The Kid (1921) Director: Charlie Chaplin
“A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear”
The Kid is one of Chaplin’s finest films. It is worth watching numerous times not only for the amusing portrayal of his classic “Little Tramp” character in his first appearance in a full-length picture, but also for a select group of scenes that separate The Kid from other comedy shorts. One includes the highly technical and innovative scene in which The Tramp enters dream-land and is surrounded by angels. Like The Gold Rush, The Kid is a sentimental, melodramatic comedy, and it is one of the greatest of all time.
The Kid is Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length feature film as a director and it was the second highest grossing film of 1921 behind The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse starring Rudolph “Rudy” Valentino (Valentino was the first popular sex icon in cinematic history). The Kid stars Charlie Chaplin (The Tramp) and Jackie Coogan (The Kid). It is widely considered the most autobiographical of Charlie Chaplin’s film.
An unmarried woman has a child with an artist but they soon separate. He rejects her by burning a photograph. Distraught, the woman abandons the child with a note in a parked car. Shortly thereafter the car is hijacked by two thieves who dispose of the child. The woman has a sudden remorseful change of heart. When she returns to the car she collapses in sorrow to find the car stolen, and her baby gone. Enter Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character. He recovers the baby and cares for him.
Five years later, the Tramp and the boy are living together. They spend their days getting into trouble together. The boy (now played by Jackie Coogan) throws rocks through windows and the Tramp shows up to replace them, as a fraudulent business scheme. One day, the boy becomes sick and a doctor learns that the Tramp is not the boy’s father. The doctor then takes an original note from the boy’s mother with him and he alerts the authorities.
A fight breaks out between the Tramp and the authorities who attempt to take the boy. The Tramp wins the boy from the authorities, but the mother sees the note from the doctor and tries to claim custody of her child. What follows is likely the most memorable and introspective scenes in the film. Lonely, the Tramp falls asleep and enters “dreamland.” He dreams of angels and devils as he briefly flies above ground. The Tramp is awakened by the policeman who leads him to the home of the woman and the boy. The movie ends on a note of seeming resolution -we are led to believe that the Tramp will remain involved in the boy’s life. Perhaps he will fall in love with the boy’s mother.
Chaplin’s firstborn son had died prior to production on this film, adding to severe emotional distress for Chaplin. On top of his emotional anguish, Chaplin was stunted by writer’s block and he was crushed by a failing marriage. The divorce with his first wife, the actress Mildred Harris, interfered greatly with the film’s release. So much so, in fact, that it led Chaplin and his associates to capture the original negative from her and smuggle it to Utah in coffee cans, editing the film in a hotel room at the Hotel Utah in order to protect its integrity. Chaplin later married Lita Grey in 1924 -she appears as an angel during the “dreamland” sequence in The Kid.
Unfortunately, Jackie Coogan’s celebrity stardom with the film was short-lived. After the film’s release, at age seven, he was welcomed by royalty in Europe and even the Pope greeted him, but by age thirteen he was found penniless with family troubles. Eventually legislation in the United States was passed to protect child actors, and today it is still called the “Coogan Act”. In later life, Coogan played Uncle Fester on TV’s The Addams Family. As a child, he was considered Chaplin’s only co-star to ever hit the screen. Far more material was shot for this film than any other Chaplin film, at a ratio of 53:1. Both Chaplin and Coogan developed a solid relationship both on camera, as well as off camera. Chaplin reunited with Coogan for the last time at the Academy Awards in 1972 on Chaplin’s return to the United States. Chaplin died in 1977, and Coogan died in 1984.