For the next eleven days, I am going to be doing a special Chaplin in Review series which will be a Chaplin Feature review, once a day, of his eleven feature films from 1921 to 1967. Going in chronological order, the first film on the table is 1921’s The Kid.
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
While completing his obligatory two-reelers for First National in the late 1910s, Chaplin built his own studio, Charlie Chaplin Studios, and started United Artists with Mary Pickford, her husband, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith. In 1921, though released through First National rather than United Artists as many of his future features would be, Chaplin released his first feature (at least where he was in creative control), The Kid.
The film allowed Chaplin, for the first time, to develop the style that he would ultimately be known for: the comedy drama. The story starts with Edna Purviance, as a mother, who can’t keep her baby child. In hopes the child will grow up in a better situation than she can provide, she leaves the baby with a note in a millionaire’s car. However, by chance, the car is stolen and the thieves find the child, leaving the baby on the side of the street. Chaplin, playing the eternal Little Tramp, finds the baby. At first, he is reluctant to bring in the child, but in the end he does. Five years pass and we see that Chaplin and his found son (Jackie Coogan) are quite close; actually, they are literally partners in crime. The young Coogan breaks windows, while Chaplin as a window fixer comes to offer repair. In the meantime, Purviance’s character has become a wealthy star who volunteers at various charity organizations for children to cope with leaving her poor son so many years prior. When the boy falls ill, a doctor finds out that Chaplin is not the father, and orders men to take the boy. From this point on, between various authorities and a reward from the now wealthy mother for $1,000, the boy and Chaplin’s relationship seems in deep peril. The final scenes and dream sequence elucidate the mastery of Chaplin as an auteur of the film medium.
Coogan, who at the time was a vaudeville actor, became a huge movie sensation because of this film. Funny as though it may seem, the cute kid Coogan eventually played Uncle Fester on the 1960s Addams Family television program as an adult. Also, following the production of the picture, the negative became a part of a divorce struggle between Chaplin and his first wife, Mildred Harris. She tried to get rights to the picture, so in an attempt to save his “baby”, Chaplin and several colleagues went to a hotel room in Salt Lake City with the negative to finish cutting and finalize the picture. A sequence depicting this true life occurrence was produced in Keystone Cops chase vain for the biographical film Chaplin by Richard Attenborough in 1992. In the end, Chaplin prevailed, and the film nor its rights made their way into Harris’s hands.
Like most of Chaplin’s features to come, The Kid was written, directed, produced, starring and, eventually, scored, by Chaplin. Unlike many films of today that state “A ____ film” at the head credit, Chaplin’s films were most definitely his. Every nuance was closely observed by Chaplin himself and tailored to his specification. To make a film that not only, as the head credit says, is a “…picture with a smile-and perhaps, a tear,” but to do it with such a consistent mix of comedy and drama intertwined is truly an amazing achievement.
My two favorite sequences in the film are the sequence where the kid is taken from Chaplin by the orderlies under orders from the doctor and the dream sequence with the angels and demons (one such young angel being Lita Grey, Chaplin’s future wife). The absolute horror and heartbreak as the young Coogan, crying and screaming, as he is taken away from his father is touching on every level. Not giving up without a fight, Chaplin’s Tramp races over the rooftops after the truck the kid is in – arms outstretched, needing each other to go on in life. In the dream sequence, the exquisiteness of Chaplin’s ideals of good and evil come to a front between a utopian city of angels and the lecherous villains of the underworld who come to dismantle all that is good.
Even after 90 years, this film still holds all the smiles and tears that it first offered to audiences in 1921. I’m sure it will continue to stand the test of time and think this is definitely not a bad place to start with Chaplin if you are generally unfamiliar with his work.