THIS IS THE GREAT PICTURE UPON WHICH THE FAMOUS COMEDIAN HAS WORKED A WHOLE YEAR.
Charlie Chaplin fought hard for The Kid. When he and his first wife decided to get a divorce, he smuggled the raw negative out of California in order to prevent her from interfering with his assets. He cut the film in a hotel room in Salt Lake City. When it was finally released to theaters, it was a smash box office hit.
Audiences were deeply moved by the emotional content and loved the comedy. Many subsequent filmmakers have tried to repeat the formula, but very few have succeeded.
Few films from 1921 are still in our memory, but Chaplin’s second feature film (after Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)) is one of them. It begins with a single mother (Edna Purviance) being forced to leave a charity hospital. She has no idea what to do with herself and her child and decides to leave it in a car, attaching a note for whomever might find the kid. However, the car is stolen by a pair of criminals; when they realize that they’ve also stolen a baby, they dump him in an alley. That’s where he’s found by a tramp (Chaplin), who initially tries to get rid of the baby… but he’s spotted by a police officer who thinks the tramp is trying to lose his own child and makes sure that doesn’t happen.
Five years later, we learn that the tramp has indeed taken good care of the child, named him John and raised him into a street-smart boy (Jackie Coogan) who helps him earn money; he smashes people’s windows and then the tramp shows up and offers to fix them at a reasonable rate. In the meantime, John’s mother has done well for herself as an opera star, but hasn’t forgotten about the child she once abandoned. She does charity work in the hope of finding the boy. That happens eventually, but the tramp and the child are not about to surrender without a fight.
Great rapport with Coogan
Chaplin’s status as one of Hollywood’s most popular comedians was well established at the time and the film features plenty of watchable encounters between himself and various authority figures, but they hardly rate as his funniest scenes; his early shorts are examples of that. However, he has great rapport with young Coogan who became a successful child star after this film; those who primarily remember Coogan for playing Uncle Fester on The Addams Family in the 1960s might enjoy watching his performance here. He’s utterly charming. One of the funniest scenes has him in a fistfight with an older kid; John turns out to be quite the champ and beats the living daylights out of the kid. Hilarity ensues when the tramp is confronted by the older child’s much stronger brother who tells the tramp that if his brother is once again defeated in a fistfight with John, he will go after the tramp. What happens next is very funny, not least because of Coogan’s fighting spirit.
The emotional content works because of the warm collaboration between Chaplin and Coogan; when the authorities force them to separate, we definitely feel for them. Purviance’s part is very underwritten… but it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. It’s a simple story, but highly effective; Chaplin even managed to improve on his old film in 1971 when he wrote a touching score for the reissue.
What prevents The Kid from being one of Chaplin’s very finest films is perhaps the lack of truly astonishing scenes, either from an emotional or a comical perspective. Still, as a whole his accomplishment is impressive. The film was more or less remade in my country, Sweden, in 1941 and the filmmaker missed the point entirely; sentimentality got the upper hand. Chaplin never falls into that trap.
The Kid 1921-U.S. Silent. 60 min. B/W. Produced, written and directed by Charles Chaplin. Cast: Charlie Chaplin (A Tramp), Jackie Coogan (The Kid), Edna Purviance (The Mother), Chuck Reisner, Lita Grey.