Tag Archives: keystone cops

Charlie Chaplin’s Days

Last night in Santa Clarita’s city council chambers, a motion was approved proclaiming Saturday, February 5, 2011 “Charlie Chaplin Day” in the city.

This was done to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the release of Charlie’s final silent film Modern Times, which was partially shot near Santa Clarita.

The early part of February often proved significant during Chaplin’s long and storied career.

Charlie was a young English music hall performer on tour with the Fred Karno Troupe when he was discovered by producer Mack Sennett and given a contract to work in the flickers. He had not yet turned twenty-five when he first stepped through the gates at Sennett’s Keystone Studios near Glendale in January, 1914.

He was immediately thrust in front of the cameras, and on February 2, 1914 made his film debut in a 15-minute comedy called Making A Living where he plays a swindler who gets apprehended by the Keystone Cops.

Less than a week later, on February 7, Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character debuted in a one-reeler called Kid Auto Races at Venice. Sennett loved to use whatever was happening in Southern California as a backdrop for his hastily constructed plots, and Kid Auto Races was no exception. A soapbox derby race was taking place down by the beach and Sennett hustled his cast and crew to Venice to capture the action. A plot was derived on the site requiring Chaplin to play a camera-crazy spectator at the races who sees the filming and does whatever he can to insert himself in the action.  

Chaplin hurriedly assembled a contrasting mélange of oversized and undersized clothing, dabbed on some greasepaint to create a moustache, doffed a derby, grabbed a cane, and just like that, one of the most enduring characters in cinematic history was born fully-grown.

Chaplin appeared in two more films over the next few days, including one that until recently was thought to have never existed.

On February 19, Charlie played a Keystone Cop in a film called A Thief Catcher. It was soon forgotten and all copies were thought to be lost. Chaplin, possibly because he was unsatisfied with the finished product, later claimed that the film had never been made.

A couple of years ago, a film historian was browsing in an antique shop in Michigan when he discovered the long-lost film. (We will be presenting A Thief Catcher, along with Modern Times on February 5 in Newhall as part of ChaplinFest. Leonard Maltin will be hosting a Q&A session with Tippi Hedren before the film. Ms. Hedren, who is most famous for starring in The Birds for Alfred Hitchcock, also starred in Chaplin’s final film, A Countess From Hong Kong in 1967.)

February 5 also proved significant to Chaplin in 1919. That was the day that he, along with film pals Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith, created United Artists.

It’s interesting that the February 5th “Charlie Chaplin Day” proclamation will be presented in a special ceremony down the hill from the William S. Hart mansion in Santa Clarita since Bill Hart would have been the 5th member of the United Artists team had he not pulled out of the deal at the last moment.

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Ford Sterling: The Forgotten Kop

Ford Sterling, behind the desk as “Chief Teeheezal,” captains the madcap “Keystone Kops.” Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is seen at the far right.

It must have been thrilling having one of the most recognizable faces on Earth, with millions of fans laughing at your films every week in nickelodeons around the world. It must have been something altogether different watching your career fizzle and dying penniless, forgotten by a world which once adored you.

This was the sad fate of Ford Sterling.

Sterling, born George Ford Stich in Wisconsin in 1883, began his show business career when he literally ran away from home to join the circus. His experience as a clown translated well to early slapstick silent film comedies, which he began making in 1911.

Sterling made 270 screen appearances during a film career that lasted for twenty-five years, bridging both the silent and talkie eras. His greatest success came in the role of “Chief Teeheezal,” the leader of Mack Sennett’s madcap “Keystone Kops,” who were extremely popular in the 1910s.

Sterling’s popularity was unsurpassed until he was replaced as the main Keystone star in 1914 by a young Englishman named Charlie Chaplin. His career flourished at other studios for many years, and the nattily-dressed Sterling maintained his reputation as Hollywood’s best-dressed man by spending fortunes on new clothes during European shopping sprees.

By the late 1930s, poor health had sapped his vitality and remaining resources, and he died penniless from a heart attack at the age of 55 in 1939. His ashes were placed in a cardboard box and interred in an unmarked crypt in a mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Ford Sterling's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6612 Hollywood Boulevard.

For the past 70 years Sterling’s legacy has been largely forgotten, but recent developments may change all that.

An unknown Keystone Kop film starring Sterling was recently discovered by a film preservationist at a Michigan antique sale. The film is generating lots of interest among film historians because of its co-star, Charlie Chaplin – the comic who replaced Sterling as big-man-on-the-Keystone-campus.

The 10-minute film, entitled A Thief Catcher, was thought to exist, because Chaplin had written in his autobiography that he once appeared as a Keystone Kop, but no one knew the title, and most historians believed it to be forever lost.

The film was reintroduced to the world at the Slapsticon Festival in Virginia earlier this month. It is hoped that the film will be released to wide distribution soon, giving legions of slapstick comedy fans a peek at a forgotten Chaplin short, and a fresh look at Ford Sterling.

And who knows? Maybe after 70 years, all those fans will get together and purchase a decent burial place for this early pioneer in silent film comedy. Who’s with me?

(If you would like to learn more about early Hollywood, check out my new book entitled Early Warner Bros. Studios)