make bold dramatic movements and outlandish facial expressions. He created a new style of subtle humanism and recognizable human emotions. It’s a brand that’s clearly on display in "A Thief Catcher," one that sets him aside from the other actors in the film — Ford Sterling, Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy.
"The plot is basically 10 minutes of them running around a barnyard and getting involved with criminals," said Roberts. "I don’t want to give too much away because there isn’t too much more to give away."
THE FILM WAS discovered several months ago by Michigan silent film enthusiast Paul Gierucki, who purchased a handful of film canisters at an antiques show. Thinking it was just another old Keystone cops comedy, he set it aside and decided to get to it later. When he finally got around to screening the film in March, he realized that this was more than just another old silent movie — it was a lost piece of history.
"This is like discovering a lost Shakespeare sonnet or an unknown Mozart quartet," Farr said. "Chaplin is on that level of being a timeless artist."