ARLINGTON, Virginia, July 18, 2010 — -- One of Charlie Chaplin's earliest works returned to the big screen Saturday evening after being forgotten for decades.
The short, silent film, "A Thief Catcher," from 1914, holds only a brief cameo by the legendary actor shot before he became a household name in later silent films. But he is there nonetheless, playing the role of a Keystone cop with all his familiar twitches and his trademark mustache.
Film historian Paul Gierucki found the film by a fluke: The movie buff happened to be browsing an antiques shop in Taylor, Michigan, when he found the 16 mm reel hidden inside a chest. Originally thinking it was just another old Keystone comedy, Gierucki let the flick sit on a shelf for months until late one night he decided to give it a look.
"Midway through comes two Keystone cops," Gierucki said, "and one looked a heck of a lot like Chaplin."
Gierucki phoned another historian, Richard Roberts.
"[Gierucki] scanned some frames, sent them to me, and said is this who I think it is?" Roberts said.
After watching the telltale mannerisms of Chaplin, the two confirmed they were holding a missing film.
Gierucki said he was dumbfounded.
"Shock, absolute shock," he said. "To turn up something 90 years later is just remarkable."
Roberts' annual classic film festival, Slapticon, screened the movie Saturday at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater in Arlington, Virginia. It was still in its original casing when it went into the projector.
The 1914 film was only the actor's third appearance on screen, and although Chaplin already had built up an extensive theater resume he was far from the international star he would become.
Birth of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp Character?
The film also puts to rest a myth Chaplin perpetuated: that he invented his comical tramp character by borrowing a hat and pants on the way to shoot a later film, "Mabel's Strange Predicament."
Slapticon aired more than 120 movies from the silver screen era, including never-before-seen Charlie Chaplin outtakes obtained by ABC News.
"A Thief Catcher" will be released on DVD later this year, and will be historically preserved in the Library of Congress.