US (1921) Dir. Charles Chaplin
Confession time – I’ve never really “got” Chaplin although to be fair I’ve not seen any of his works aside from clips in documentaries and one short film which didn’t do anything for me. For whatever reason, I never took to Chaplin as I did his contemporaries Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
With his celebrated first feature length film The Kid being released on Blu-ray I decided this would be my official first foray into exploring Chaplin’s works. The story is achingly simple – a young woman (Edna Purviance) gives birth to a child which she cannot raise on her own so she leaves him in the back of a car outside a posh house which is stolen by two hoodlums who later ditch him by the road. The baby is discovered by a tramp (Chaplin) who ends up taking him home with him. Five years later he and the boy (Jackie Coogan) are as close as ever but the meddling authorities seem to think the kid is better off in an orphanage.
Quite often the stories in early silent cinema were rather basic with comedy films having the most functional plots of all, relying on stunts and slapstick silliness to carry the entertainment mantle. The Kid is demonstrably no different but by the same token the plot didn’t need to be complex as the film is carried by the emotional manipulation born from the plight of the titular foundling and his relationship with his surrogate father.
While the dramas of the period would make a huge deal out of a socially sensitive issue like this, comedies were free to approach their subjects from a different angle, relieved of the apparent responsibility to maintain the moral status quo and Chaplin seems to have embraced this with The Kid. Silent comedy shorts were often vehicles purely to showcase the star bumble and fall about, so the shift to a feature length film meant there needed to be a deeper reason for the start to fall over.
Chaplin’s Little Tramp character was already well established by 1921, as a resourceful but unfortunate figure who either miraculously landed on his feet or ended up to his neck in it. He always had a heart though and was on the side of the just, so this portrayal of him in a position of responsibility might have been a surprise but at the same time, a natural progression.
After the mawkish opening the comedy begins in earnest when the tramp has the little baby in his tiny first floor room, lying in a makeshift hammock and drinking milk from a small teapot! The Tramp is sitting next to the baby cutting up an old towel to make nappies, before turning his attention to an old chair which he turns into a commode. He may have nothing but he is sharing it all with the poor child.
Now aged five the Kid spends his days throwing rocks through windows which the Tramp then replaces to earn a crust, until the police get wise to their scam. Meanwhile the mother is now a celebrated star living in luxury but she still has a hole in her heart which she fills by doing charity work. As it happens her latest rounds see her in the same area as the Kid, unaware that the little chap she gave a toy and ball to was the son she left behind five years earlier.
This is where the spanner hits the fan for the duo and the emotional drama is ramped up as the Tramp fights to keep the Kid by his side. Even by today’s standards of deftly nuanced tear jerking in cinema there are two excruciatingly touching key scenes instigated by this separation which tug mercilessly at the heartstrings. The beauty of these scenes is that they were not overplayed as they would have been in a drama, perhaps suggesting Chaplin was in the wrong game.
The feature length label feels a tad generous as the film is only 52 minutes long but it was an extra thirty minutes Chaplin had to write for within the same story, which would explain the comic fight scene between the Kid and an older bully which became the Tramp versus the bully’s brother, and the dream sequence ahead of the final act. While ripe with some prime comic moments this felt a little incongruous but is historically significant as its features Chaplin’s future second wife Lita Grey – although she was just 12 years-old at the time!
Chaplin may have been the nominal and recognised star but one has to really say that the cherubic seven year-old Jackie Coogan was the special ingredient that made this film such a touching and endearing classic. His boundless energy and acute comic timing is remarkable for one so young but his dramatic scenes are rather painful to watch as they feel so real. Coogan, as you may know, later played Uncle Festus in the original TV series of The Addams Family.
Possibly the most remarkable thing I took from this film, was how there is so much to discuss and dissect about it which tends to go unnoticed in reviews and appraisals. The story of poverty being no obstacle to providing a loving home to a child and how legal definitions can be irrelevant runs on a number of levels while the interactions between the pair also reveal little things that wealth and breeding can’t buy. It really is quite amazing who subtle and rich the narrative of this film is for its time.
I won’t say The Kid has made me a Chaplin convert just yet but I am pleased to have seen this film and to find it such a deeply affecting and rewarding work, which looks stunning on the Blu-ray release. I am less hesitant about exploring his other films to see if I can appreciate his reputed genius as others have.