The Kid

The Kid ★★★★½

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

I've been skipping around haphazardly with Charlie Chaplin for no reason other than I watch what TCM puts on their channel. So I hadn't seen The Kid, his first feature length silent film from 1921, simply because I kept watching other ones first -- namely the hilarity of The Gold Rush and quite possibly one of the best films ever made, City Lights -- and all along, I had forgotten that copyright law has allowed works from the early 1920s to lapse into the public domain.

So yes! You can view this early masterpiece from Chaplin right on YouTube. I watched this version, as it appears to coincide with the "longest" cut, though there are other remastered cuts of under an hour, in particular the 1971 cut which Chaplin himself commissioned. This one, the original around just 68 minutes, is a miracle of silent film.

Directed, produced, edited, and written by its star Charlie Chaplin, The Kid is his first picture, a smash hit at the box office and setting the stage for an illustrious and legendary career. He plays "The Tramp," a character with which he would identity for the rest of his life, who finds an abandoned infant in an alley. Already, crazy happenstance procured this scenario: birthed by a single mother, ignored by his father, placed in a luxury car for a good family, yet when the car is stolen immediately by thieves the baby is put in that alley. Tramp at first takes him, them tries to give him away (or assumes a nearby woman misplaced him), only to be too guilty not to care for the scared baby. Meanwhile, the mother (Edna Purviance) could not care for the child at first, has a change of heart and desperately searches for him.

Five years pass, and now the child (Jackie Coogan) is Tramp's partner in minor crime, albeit just to get by: he breaks windows so Tramp can come in to repair them. All the while, his mother has become a wealthy star, participating in charity work to help other children and to fill the void of the child she abandoned and has never found. Though the kid and his adoptive father seem to be squeaking by life just enough, a critical moment occurs when he and the Tramp will be pushed harder than ever, and the child's mother may finally reunite with her long lost son.

With Chaplin comes pathos, and it's surely put forth in The Kid, a gentle but at times serious film that nonetheless maintains its humour in what are now timeless comic gags. However, this doesn't have the pratfalls and goofy bits nearly in the quantity of some other Little Tramp films. Instead, the comedy here is thick with charm and kindness, or at least just sweet scenes you can't help but smile and chuckle at. Numerous times, Coogan as a 5-year-old is forced to act like (or be) an adult since Tramp sure had a hard time doing it. The scene of him making breakfast and waking up Chaplin is brilliant and adorable. To be fair, before enforcement of child labor laws, there were child stars abound who were likely pushed to the edge of what they could reasonably do in film.

It must be stated though, that a personal heartbreaking note perhaps concentrated Chaplin's creative focus: his own infant son died, just ten days before filming The Kid. Knowing that fact makes the early scenes especially, but also the subsequent ones, works of profound mourning and emotion. This on top of Chaplin's own harrowing life of poverty he experienced as a child and young man make it obvious why he would have made this type of film for his first feature. Though comedy exaggerates for the sake of laughs, to Chaplin (and millions of others) this was life, and though the industry terms it as "melodrama" this was as close to autobiographical as you'll get for one of his movies.

With sparse titles, and a reliance on incredible acting from Chaplin and Coogan -- the work of Edna Purviance must be heralded too -- silent comedy-dramas don't get much better than The Kid. Tom Gunning wrote for Criterion about the film, and how the "six reels" of his first feature were the culmination of a man who, still young and with a career yet to last more than another half-century, embraced an "emotional approach" that no other filmmaker had the talent to convey with such personal artistry at the time:

If The Kid responds to tragic aspects of Chaplin’s life, it is by replacing them with a human drama of emotional bonding. The horror of abandonment, the pathetic vulnerability of an infant in a harsh world, provides the dark backdrop against which that vision stands out. Instead of denying such horrors, Chaplin learned from melodrama that hardship could be confronted and defeated. His way of defeating horror was to transform it—by converting loss into gags.

"Laugh at my pain," Kevin Hart said in his 2011 comedy special. Ninety years earlier, Chaplin had already perfected the artform.

Added to Charlie Chaplin ranked.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.

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