REVIEW: Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’ (1921)

Grade: A

In the opening slide of the film The Kid it is described as “a picture with a smile, and perhaps a tear.” There may not be a kinder, more appropriate way to describe Charlie Chaplin’s first ever feature length film. The Kid is a masterful blending of Chaplin’s comic genius, which he had spent years on stage and screen perfecting, and sentimentality, reflecting the turmoil in his personal life. It has bits that would draw laughs from viewers of any age followed by moments that would melt even the coldest heart.

The film was originally released in 1921 by First National Pictures and became the second highest grossing film of all-time (behind D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation). Originally released as a 68-minute, 6-reel feature it was re-cut and re-scored in 1971 by Chaplin himself to a running time of about 50 minutes. This is the version you’re most likely to find available today. With such a short running time, the film takes no time for fluff and gets right into the story.

The story begins with a woman “whose only sin is motherhood” leaving her newborn baby in a limousine, in hopes that it will have a better life. Through a series of mishaps, the baby ends up in the hands of Chaplin’s tramp who, after realizing that he won’t be able to get rid of it, takes it home to raise as his own. Five years later the little boy, played by the great Jackie Cooper, is a spitting image of the tramp. Together they go about town trying to make a buck through a glass repairing business – the boy breaks the glass, the tramp charges to fix it.

The boy and the tramp go about their day to day activities in their shanty apartment comically mimicking one another as they cook their meals and make the bed. After getting into trouble and each of them fighting and outwitting a bigger opponent, the authorities come to take the boy away. In one of the best portrayals of emotion ever portrayed on screen there is a heartbreaking shot of the boy on the back of the orphanage truck reaching his arms out and crying for Chaplin’s tramp who is chasing the truck.

The film was somewhat inspired by real life as two year’s prior to the film’s release Chaplin’s wife gave birth to his first child who died after only three days. His sense of loss may have inspired him to create such a sympathetic tramp character who raises a boy that is not his own, in spite of his meager circumstances.

Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin have fantastic screen chemistry. The 6-year old Coogan successfully mimics all of Chaplin’s little movements that distinguish him, down to the tramp’s goofy waddle. He is outfitted with oversized overalls and a big cap, swimming in his clothes the same way that Chaplin does. They both have an acrobatic style of motion and are presented as simple, yet witty. This is demonstrated in a scene where the boy is pitted against another who is much bigger than him. Coogan outsmarts the brutish boy by ducking punches and hitting and running. This little sparring match leads to a fight with Chaplin against the big boy’s even bigger and more loutish father. Chaplin outsmarts his partner in the same way, dodging jabs and blindly throwing bricks in fear. The two fights are used to demonstrate the “like father, like son” mentality of the relationship.

There is one scene that has been criticized for disrupting the flow of the action where the tramp thinks the boy is lost forever and out of exasperation falls asleep and dreams of heaven. The dream sequence features many of the characters from earlier in the film clad in white gowns and angel wings getting along in peaceful harmony. Some demons are introduced to the paradise and one by one they convince the angels to do evil until the place erupts into complete mayhem. In such a tightly directed story, this may seem superfluous to some, but I thought it was an interesting representation of one of the film’s themes – a human being’s fall from grace. The woman who gave up the child lost her innocence in the same way that the tramp and some day the boy will lose theirs.

The film also utilizes some special effects that were considered cutting edge at the time. As angels, the tramp and the boy fly around the set without any visible wires. Also, in one of the particularly comic bits an angelic dog swoops in and out of the scene. The film is tightly edited in a way that Chaplin wants to show you exactly what you need to see and nothing else.

To say this film is one of Chaplin’s best features is like saying that chocolate is one of the best flavors of ice cream – all ice cream is great, it just has different flavors. The Kid is one of the best blends of comedy and sentimentality that Chaplin has ever compiled and is great evidence for the case that Charlie Chaplin is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Note: If you’re looking for The Kid on DVD, check out The Chaplin Collection: Volume Two. It features several of his best films as well as fantastic, in-depth special features.

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