Genre: Slapstick and Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 8 min.
Release Date: February 6th, 1921 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Charles Chaplin Actors: Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance, Carl Miller
irroring the exquisite simplicity of Charlie Chaplin’s usual works, “The Kid” opens with a short descriptor: “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.” Indeed, it’s a powerful film, and the famous comedian’s first feature-length effort. It’s marked as one of the earliest to blend comedy and drama, with the more serious dramatic notes a profound benefit of the lengthier running time – Chaplin’s previous shorts generally capitalized on quick plots of pure slapstick. “The Kid” went on to amass incredible box office success, noted as the second highest-grossing film of 1921 (behind “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”).
A poor young woman (Edna Purviance) relies on a charity hospital for the birth of her baby boy, and knows he’ll share in her hardships if she keeps him. With a heavy heart, she leaves the newborn in the back of an expensive car parked along the sidewalk of a luxurious home. Much to her dismay, especially after she changes her mind and goes back to reclaim the child, the vehicle is stolen by two armed thugs with pasty, painted faces, and the crying waif is left in an alley. Along walks an unsuspecting tramp (Chaplin) who, through a series of playful mishaps (he cannot simply put it back where he found it), decides to keep the kid, naming him John.
Five years later, the hobo struggles, quite happily, to raise John (an impossibly cute Jackie Coogan) in his decrepit dwelling. He endures all the picturesque elements of fatherhood, including monitoring his son’s cleanliness, teaching prayer, and egging him on in a fight with a neighboring bully. The duo also successfully operates a scam in which the boy breaks windows for the tramp to survey and profitably repair. Eventually, poor living conditions force John and his father to go on the run. When they hole up in a flophouse, the owner, having spied a newspaper offering a $1000 reward for the 5-year-old, takes him back to his rightful mother. The tramp is determined, however, to locate and reclaim his adopted son.
Strong coincidence, or the repeated crossing of paths of significant parties, is a major theme in “The Kid,” which Chaplin would continue to use in his later silent features. These fateful occurrences also dramatically lend to the plentiful emotions Chaplin’s subject matter can wrest from audiences. A particularly heart-wrenching scene arises when the authorities take John away to be sent to the county orphanage, as a result of the tramp’s inability to properly care for a child (immortalized by an iconic production still). Perfectly aiding in every tear-jerking moment is the stirring music, masterfully orchestrated by Chaplin himself.
The typical one-man show (credited as writing, producing, starring, and directing) shares the screen with an exceptional performance by Coogan, who is just as effective with emotional manipulation through expressions as Chaplin is with affecting storytelling. The auteur also employs his technique of glancing directly at the camera as if an inside joke with the viewer is afoot, cartoonish violence with a boxing evasion gimmick that is later (and more memorably) used in “City Lights,” and a puzzling dream sequence that suggests the likely temporary state of happiness he encounters at the film’s conclusion. Satisfyingly, it ends on a bright, reassuring note that amplifies the beauty of his worthy relationship with his surrogate son.
– Mike Massie