16 January 2014

The Kid

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921).

In 1914, Charlie Chaplin stepped in front of the camera wearing a bowler hat, ill-fitted suit, and small moustache, and carrying a cane. The short was Kid Auto Races at Venice and the world was introduced to the Little Tramp for the first time.

For this centennial year of the Little Tramp’s birth, Chaplin tributes are being held all over the world. Film Forum started things off on New Year’s Day with a marathon screening of Chaplin’s major features. Being a good film nerd, I was there and watched Kid Auto Races at Venice (very funny) and Chaplin’s first feature film The Kid (1921).

The Kid opens with a distraught woman (Edna Purviance) leaving a charity hospital with her newborn baby. A quick shot of a handsome artist with a copy of her photo (which ends up in the fireplace) lets the viewers know that this is the father who is not going to be marrying the mother. Out of desperation, she leaves the baby in the backseat of a car in front of large home with a note that reads, “Please love and care for this orphan child.” She soon has a change of heart but when she returns to the scene discovers that the car has been stolen and her baby is gone, forever.

Upon discovery of the baby, the car thieves dump him in the garbage where the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) stumbles upon him. After a comic scene in which he tries to leave the baby in a woman’s stroller he decides to keep the boy and names him John. Five years later we find the two are a happy family living in a rundown, one-room apartment. The Tramp takes care of his adoptive son (Jackie Coogan), making sure his hands and ears are clean. Meanwhile the Kid helps earn his keep: he shares in the cooking and more importantly, throws rocks through the windows of houses that the Tramp can then conveniently repair.

Meanwhile, the Kid’s mother has become a famous opera singer and spends her free time doing charity work. One day while bringing toys to the poor she runs into the Kid and gives him a stuffed animal, not realizing he’s her boy. Soon after he falls sick and a doctor is called. Learning that the Tramp is not the Kid’s biological father, the doctor takes the note left by the Kid’s mother and notifies the authorities who arrive and take the Kid away. The Tramp manages to free him, and they hide out at a flophouse until the manager recognizes their description from a newspaper ad and takes the Kid to the police where his mother, who was shown her note by the doctor, is waiting to be reunited with her lost son.

The Tramp, after a frantic search for the Kid, returns to their old home and falls asleep on the doorstep and enters “Dreamland” where he and his neighbours, all wearing wings (including the dogs), live together in harmony until they are interrupted by a group of devils. Woken by a policeman, the Tramp is put in a car and driven to the woman’s house where he is reunited with the Kid.

The Kid may not be Chaplin’s greatest film but it is one of my favourites mainly because it is a story about love. Regardless of the circumstances of the Kid’s birth, there is no doubt that the Tramp and the Kid love each other like a father and son. The Tramp expresses his pride for the Kid when he accomplishes something and the Kid looks to the Tramp for approval. They may be poor but they have each other and when people try to separate them, the Tramp goes to any lengths to get his boy back.

There is a reason why the Little Tramp—a tragic clown with a huge heart—is one of the best-loved characters in film history. Chaplin brilliantly portrayed him with a wonderful mix of slapstick and sentiment that created a bond with moviegoers that continues to this day. There may have been other great silent screen clowns but none of them, including the amazing Buster Keaton, affected an audience's emotions like Chaplin.

As for the Kid himself, no one could have played the part better than Jackie Coogan. A skilled mimic blessed with comic timing, he was the perfect companion to Chaplin’s Tramp, able to make the viewers laugh at his antics one moment while causing them to cry the next. Chaplin thought so highly of Coogan that when filming of The Kid had to be put on hiatus so he could make a short, A Day’s Pleasure” (1919), he cast his young co-star to play his son. It goes without saying that Coogan was also absolutely adorable, which is a bit strange when you think that he grew up to become Uncle Fester.

The most famous scene in the film is when men arrive to take the Kid away. After a big struggle, the Tramp is restrained, his eyes filled with tears while the Kid stands in the back of the orphanage wagon, his arms outstretched, crying out for his father. It’s utterly heartbreaking and never fails to make me well-up. Chaplin was inspired to write The Kid after suffering the loss of his first born, a son, and one can only imagine the personal anguish that he drew upon for this scene.

Though set in contemporary times, there are Dickensesque overtones to the film reminiscent of Chaplin’s own haphazard childhood in London. Again, love not money seems to be the answer in this film. The poverty that surrounds the Tramp and Kid are seen as livable as long as they are together. Therefore it’s not strange that when the Tramp enters “Dreamland” his heaven is not a golden palace but his own beloved poor neighbourhood.

At the beginning of The Kid there is a title card that states “A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.” No better description could sum up this film.

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