Another year, another Chaplin movie to talk about here on Cinematic Century. I’ll let you in on a little secret, basically from here on out if Charlie Chaplin released a film, it’s going to be my pick. And not necessarily just because it’s the only film I’ve seen that year. Because, and I’ll end up saying this time and time again during this project, Charlie Chaplin was a goddamn master of cinema. The way that he was able to weave humor, heart, drama, and occasionally some truly impressive stunts together is nothing short of remarkable. And the Kid is certainly one of his most impressive feats. Yeah, having Charlie Chaplin hanging out with a little kid is probably second only to him mining the inherent adorableness of a dog as an easy goal to accomplish, but he accomplishes it nonetheless. I briefly considered keeping the horror thing going and picking the spooky and technically innovative Swedish film the Phantom Carriage for this year, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about the Kid. Although I do highly recommend checking out the Phantom Carriage as well, because it’s a really creepy and effective film. But for now, let’s talk about the Kid.
Because this film is a true masterpiece, and has a pretty insane backstory. Because Chaplin’s own son died tragically almost immediately after birth shortly before the production of this film, which clearly resulted in Chaplin grappling with the ideas of fatherhood. And to play the adopted son of his classic Little Tramp he picked Jackie Coogan, an already prominent Vaudeville star at only six, and whose own life lead to some fascinating places, not the least of which is the fact that he had a law named after him to protect child actors. The film was then a focus of Chaplin’s divorce proceedings, almost getting taken away from him. But, eventually the film came out and was one of the most successful films of 1921, only to be later edited down so that 15 whole minutes could be removed. Which is the form I’ve seen the film in, and the form I’ll be discussing it today.
The Kid opens up with a young woman leaving a hospital, carrying her unwanted newborn. The father of the child is no longer in the picture, and the young woman has no idea what to do with her child. So, seeing no other alternative, she places the infant inside a car that’s sitting outside a large mansion, and leaves a note pleading that whoever finds the baby gives it a good life. The woman almost immediately regrets this decision, but by the time she realizes she shouldn’t go through with this, she finds that the car is gone. It turns out the car has been stolen by two men who don’t realize that there’s a baby inside, and when they finally do notice the infant they pull over and just leave it in an alley. Which is when our hero, the Little Tramp comes strolling by. He finds the infant, and at first is rather horrified. He has no idea what to do with the baby, but after several attempts to pass it off to someone else, and after having to avoid a touchy police officer, the Tramp decides to care for the baby, and brings it up to his small apartment where he begins figuring out how to be a father.
We then cut ahead five years, and see that the Tramp and the Kid are still together, and are doing great. They have a very loving relationship, and while they don’t have much money they do have each other. Which comes in handy when they start up a scam to get money, where the Kid goes around and breaks windows, and the Tramp happens by as a door-to-door window salesman. It’s a pretty good scam, and the two are able to lead a decent life, in between fleeing from that same persistent police officer. And they aren’t the only ones who are doing well, because it turns out that the Kid’s mother has found great success as a famous actress. But the guilt of giving up her son has weighed heavily on her conscience, causing her to travel around the slums, giving charitable aid to the poor children. Which is when she stumbles upon the Kid, giving us an accidental reunion. Neither of them are aware of the situation though, so all the woman knows about the Kid is that he’s sick.
The Tramp also learns that the Kid has become sick, and does what any father would do, and calls a doctor to help. However, they run into a problem when the doctor starts to ask a lot of awkward questions about the Kid’s parentage. The Tramp tells him the truth, and gives the doctor the note that he found on the Kid. The doctor then leaves, and calls in some representatives of the State to come remove the Kid from the Tramp’s care. They do succeed in taking the Kid from the apartment, but the Tramp is able to chase after their car, running on rooftops until he finally scares off the orphanage people, and saves his son. They then hide out in a flophouse for the evening, when another wrinkle is added to the story. Because the woman has gone back to check on the Kid, and the doctor tells her all about the story, and even shows her the note. Which she of course recognizes as her own note. She puts out a reward for the return of the Kid, which the proprietor of the flophouse sees. He kidnaps the Kid, and brings him back to his mother, while the Tramp is left on his own. He briefly has a weird dream full of angels and death, but is then woken up by that policeman who has hounded him the whole movie. But he’s here with good news this time, and the policeman brings the Tramp to the home of the woman, where he’s welcomed into her home, seemingly so he can still be part of the Kid’s life.
This film really is a tremendous experience. Chaplin is in his usual form, performing his stunts and gags with aplomb. And little Jackie Coogan really is delightful, holding his own against one of comedy’s biggest juggernauts. The two of them have remarkable chemistry, and you really do get a feeling of familial affection from the two. And it’s all there holding up one of Chaplin’s most personal and heartbreaking stories. There’s a weird thing about Chaplin films, where I’m not exactly sure how much canon there is. Chaplin movies almost always start with the Tramp in his same place, while he usually ends in a better situation. So I don’t know if the Tramp loses everything each time, or if none of these little adventures are actually linked, which really will change if this film feels like a good or a bad ending. But, regardless of that, this is still a tremendously entertaining film, and I highly recommend giving it a watch.
Charlie Chaplin really and truly was the master at blending comedy and drama. It seems to easy to falter on one or the other, getting too fixated on the comedy and deflating the emotional impact of the drama, or being so dramatic that the comedy comes off as forced. But Chaplin was able to combine a truly dramatic story with his usual blend of slapstick comedy. This film begins with a title card that reads “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.” And that’s what this film accomplishes. That’s what Chaplin’s whole career accomplishes. Chaplin took the horrible experience of having his first son die shortly after birth, and worked out that pain with the Little Tramp. We see the Tramp have fatherhood thrust upon him, and he’s not quite sure what to do about it. But he gets a hang of it, and eventually comes to love being a father more than anything in the world. Which is when his child is taken from him. You can see Chaplin working through his fears and wishes regarding the child he lost, struggling to understand if he could have been a good father, while living out some wish-fulfillment of being reunited with his son. And yet, through that all, our spirits are lifted. We see jokes, stunts, and all manner of gags, making us laugh, and cry.
The Kid was written by directed by Charlie Chaplin and released by First National, 1921.
Categories: Cinematic Century