The Kid (1921)
“6 reels of Joy.”
Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan
Synopsis: The Tramp cares for an abandoned child, but events put that relationship in jeopardy.
One of Charlie Chaplin’s most famous movies, The Kid was an attempt on his part to combine pathos and comedy – a marriage previously considered impossible. Chaplin succeeds admirably, largely by adding a darker edge to much of the comedy. His co-star is Jackie Coogan, an impossibly cute little kid still too young to have learned the bad acting habits displayed by many actors during the silent period. His performance is remarkably unaffected, and he shares a unique bond with Chaplin that really has the audience believing they are a loving father and son.
The film opens with an unwed mother secreting her baby in the back of a limousine in a posh area of town. However, the limo is stolen by a couple of villains who dump the crying baby in a back alley, where it is found by Chaplin’s Little Tramp. A series of misadventures result in the initially reluctant tramp taking the baby home with him and, five years later, they form a dodgy glazing outfit which involves the kid throwing stones at windows moments before Chaplin strolls along with a pane of glass on his back. Although they are poor and live in near squalor, the man and boy are happy together, but this happiness comes under threat when the boy falls ill…
Despite the emotive qualities inherent in a parent-child story, in The Kid Chaplin manages to rein in his tendency to over-sentimentalise his plot for once. In fact, he seems to have been conscious of the dangers of falling into that trap, and includes some moments of darker humour that work surprisingly well. For example, having failed in his attempts to offload the baby onto other people, Chaplin sits on the kerb to contemplate his next move. He notices a drainage grate next to his foot and lifts it pensively for a moment before finally lowering it again. It’s a funny moment, but it’s played low-key, and is over in a flash.
It’s this decision by Chaplin to hold back on the sentimentality that makes The Kid such a good movie. Sure, there’s the obligatory tear-jerking scene in which the boy and his son are forcibly parted but, for Chaplin, even that is a study in restraint underpinned by a contrasting current of slapstick humour and knockabout chases. Only the dream sequence near the movie’s end feels like a misjudgment on Chaplin’s part – it’s not particularly funny and adds nothing to the movie – but for the rest of the running time it comes as close to perfect as Chaplin ever got during the silent era.
(Reviewed 13th August 2012)