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Selected Short Subject: “A Thief Catcher” ( 1914)

"A Thief Catcher" (1914)
"A Thief Catcher" (1914)
public domain image

The tenth film on the new Mack Sennett blu ray collection.

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“A Thief Catcher”
Directed by Ford Sterling
Cast: Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Bill Hauber, Edgar Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin, Rube Miller, George Jeske.
Released February 19, 1914. Running time: 8 minutes

Sometimes the story about a film is as interesting as the film itself.

There had been accounts that while at Keystone, Chaplin took his turn playing one of the Keystone Cops. However, there was no filmed evidence of his doing so. In 2010, CineMuseum founder Paul Gierucki ran across a 16mm film at a garage sale that was marked “Keystone” so he bought it. When he finally screened what he’d bought, it turned out to be this presumably lost Ford Sterling comedy, and it was discovered that the film featured Chaplin indeed playing one of the Keystone Cops. It is incredible to see such a film, and the print on The Mack Sennett Collection, considering the circumstances, is in remarkably good condition.

Charles Chaplin was a game changer. Not content with settling into the Keystone style, Chaplin was interested in exploring beyond the parameters, adding depth to his character, and investigating the filmmaking process. He would eventually earn such opportunities. But in “A Thief Catcher,” he just has a small role and fits into the proceedings nicely.

Ford is taking photographs and manages to snap a picture of some crooks. They go after him to destroy the evidence and he evades them for a while, but when he happens to hide in their hideout, he is held hostage. His dog summons the police and Ford is rescued.

“A Thief Catcher” goes beyond being a recently discovered example of Chaplin at Keystone. Ford Sterling’s direction concentrates on a series of slapstick gags stemming from the film’s premise, with no subtle nuance or melodramatic satire. The film is a strong example of some of the better Keystone players being as outrageously funny as their abilities allow. Sterling is all flailing arms and blatant grimacing as he hides from the crooks behind a fence, and ends up getting doused with a bucket of water. Big Mack Swain is all comic menace as one of the thugs. Chaplin is poised with comic confidence as he helps to apprehend the criminals. The slapstick is strong, but never seems forced. The performances are exaggerated, but for potent comic effect.

Because of it having been lost for decades, and its historical significance as being an early Chaplin appearance, the other benefits “A Thief Catcher” offers might be unfairly overlooked. It is also one of the silliest, most gag-filled Keystones of its period, and is a good example of Ford Sterling’s style of direction, as well as yet another example of his performance skills. It is one of the funnier selections on the first disc of the Mack Sennett three-disc blu ray collection.