The Kid (1921) Director: Charlie Chaplin
“A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear”
The Kid is one of Charlie Chaplin’s finest films. Here we are introduced to the famous “Little Tramp” character in his first feature-length picture, he previously appeared in a vast array of short films. Who is Chaplin’s Little Tramp character? As we watch him, we see an amusing little fellow –a helpless but compassionate man, an innocent dreamer– but while he strives to behave like a proper gentleman and earn the respect of high society, he ultimately misses the mark and falls far short. His coat is too tight, his pants too baggy, his shoes too large and clownish, his mustache too thick and narrow, his gait too bow-legged and awkward. Donning his bowler hat and cane, the little tramp strolls from place to place accidentally stumbling into troublesome situations, and we the audience find ourselves either laughing or crying in a blend of tragedy, comedy, and drama. Perhaps the Little Tramp is in a certain sense a reflection of Chaplin’s own personal longing for freedom –a romantic image of youth he never had, a carefree vagabond who is unconstrained by the trappings of wealth and celebrity, open to the world in all its nobility, grace, and compassion as well as its chaos, vanity, and malice.
In The Kid, an unmarried woman gives birth to a child (the woman is played by Edna Purviance, a frequent collaborator with Chaplin’s in manny of his early shorts and an occasional romantic love interest, as well). The child’s estranged father (played by Carl Miller) is an artist, but he secretly longs for his lost lover –he somewhat accidentally drops her photograph in the fireplace. After delivering her baby, in a moment of despair while sitting in a park, the woman decides to abandon the child with a note in a parked car. Shortly thereafter the car is hijacked by two thieves who dispose of the child. Moments later the woman has a sudden and remorseful change of heart –but it is too late. When she returns to the car she collapses in sorrow to find that it has been stolen, and her baby is gone. Enter Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character. He recovers the baby and cares for him (in part, due to the looming threat of a nearby police officer).
Five years later, the Tramp and the boy are living together. They spend their days getting into trouble, hoping to scrape together money for food by concocting various schemes. The boy (now played by Jackie Coogan, Hollywood’s first child star) helps the Tramp with a scam. He throws rocks through windows and the Tramp shows up to replace them in a fraudulent business ploy (there is a delightfully cartoonish fight scene in this section of the film wherein a macho-man takes swings at the Tramp, first busting through a brick wall, then bending a light post). There is also a touching scene where the boy’s true mother interacts with her son, only neither is aware (only the audience is clued in, and we begin to root for their reunion). One day, the boy becomes sick and a doctor learns that the Tramp is not the boy’s true father. The doctor then takes an original note from the boy’s mother with him and he alerts the authorities.
The scene that follows carries particular emotional weight as Chaplin personally lost his infant son a mere ten days before production on The Kid began. I imagine Chaplin’s embrace of Jackie Coogan as holding special gravitas for a grieving father. We feel the deep sorrow as the boy is taken away, arms outstretched, longing for his father; and Chaplin’s great sense of emptiness and despondence as his only partner in life has been forcibly torn away from his home.
A fight breaks out between the Tramp and the authorities as they snatch the boy. The Tramp chases them down and wins the scuffle. He flees with the boy to a boarding house but the boy’s true mother, now a successful stage performer, sees the doctor’s note and claims custody of the child. A public reward is offered for the boy, and he is once again snatched, this time in the middle of the night. The Tramp frantically searches high and low for the boy to no avail. What follows is likely one of the most memorable and introspective scenes in the film. Lonely, the Tramp falls asleep and enters “dreamland.” Here he dreams of angels and devils as he briefly flies aboveground in the courtyard outside his tenement flat. What does this scene mean? What does it add to the film? Why include this dream interlude at all? Giving a glimpse inside the sleeping mind of the Tramp shows us his innocent wish to be reunited with the boy, as well as his own view of the world as a cruel and calloused place. It begins with everyone dancing around the courtyard lined with flowers, donning feathery angel’s wings, and the first thing the Tramp does is shop for a pair of wings for himself. However, the trouble starts when “sin” enters the dream city in the form of two demonic creatures and at the same time the Tramp grows smitten with a flirtatious angelic woman (played by Lita Grey, later to become Chaplin’s second wife). She two-times the Tramp with an angel-version of the macho-fighter (who Tramp previously met in the courtyard) and a fights erupts. At the end of the dream, the Tramp attempts to fly away but he is shot down by the neighborhood policeman.
While he dreams that his lifeless corpse his being yanked by the collar, the Tramp is suddenly awakened by the policeman who yanks at his collar and instead of taking the Tramp downtown, he leads the Tramp to the home of the boy and his mother. Contra the Tramp’s dream, the policeman is actually revealed to be a compassionate person. 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 as they embrace and the door closes on their new life. Perhaps the Tramp will fall in love with the boy’s mother.
The Kid has often been dubbed Chaplin’s most autobiographical film. It is such an incredibly delightful yet somber, melancholic film. The Kid is simply impossible to ignore. With the death of his firstborn infant son, coupled with crippling writer’s block, and a failing marriage (Chaplin’s divorce with first wife, teenaged bride and fellow actress Mildred Harris, interfered greatly with the film’s release) The Kid was anything but guaranteed to be an inevitable success. In fact the film was very nearly swallowed up in Chaplin’s nasty divorce. Chaplin and his associates secretly took the original negative of The Kid, placed it in a variety of coffee cans, and smuggled it across state-lines to Utah where they edited the film in a hotel room at the Hotel Utah in order to successfully protect its integrity, as well as to prevent it from being absorbed as one of Chaplin’s assets in his divorce. Far more footage was shot for this film than any other Chaplin film, and at a ratio of 53:1. In 1971, Chaplin re-edited The Kid and composed an original score based on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (Pathétique). This is the beautiful composition we see today in the wonderful Criterion Collection edition.
Unfortunately, Jackie Coogan’s celebrity stardom was short-lived. After the film’s release, at age seven, he was the toast of high society, welcomed by royalty in Europe and even the Pope, but by age thirteen he was found penniless with mounting family troubles. Eventually legislation in the United States was passed to protect child actors, and today this legislation is still called the “Coogan Act”. In later life, Coogan played Uncle Fester on TV’s The Addams Family. As a child, Coogan was considered Chaplin’s only co-star to ever hit the screen. Both Chaplin and Coogan developed a solid relationship both on camera, as well as off. 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.