A Thief Catcher (1914)

This slapstick short from Keystone Studios stars Ford Sterling once again, but this time a bit part is played by newcomer Charlie Chaplin. The complete film has not been preserved, unfortunately, but there’s enough here to get the idea.

The footage begins in a Keystone Kop hq set, with various officers running around and arguing with the desk man. An intertitle precedes the scene with the single word “Yeggmen,” which is odd because usually this would describe criminals and not police. However, shortly afterward we do see three hoodlums, dressed roughly like burglars, having a scrape in a field (one of them is Mack Swain). Swain and his ally push the third man to the ground and take some articles from him. Ford Sterling now walks up to a tree carrying a small dog and a large box that might be a camera. From his reactions, we discern that he is close by and seeing the holdup in the field, although his background looks totally different. The camera cuts to show us the fight is taking place at the edge of a steep cliff – eventually the two ruffians toss the other fellow off from this precipice. Sterling seems to be taking pictures. He puts his hand over the dog’s mouth, giving the impression that it has just barked and given him away, and, sure enough, we see Swain look up and see someone snooping. He and his compatriot come over and Sterling makes a run for it, beginning the chase that defines the rest of the footage.

Sterling’s all wet.

The hoods now produce a gun and Sterling runs through back alleys trying to evade them. In one comic sequence, the hoods grab a large woman behind a sheet, thinking it is Sterling, and in another, a man opens his gate, not realizing that Sterling is hiding on the other side, and throws a bucket of water on him. Eventually, he drops the dog and the camera, but finds himself what looks like a good place to hide, in a shack that unfortunately for him is “the Yegg’s Hangout” according to an intertitle. At this point we get out first glimpses of a star on his chest, which has been hidden beneath his coat all along, suggesting that he was not just an innocent observer, but possibly a cop on the trail of these criminals from the beginning. Having hidden out long enough, he thinks, he tries to leave quietly, only to find the crooks standing right by the front door. He runs around the hideout, looking for a place to hide, and we get a close-up of his face peering from one room into the next after the crooks enter. Eventually, he tries hiding behind one of their jackets, which does not conceal him at all. The chase begins again, confined to the two rooms of the shack, and both bad guys now have guns. It looks like Sterling is through. They toss a coin to decide who will do the honors of killing him.

Chaplin looks like he just ate something nasty throughout the film.

One goes into the room with the gun, while Swain steps out the front door. Now the little dog runs up, seeming completely unafraid when Swain pulls out his gun and shoots at it. Now two cops come up to investigate, and one of them is Chaplin, complete with his tiny mustache. They hassle the hoods and push them around outside the shack while Sterling stays mum, for some reason, still inside. The little dog decides to dig a hole, tunneling into the back of the shack. The hole isn’t big enough for Sterling to get out, but he puts a note on the dog and sends it running. Now the cops and the robbers both come into the shack, and Chaplin is about to open the door to the room where Sterling is hiding, but he whacks him with a broom to prevent anyone coming in. For some reason, this convinces Chaplin and his comrade to leave, rather than breaking the door down to find the violent fugitive. Another mad comic chase ensues in the two rooms of the shack, with Sterling now wrestling the two ruffians to keep from getting shot. The dog gets to the police station and the cops there read the note, piling into a car to race to the rescue. Sterling resorts to biting the leg of the man who is trying to shoot him, then manages to rush out of the shack just before the cops arrive, scaring Swain back inside. Now he and his companion are scampering for a place to hide as the cops rush in. Sterling runs back with a club and hits a cop as he peeks out the front door, knocking all of them down in a heap. Chaplin walks up from behind and apprehends Sterling, and for some reason both of them faint to the ground.

Perhaps the classic Keystone Kops image – right before everyone falls over when the car starts moving.

I think a lot of the mystery of what’s missing can be explained by Sterling’s badge – he’s an undercover cop, possibly known by Chaplin and the others, and that’s why it’s important that they never see him during the various chases, and he always winds up hitting them just as he could be rescued. This device stretches out the comic tension, which on the whole works pretty well. I have a feeling that the “thief catcher” of the title is actually the little dog. Anyway, looked at as a Ford Sterling movie, this is a pretty satisfying one with a lot of action and plenty of opportunities for him to do his famous funny faces and physical reactions. It also stands up as a strong entry in the Keystone Kops series, maybe not quite as good as “Fatty Joins the Force,” but pretty much what we’re looking for in terms of frenetic action and cops getting hit. For Chaplin, it’s a less auspicious appearance, which may explain why it hasn’t been preserved or promoted by his estate. He looks rather angry throughout the movie, and somehow in that uniform he looked more like Hitler than usual to me (audiences at the time would not have made the connection – Adolf Hitler was an obscure man with a larger mustache, based on the few photos that exist). His timing for the pratfalls is excellent, of course, but not better than anyone else in the film. Watch it for Ford Sterling and the Kops, not for Charlie Chaplin.

Director: Ford Sterling

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Charlie Chaplin, Edgar Kennedy, William Hauber, Rube Miller, Phyllis Allen

Run Time: 8 Min, 30 secs (surviving footage)

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).