The diminutive figure emerges from the underbrush wearing a Keystone Cop uniform about four sizes too large. He screws up his courage by giving a very familiar wiggle of his butt, followed by a familiar wriggle of his shoulders.
He's wearing a little mustache that would soon become world famous, carrying only a nightstick and the possibility of greatness.
It's Charlie Chaplin, making a cameo appearance in a Keystone comedy called "A Thief Catcher" in January 1914, just about a month after he started working at the Edendale, Calif., studio. It's the 36th film he made in a frantic year's activity before he left for more green, not to mention greener pastures.
Until a few months ago, nobody knew it existed.
"A Thief Catcher," released by Mutual Film on Feb. 19, 1914, was thought to be among the half of all silent films lost to history. The short actually stars Ford Sterling, Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy. Chaplin appears for perhaps 2 minutes of the 10-minute film.
Finding a lost Chaplin appearance can be roughly compared to finding a lost Beethoven quartet, and you can hear many potent notes in his brief appearance. Following on the heels of a previously lost 1927 John Ford film, a Clara Bow film and others being discovered recently in New Zealand's film archives, the existence of "A Thief Catcher" proves yet again that amazing discoveries are still possible even after a hundred years.
The 16mm print was found by historian and collector Paul Gierucki at an antiques show in Michigan. Thinking it was just another old Keystone comedy, he didn't look at it for a while. He finally got around to it in early March and quickly realized what he had.
"Is this who I think it is?" he asked fellow collector Richard Roberts, sending along a frame grab.
"Probably," said Roberts, "but we need to see him move."
Once you've seen him move, there's no question who the actor is.
"Mabel's Strange Predicament," the first film in which Chaplin appeared in his famous makeup, started shooting Jan. 6, 1914 -- a day after production began on "A Thief Catcher."
"It's either his second mustache picture or his first," says Roberts. "It cements the concept that he had the character before he came to Keystone and didn't slap it together on the way to the shooting stage one day. Even when he's doing a minor part, he's doing that character. It's a new brick in the Chaplin biography. And this opens up the door to other unknown Chaplin appearances at Keystone."
Every few years, someone rushes to the media with news of a lost Chaplin film, which invariably turns out to be a familiar film with a different title. But "A Thief Catcher" is the real deal.
Chaplin wasn't a known commodity in February 1914, when the picture was released. That would come gradually over the next nine months as his starring comedies took the world by storm.
In later years, Chaplin did an unbilled cameo in a 1915 Essanay comedy titled "His Regeneration," as well as a surprise appearance as himself in King Vidor's 1928 feature "Show People."
"A Thief Catcher" will be unveiled at Slapstickon, a film convention, on July 17 in Rosslyn, Va.