The Kid

The Kid ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Charles Chaplin’s first official feature film is Shoulder Arms (1918), which at 46 minutes was already long for a comedy at a time when received wisdom stated audiences wouldn’t tolerate more than two reels of gags. The film has its moments, but still plays like a stretched-out short, and seems a hurried attempt to exploit the topicality of World War I. In contrast, its follow-up, The Kid, is easily Chaplin’s first truly great feature. Its story expands naturally into a running time which, although short by modern standards, was unprecedented for the genre and the time, the result of an equally lengthy production period of over a year. Far more than a succession of gags, the film builds on the social comment and emotional complexity Chaplin developed in some of his shorts, like The Immigrant (1917), to create one of the earliest examples of a Hollywood comedy-drama.

The Tramp, or as Chaplin himself referred to the character, ‘the Little Fellow’, stumbles on a baby abandoned by a desperate single mother and, rather reluctantly at first, brings him up as his own child. There’s both pathos and comedy in the child-rearing arrangements, such as a teapot with a teat as an improvised bottle. As the Kid grows up, he and the Little Fellow form a team: the child smashes windows, and the adult just happens to be on hand as a convenient glazier. But their relationship is challenged first by the authorities, when it’s discovered that the Little Fellow isn’t really the Kid’s father, then by the reappearance of the latter’s biological mother, now a successful opera singer who has offered a reward to find him.

Such was Chaplin’s charm that he could win audience sympathy in a story that challenges many of the social mores of the day, featuring unmarried mothers, orchestrated criminal damage and outright refusal to obey social workers and police. All these are shown, subtly but without preaching, as arising from the conditions of those at the bottom of an extremely callous and unfair social pile. The Victorian sentimentality that plagues some of Chaplin’s films is for the most part deftly avoided, despite the obvious temptations of the situation. Instead the director-writer-composer-star achieves a fine balance of tone: the film is often laugh-out-loud funny, but some scenes are truly harrowing.

The most obvious of these is the moment when the authorities arrive to take the Kid into care, throwing him into a van. In the Little Fellow’s reaction, the usual slapstick comic violence is replaced by genuine desperation. He escapes from the officials restraining him by taking to the rooftops and following the van from above. To do this he has to scramble across several pitched roofs, which instead of an opportunity for pratfalls become agonising obstacles, underlining the character’s determination in tackling them. His reunification with the Kid carries deep emotional punch, and the subsequent subtle exchange of glances with the van driver, which ends with the former deciding discretion is the better part of valour, is an expert piece of acting and visual storytelling.

Another key to the film’s success is the astonishingly accomplished performance by Jackie Coogan, then only five years old, in the title role. Few child performances in the long history of cinema since have been this convincing, energetic, involving or moving. The standard explanation for the obvious rapport between the two leads is that Chaplin lost his own firstborn son, born with multiple disabilities and dead after only three days, just 10 days before principal photography began, so bonded with Coogan as a surrogate father figure. But Coogan also had extensive performing experience, appearing in vaudeville with his father Jack Coogan from an early age. The promotional strapline – “A picture with a smile – and perhaps a tear” – says it all.