The Kid (1921): United States – directed by Charlie Chaplin
Not rated by the MPAA – contains sad children
Charlie Chaplin’s first feature length film (though at around 50 minutes it treads the line of “feature”) is one of his most heartwarming and touching movies. The Tramp (played by Chaplin) is humorous and mischievous, the trouble-making poor man with a heart of gold. An opening title even introduces the film as “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.”
As the film opens a young woman (Edna Purviance) leaves a charity hospital with a bundle of joy, and trouble. For whatever reason, be it out-of-wedlock, an affair, or inability to feed and shelter, the woman knows she must give up the child. The film does not judge or provide explanations. The woman is in this position and the audience is encouraged to take compassion on her without blame. She soon finds an encouraging spot to leave the child: in a fancy car in front of a mansion. Surely the rich people inside will care for the child.
But a couple of thieves unexpectedly steal the car, and, unwittingly, the baby. When the woman realizes her mistake and goes back to the house it is too late. Her child is gone, as is the fancy car. The thieves are confused when they find the child and contemplate shooting it. They decide instead to leave it by a dumpster and continue their getaway.
This is when the Tramp finally appears, waddling down the dirty alleyway. At once it is clear that he has been abused by life; refuse is thrown from surrounding windows and he jumps aside to avoid it. A final load of trash hits him, causing him to stop a moment. He soon notices the child and wonders if it has been thrown out a window. His attempts to leave the baby back in the street, or with another mother with a baby in a carriage, are foiled by an earnest policeman. Eventually he realizes he is stuck with the kid.
Five years later the Tramp is still stuck with the Kid. The Kid is now one of the most adorable children ever to grace the screen. Jackie Coogan has a charming smile and a rough look to him. His clothes are filthy and ragged, but his cherubic face smiles shines through the dirt even when his smile is as mischievous as his adopted father’s. The Tramp now employs the kid in his scams, having him throw rocks at windows just before the Tramp walks by with a few sheets of glass as a window repair-man.
The mother is now a successful actress, popular and wealthy but still lamenting her long-lost child. She makes up for it by visiting the neighborhood children, giving them toys. A scene where the Kid steps out of their apartment and sits next to the Woman, who is coddling another child, is heartbreaking and poignant. The Kid and the Tramp get into other trouble, and eventually the health officials come to remove the sick child. But the Tramp loves the boy dearly and will do anything to rescue him.
The Kid belongs in the upper echelon of Chaplin films, right near City Lights and Modern Times. The story is simple, but all the more effective for being so. The Tramp’s humor (and belligerence) is endearing because it is clear he will do anything for the Kid. The Kid, too, is a great character, helping out around the house and acting as a surrogate mother to the Tramp. Scenes where they cook enormous stacks of pancakes or a bucket-load of stew are absolutely hilarious. Through all of the humor and shenanigans shines one of the most genuine and authentic stories of a father’s love for his child. There are too many reasons to recommend The Kid, one of the great early silent feature films and one of Charlie Chaplin’s best efforts.