"Kid Auto Races at Venice" is a six-minute film from 1914, best known as the film that introduced Charlie Chaplin, and his “tramp” character, to the world. Also known as “The Pest,” it is about a man constantly walking into the view of a newsreel camera, filming soapbox and car races at Venice Beach, California – from his first moment on film, Chaplin’s eyes are fixed on the camera, and his audience.
The premise - and all that happens - is Chaplin posing in front of the camera, in some cases only feet from being hit by a car, before being pushed out of shot by the director, giving Chaplin multiple ways of throwing himself out of shot. Only Chaplin, the director, and the cameraman are actors, with the watching crowds of people being members of the public there to watch an actual race meeting, gatecrashed by a film crew. This is the only time Chaplin appeared as the “tramp” without anyone knowing who he was.
As improvised as it may look, “Kid Auto Races at Venice” was made to a formula established by Mack Sennett, who ran the Keystone Film Company:
- Get an idea, and follow the normal sequence until it turns into a chase
- Use no more than ten different camera setups
- Four types of film - "park films" (a cheap and easy setting); public occasions; a more formal comedy (based in a hallway, with two rooms either side, action building between them); and a combination of interior and exterior shots
You may have a one-page outline for a script, but the rest was improvised from there. This formula, established by Sennett to meet the insatiable demand for his comedy films, all one reel in length – at 11-16 minutes, this was the standard length of a film for 1914 – was stirred from the primordial soup of film language stirred by the director D.W. Griffith, for whom Sennett once worked as an actor and writer. At the Biograph Company, from 1908-13, Griffith made around five hundred short films, making whatever story he could, shaping camera shots, acting and playing different stories between scenes, before he began the push from short subjects to feature films with "Birth of a Nation" (1915). As a result, the standardised system of film editing and continuity used to this day is most often credited to Griffith.
“Kid Auto Races at Venice” sticks to this formula closely, its “split-reel length” meaning only seven camera shots were required. Within a year, Chaplin was pushing it further, directing his own films, blowing camera shots wide open with music hall slapstick, then bring it further and further in to show emotion and pathos, making for a more fulfilling cinema experience, and showing where it can go. The final shot of “Kid Auto Races at Venice”, as Chaplin makes mocking faces at the camera, is the most important of the film.