Frame still from Making a Living, 1914
NPR tells us that yesterday was the centenary of Charlie Chaplin’s first film appearance. It was Making a Living, a 13 minute short filmed on the streets of Los Angeles. It wasn’t funny.
Chaplin was a fairly successful Music Hall comedian on tour in the US as part of a travelling company. Producer Mack Sennett invited him to Hollywood and paid him $150 per week to be funny in movie shorts. Making a Living was the first but Sennett didn’t laugh.
Only a week and three shorts later (that’s how fast they were shot), he made Kid Auto Races at Venice and his future was set. It’s the first appearance of The Tramp, Chaplin’s trademark character who lasted until 1940 and The Great Dictator. He appears fully formed, the hat and cane, the ill-fitting suit, the over-sized shoes – all supposedly grabbed from the studio wardrobe. The Tramp character is basically a hobo with pretensions and in Kid Auto he’s annoying as well. He’s a camera hog who constantly stands in front of a film crew shooting a car race.
It’s a single gag shot on the street with no script, about as rudimentary as a comedy short could be, but the public got it and Chaplin was launched. Kid Auto was the vein of gold that eventually lead to Chaplin becoming more famous than Jesus and one of the highest-paid people in the world. It made sense to start out in a film called Making a Living!
“Who me?” The director at left telling Charlie to get out of the way of the camera.