Arlington's Slapsticon festival to screen Chaplin rarity: 1914's 'Thief Catcher'

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin (Photo By Cinemaphoto/corbis - Photo By Cinemaphoto/corbis)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

A rare Charlie Chaplin film, "A Thief Catcher," discovered by chance at a Michigan antiques fair last year, will be shown next month at a local film festival devoted to comedic silent films.

The organizers of Slapsticon in Arlington said Tuesday that they believe no one has seen this film, a 10-minute Keystone Studios silent comedy, since its 1914 release.

"This is the only print that anyone knew of, and no one knew of it, until it was found," said Richard Roberts, the festival programmer. Chaplin plays a policeman but all the elements of his trademark Little Tramp character are evident, said Roberts.

It will be shown July 17 at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre.

Late last year, Paul E. Gierucki, a film historian and producer, was digging through a pile of movies at a fair. "He bought several cans of film, several for me, several for himself. It was marked Keystone, but wasn't marked Chaplin." A few weeks went by before Gierucki examined the reel. "He called me and said it looks like Chaplin. Then he scanned the film and sent it to me. It looked like him but I said, I have to see him move. Paul made a down-and-dirty digital transfer. I looked at it two seconds and said, yep, it's Chaplin," said Roberts, recalling the eureka moment.

He said they verified the identification with other film historians and then let the small niche world of silent comedy buffs know about the special find.

Chaplin, the British-born comedian, was a master of physical moves and was one of the most popular stars of the early movie industry. He joined Mack Sennett's comedy stars at Keystone in 1913.

The film was shot Jan. 5 though 26, 1914. Chaplin made a third film with Keystone that was released before "A Thief Catcher," and that timing, Chaplin and tramp imitators, and the use of a similar title of another movie have led to confusion over the years.

"This film fell through the cracks pretty quickly," Roberts said. "In the late 1930s, the British Film Institute was doing a Chaplin filmography, and 'A Thief Catcher' was dropped off. Chaplin never listed it in his own filmography. But when he was doing interviews for 'A Countess From Hong Kong,' he remembered he had played a cop." His work as a Keystone Kop had faded with all the famous work that came later."

In the short, Chaplin appears for about three minutes. "The print is in decent condition," said Roberts. The film features actors Ford Sterling, Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy.

Slapsticon, now in its seventh year, will be held from July 15 to 18. The festival serves the small niche of fans, historians and film critics who follow the earliest days of moviemaking. In recent years the festival has attracted about 200 people, but organizers hope to convert a few more fans.

The programming will also include more Chaplin and screenings of rediscovered work from Abbott and Costello, Harpo Marx and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

A Thief Catcher

screens at 8 p.m. on July 17 as part of the festival's "Chaplin Rarities" program. Visit http://www.slapsticon.org.


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