Kid Auto camera

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Frame still from Kid Auto Race, 1914

Charlie Chaplin’s first film as the Tramp, Kid Auto Race, has an intriguing detail. In this shot from the film, Charlie is dangerously picking up his hat in the path of an oncoming racer. In the background a photographer can be seen shooting the race with a large camera. He’s not part of the film crew, just someone seen in the background of what turned out to be an historic movie. Presumably a press photographer from a local L.A. newspaper, he’s holding a camera that, in its own way, was also historic.

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That handle on the tall viewing hood suggests it’s an Auto Graflex, a popular press camera in its day and ancestor to the famous Speed Graphic. It was made by Folmer & Schwing, a company then owned by Kodak. This model was made between 1911-15, right at the time of Chaplin’s movie. It’s a single lens reflex with mirror and ground glass for viewing – that’s what he’s looking down at. The camera took film in the 3 1/4” x 4 1/4” format. Click here to see a You-Tube video of one.

This camera has a place in history because it was one of the main press cameras in America at a time when newspapers were booming. Printing photographs in publications was a recent innovation through the new half-tone process (those small dots you can see in published photos) and it expanded the medium into new areas – news and photojournalism in particular. Folmer & Schwing cameras were very popular with professionals and subsequent models dominated press and commercial photography for generations.

One thing about this photographer – he’s artistic. He’s panning the camera as the racer goes by. That way the background will streak while the racer stays sharp. Its an up-close action picture. You can click here to see the film – our photographer appears near the end of Chaplin’s six minute comedy.

I wonder if the photo ever got published.

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Folmer & Schwing RB Auto Graflex.

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Charlie Chaplin’s century

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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!

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“Who me?” The director at left telling Charlie to get out of the way of the camera.

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