The Kid - 1921
The Kid is written, produced and directed by Charlie Chaplin. Oh yeah, he also stars in it and worked as editor and composer of the score. This also marks the first feature length film of Chaplin’s career. He plays his trademark character, The Tramp, as he finds an abandoned child in the streets. He brings him into his home and starts caring and raising the him until life gets in the way.
Quick confession before I get started: this is my first feature length silent film. I had seen some of Chaplin’s and Keaton’s shorts in the part, but never a feature. I was pleasantly surprised how entertained I was from beginning to end and I look forward to further exploring his catalog.
This movie opens with the title card that reads, "A picture with a smile-and perhaps, a tear." That is by far the best way to describe this movie. Chaplin perfectly melded both genres (drama and comedy), never fully favoring either one. During one of the most dramatic moments of the film - the police trying to take away the child - he finds a way to inject some comedic elements to help the audience ease in to the hard images shown on screen.
Chaplin shines in his dual role of writer-director. Given the fact that this is a silent movie and the actions and motivations of the character solely depend of facial expressions and body language, the way screenplay is written and the direction that is given on set are key. The story flows beautifully as we see the characters’ relationship progressively grow. I loved the skits he intertwined in between the dramatic elements of the story. My favorite is when he uses the child to throw rocks at windows so he can fix them for a price.
Chaplin famously wrote this movie after going through some hardship in his personal life. His first wife had given birth to their first son, Norman Spencer, and unfortunately, he only lived for three days due to severe disabilities. One year later he wrote and shot The Kid. The love the Tramp has for the child is pure and heartwarming, but they are tinted with a hint of sadness due to the motivation behind them. Your heart aches for him during the scenes where the child is taken away from him, since this is his way of exercising his personal demons.
Quick note: the music Chaplin composed was simply beautiful. It drove home both the comedic and dramatic elements, helping the audience further understand the events without any need for dialogue.
The child is impressively played by one of Hollywood’s first child stars, Jackie Coogan. He was only seven years at the time of filming, but managed to steal the film from the already established movie star in Chaplin. I was completely in love with his persona. Watching him cook pancakes for his sick father was beyond adorable. But the highlight of his performance was during the scene in which he was being taken away by the police. He cries were so natural as he screamed out “daddy” in the streets as bystanders just looked in awe at the events. Even though this was a silent movie, his performance was so powerful that I heard his screams in my head and it gives me goosebumps every time I think about it.
Fun fact: thanks to Coogan we have legal protections for child stars in Hollywood. He would sue his parents for squandering his earnings, establishing the Coogan act for his fellow child actors. Coogan would later regain his fame by playing Uncle Fester in the original Addams Family series.
The Kid is the definition of a classic. It didn’t matter that it was a silent film. It didn’t matter that it was a different era or that it was limited by the resources of the times. When a film has a vision and a story to tell it will always find its audience. Chaplin stands out as a giant among giants and Hollywood of today owes him a large debt that could never be paid. Chaplin is why I love movies.
The Kid is available to by in the Criterion Collection. Worth every single penny.
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