in about 100 words or less
Prior to 2008, I had watched very few feature silent films. Despite that, I was well aware of the importance of Charlie Chaplin’s film legacy in popular culture, but knew very little about his films and why this odd little hobo-styled star had become a worldwide sensation in such a short time. Even after my initial viewing of The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), I still was not a Chaplin fan, preferring Buster Keaton’s brand of comedy, and mistakenly thinking that Chaplin’s use of melodrama detracted from his films. At that point, The Kid (1921) was barely on my radar, with my only point of reference being the child actor Jackie Coogan as Chaplin’s co-star. It was not until my viewing of A Woman in Paris (1923) in 2013, that I finally came to better appreciate Chaplin as a filmmaker, and not just as an actor. Having viewed every feature-length Chaplin film since then, as well as a handful of his early comedic shorts, I finally began to understand, not only Chaplin’s considerable talent, but his larger contribution to the development of film, and the value of his poignant brand of comedy.
Armed with this new knowledge and appreciation of Chaplin, I now find myself questioning why The Kid was not included on the 1001 list, and how it was possible that I had not seen this remarkable film until March 2016. This situation was remedied with my purchase of the Criterion Collection’s beautiful 4K restoration of The Kid, which undoubtedly enhanced my initial viewing of this film. The decision to include this film on my Favourite 100 list was an easy one, as it not only marked the full realization of Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, but it is, as Pickford noted in Photoplay Magazine, one of the “finest examples of the screen language, depending upon its actions rather than upon subtitles” (1924:29).
Appearing as the Tramp in his many early comedy shorts, it is his sixth film for Essanay Studios, entitled The Tramp (1915), that we see this character developing into something more than a slapstick clown that must evade the Keystone Cops. Fully realized, it is this more thoughtful character which gave Chaplin the power to make his audience both laugh and cry. In finding the delicate balance between laughter and sadness, he also established the possibility of a feature-length comedy, which set Chaplin on course to produce some of the most memorable films of the early 20th century.
In The Kid, we find a poor unwed mother (Edna Purviance) who is deserted by the heartless father of her child (Carl Miller). With few options, she decides to abandon her baby with a note pleading with whoever finds him, to love and care for him. Despite her best efforts to put her son into the hands of someone wealthy, it is The Tramp who finds her baby. Though lacking in financial means, Charlie has ample love and affection for the boy. Once this relationship is established, we jump five years into the future to find that The Kid (Jackie Coogan) has become the skillful stone throwing partner in the Tramp’s window repair “business”.
In the meantime, we learn that the mother has made herself a success, and is now involved in charity work as penance for her giving up her son. As expected, she has a chance meeting with her son, but sadly fails to recognize him. Later falling ill, The Kid is removed from The Tramp’s care by the authorities to be placed in an orphanage. Determined not to lose his son, The Tramp chases down the men who are taking him away, which leads to the emotional highlight of the film, and one of the most heartfelt moments in silent film history – Coogan’s remarkable performance crying out for his father to save him.
Eventually retrieving his son, The Tramp and The Kid become fugitives when the mother learns that the boy is hers, and has the police track him down. Betrayed by the manager of a flop house, at which they spend the night, the boy is eventually reunited with his mother, but not before we witness The Tramp’s own desperate search for his missing son. Awakening from a dream, both literally and figuratively, The Tramp is eventually taken by the police to a big expensive home, where he is reunited with The Kid and welcomed by the mother.
As the adopted boy, Coogan provides a remarkably natural and highly emotional performance which set this comedy apart from any other of its time. Coogan’s success with Chaplin also led him to become the screen’s first child star. It might also be suggested that Charlie’s personal experiences were imbued in this character. While not an orphan, he knew poverty and hardship as a child, and though audiences may not have realized, or even cared about Chaplin’s personal and artistic motivations, they now provide interesting historical understanding behind Chaplin as a filmmaker.
As a reflection of real life, Chaplin’s films are a complex blend of emotions and ideas. With The Kid, we see the beginning of a great paradox in Chaplin’s films – the juxtaposition of comedy against disturbing themes such as poverty, hunger and inequality. In doing so, Chaplin was able to expose some of his world’s injustices through a most unlikely little hero with which the masses could sympathize with, and within him, see themselves (Klaus Ming April 2016).