I must confess that I never saw a Charlie Chaplin film until The Kid, his first full-length feature—he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in it. He also composed the score, something I didn’t know silent movies had; I guess I assumed organ players picked their own music to accompany films in those days. It’s a small miracle that The Kid made it out in one piece, as its production faced some financing difficulties (http://about.bankofamerica.com/en-us/our-story/making-of-charlie-chaplins-the-kid.html#fbid=eIQZsBMJxKN) and its release was entangled in Chaplin’s divorce proceedings and studio double-dealing. It was a huge success, becoming the second-highest grossing film of 1921 (http://www.filmsite.org/1921.html) (http://www.wikiwand.com/en/The_Kid_(1921_film) ). It’s easy to see why.
I enjoyed The Kid more than I expected. I was taken aback at how well this film, nearly a century old, works even by today’s standards. It’s a beautifully executed story with elements that seem way ahead of its time. A penniless unmarried woman (Edna Purviance) abandons her illegitimate newborn in the back seat of an expensive Model-T type limo parked in front of a mansion. Two gangsters who steal the limo pull over and dump the baby among some trash in an alley when they discover him crying. The tramp (Chaplin) happens upon him. After a few failed attempts to pawn off the baby on someone else, he finds a note inside his blanket, begging whoever finds him “to love and care for this orphan child.” The tramp takes him in, names him “John,” and raises him as his own in the tenement where he lives.
Five years pass. The tramp has taught John (Jackie Coogan, who later in life would play Uncle Fester on The Addams Family) how to help him eke a living off a window repair scam. By now, the woman is a rich performer who does charity work to help the poor. She crosses paths with John, but of course doesn’t realize who he is. The tramp calls a physician (Jules Hanft) when John gets sick and unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to separate them when child welfare authorities take custody of John to place him in an orphanage.
The Kid may very well be the first “dramedy” ever; the opening card (this is a silent picture) gets that out up front, revealing it to be “[a] picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.” Chaplin’s trademark slapstick is a prominent ingredient, but he infuses serious drama into the story. The opening sequence that tells us about John’s parents is tragic, but it doesn’t compare to the scene in which the child welfare authority agents take John away from the tramp: the kid is in tears, desperately reaching out of the truck for the tramp to rescue him. Soon, the tramp is running after the truck in an intense rooftop chase and ultimately gets to it, pulling John out of the back. You feel every rush of emotion the characters do—amazing considering it’s accomplished without sound or words. Chaplin and Coogan adeptly convey feelings with simple body movements, facial expressions, and their eyes. Even the mundane parts of their day—like making breakfast and getting dressed—ooze a tenderness that emphasizes their bond.
I picked up on a few themes, but two struck me in particular. The first is religion, though I’m not entirely sure how to interpret it. Much of it comes from the hospital at the beginning and the notorious weird dream sequence the tramp has toward the end of the film—I found this scene curious because I’m not sure how it fits into the whole picture. The point could have something to do with a number of things: mercy, the golden rule, resurrection (this film has a few examples of rebirth and reinvention), salvation, hypocrisy, or something else altogether. The second theme is urban poverty; Chaplin is obviously making a statement about it in the way he shows authority figures—cops, child welfare agents, the doctor who turned him in—barging in on his low-status life and throwing it into turmoil.
The Kid is interesting not only for the autobiographical elements Chaplin incorporates, but also for the time period it depicts. The restored print I saw was luminous and crisp, vividly showing details from the sets (bricks on the buildings, dust in the streets, the tramp’s shabby furniture), the textures of the characters’ clothing, and even the skin tone and hair quality of some of the actors. It’s simultaneously cool and mildly creepy. The exteriors, shot mainly in Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles, remarkably capture the look and feel of a grimy Victorian city. An extra bonus was a live organ player at the screening I caught.
Speaking of Los Angeles, many of the filming locations still exist. Here’s a great blog that shows them today: https://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/how-charlie-chaplin-filmed-the-kid-2/.
The Kid is more complex that it looks. It’s thoroughly satisfying on multiple levels: narrative, visual, social, and historical. I’m thrilled I had an opportunity to see it on the big screen.
In 2011, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Kid “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).
(Music Box) A
Full movie (with sound):