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Long lost Chaplin film to debut at Va. festival

- Associated Press - Thursday, July 15, 2010

ARLINGTON, VA. (AP) - A short silent comedy that was lost for decades holds a big surprise for film buffs and historians when a familiar face emerges from the bushes in police uniform and that unforgettable mustache.

The 1914 film, "A Thief Catcher," was missing for so many years that everyone forgot Charlie Chaplin made a brief cameo as a buffoon Keystone cop, with all his familiar twitches and gestures.

Out of nowhere, the 10-minute film turned up late last year at an antiques sale in Taylor, Mich. Film historian Paul Gierucki thought he was buying just another Keystone Studios comedy and didn't watch the 16mm print for months.

Then, in March, he saw Chaplin bumble onto the screen and slap around some hooligans in the film starring Ford Sterling, Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy. Chaplin is on screen for all of three minutes.

"Is this who I think it is?" Gierucki asked his friend and fellow film collector Richard Roberts.

He e-mailed Roberts a still image from the film.

"It might be, but we've got to see him move," Roberts replied.

Sure enough, once they saw the character's mannerisms, it was clearly Chaplin _ one of the biggest stars of the early movie industry _ playing a two-bit part in one of his earliest films.

The first public screening of the film, perhaps since 1914, comes Saturday at a comedy film festival in Arlington, Va.

Gierucki and Roberts are part of a group they call the "Silent Comedy Mafia" that organizes the annual Slapsticon festival at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater just outside Washington.

The festival begins Thursday and features as many as 120 films over four days with live musical accompaniment for the silent flicks. This year, it features previously unseen outtakes from other Chaplin comedies, a tribute to Abbott and Costello and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's first feature, a Western called "The Round Up" that featured a cameo by Buster Keaton, among others.

Gierucki, who is head of restorations for CineMuseum LLC, has plans to offer "A Thief Catcher" to a wider audience through DVDs and other festivals, though no specific plans have been announced.

The discovery is significant because it's the first film added to Chaplin's roster in 60 years.

It had been quickly forgotten. A 1938 Chaplin filmography by the British Film Institute left off "A Thief Catcher," and Chaplin never listed it himself. In the 1965 interview, the actor recalled playing a Keystone cop but didn't mention the title. Records from the Edendal, Calif., studio left out Chaplin's name.

Chaplin likely joined the cast at the last minute just because he was available, said Roberts of Phoenix, who directs the Virginia film festival.

The film also debunks a legend Chaplin created about himself, Roberts said. The former vaudeville headliner said he created the mustached "Tramp" character on the fly _ with awkward fitting clothes, a cane and a hat _ just before making "Mabel's Strange Predicament."

"This is nonsense," Roberts said, arguing that Chaplin produced "A Thief Catcher" almost simultaneously with a natural flow into the same character. "Even though he's dressed as a cop, the rest of the character is still there _ the mustache, the walk, the mannerism. ... This is a character he'd been doing for quite a while."

Other comedians claimed to have used the character before Chaplin. But that hardly matters now.

"It's a moot point," Roberts said. "Whoever created the character is meaningless. Chaplin still did it better than anyone else."

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Online:

Slapsticon Comedy Film Festival: http://www.slapsticon.org/

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