The Kid

The Kid ★★★★½

CRITERION CHALLENGE 2021: 31. Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Progress: 20/52

"A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear."

A desperate, unwed mother (Edna Purviance) abandons her newborn (Silas Hathaway—to be replaced by child star Jackie Coogan in later scenes), who is eventually found by the little tramp (Charlie Chaplin). After trying to pawn the kid off onto a random matron and a fellow derelict respectively, the tramp briefly considers chucking him down a sewer (in a moment that harkens back to Chaplin's slightly malicious Keystone characterization) before ultimately opting to care for the hapless urchin. A half decade later, Purviance is a famous star who compensates for her ceaseless regret by being obsessively charitable. The highly informal nature of the relationship between the tramp and the kid leads to legal complications just as Purviance inadvertently discovers that the kid is her long lost child, culminating in a touching reunion. Also notable is a bizarre dream sequence wherein the tramp meets and flirts with a pubescent angel (preteen Lita Grey—who would become Chaplin's second wife just three years later).

By the end of 1919, Chaplin was only halfway through his million-dollar 1917 contract with First National Exhibitors' Circuit that obligated him to produce eight two-reelers over the course of eighteen months, the most recent of which (Sunnyside and A Day's Pleasure) had been regarded as relative disappointments. Well behind schedule and amid press rumblings that his star was on the wane, Chaplin decided to expand his next effort into his first feature. This meant more than simply increasing the run time, as Chaplin also significantly broadened his dramatic palette; to be certain, The Kid still brings Chaplin's comedic skills to the fore with plenty of gags and pantomime, but it also allows for a far greater amount of countervailing pathos compared to the previous short films. This might have been partially motivated by a belief that out-and-out slapstick couldn't sustain viewers' interest for an hour or more, an assumption that was commonly held at the time. Chaplin's personal biography must also have been a major source of inspiration, given that he spent much of his own childhood in orphanages and tragically lost a newborn son just months before commencing the project.

Additional points for galvanizing the legendary modernist poet Hart Crane into writing one of my favorites, "Chaplinesque"—inspired by a September 1921 viewing of The Kid.

Some stray notes:

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