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THE KID (1921)

THE KID (1921) is Charlie Chaplin’s first real feature. He had previously appeared in Mack Sennett’s full length 1914 production of TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, but only in a supporting role. With THE KID, Chaplin was in complete control. He wrote it, directed it and played the lead role – that of his soon to be legendary “tramp” character. Developed during a series of shorts at Essanay and then Mutual Studios, the tramp was allowed full flowering in this First National Studios release. With its mixture of whimsy and heartbreak, THE KID gave audiences a richer version of the profoundly impoverished yet elegant little man who through it all sported a three-piece (though shabby) suit and a proper bowler hat. And his walking stick was always on hand to add a regal touch.

As the film begins, an unwed woman (Edna Purviance) has just given birth to a baby boy, and feeling hopeless, wanders the streets in a daze with her newborn. Chaplin emphasizes her internal struggle by cutting to a statue of Christ carrying his cross. This, the first of the film’s many spiritual references, infuses the audience with a sense of the unfortunate woman’s desperation. Desiring to give her child a better life, she leaves him in the backseat of a car in a wealthy neighborhood. But the car is stolen by a couple of thugs, who discovering the foundling, deposit him in an alley. The child has now been abandoned twice and the cruelty of existence is masterfully depicted by Chaplin. Also depicted is life’s serendipity as the next person to come along is the little tramp. Upon discovering the child, he places him along side another baby in a carriage being pushed by a matronly woman who happens down the same alley. Of course the woman balks and the tramp is left with an unwanted companion. But not before he himself tries to abandon the child – several times. He even contemplates leaving the baby in a sewer grate! Along the way he is followed by a cop who complicates his predicament considerably. These complications reveal a wicked playfulness in Chaplin and a frightful pragmatism in the tramp. Clearly, this is a deeper character than we may have previously believed.

Finding a note tucked in the baby’s blanket, the tramp is touched by the mother’s plea for a loving home for her boy. Making the best of things, he takes the baby home to his hovel and is soon a caring adopted father. A title card reveals a passage of five years and that poverty-stricken mother is now a famous stage star. The baby is now a five-year old “kid” whom the tramp calls “John” (Jackie Coogan). Chaplin’s universal compassion is nicely displayed in a scene involving another “kid” – a small black child making a delivery of sumptuous roses to the actress following a triumphant opening night. Touched by the urchin, the mother/actress shows an egalitarian kindness in her generous tipping of the boy. He smiles broadly and happily makes his exit. This sweet little vignette is at odds with so many other depictions of black Americans in the motion pictures of this era. These “Topsy” type characters, often portrayed by white actors in black face, must have been anathema to Chaplin, who as an Englishmen, was unfamiliar with America’s peculiar racial caste system of the early twentieth century.

Later this charitable woman visits the slum on a typical mission of mercy, finding herself holding a neighborhood woman’s baby while sitting on the front “stoop” of the tramp’s home. As she gazes longingly at the child, her own son sits behind her on the doorstep. This haunting moment concludes as the actress unwittingly hands her son a small toy and an apple. She is then on her way to touch other lives. Simply beautiful…

On another trip to the ghetto, the mother, who has befriended John, discovers he is ill. The tramp calls a doctor on her advice. When the physician (Jules Hanft) learns that John has never been legally adopted, the tramp shows him the mother’s note from so long ago. The doctor contacts the “Orphan Asylum” personnel who come to take the child. This gives Chaplin the opportunity to attack the cold, impersonal bureaucracy of government entities. The asylum is represented by two men: a snobbish dapper looking fellow who is clearly the boss, and his driver. The man in charge – dressed to the nines and chomping a no doubt expensive cigar – refuses to look at the lowly tramp or address him directly. “Ask him how old the child is” he tells the driver, among other commands.

When the men try to take John, a comical fight ensues in which the bureaucrat is reduced to a disheveled mess – being knocked down more than a peg or two. However, a cop arrives and the tramp is soon overpowered. John is placed in the bed of the asylum truck like so much garbage, as he pleads to God and cries out for his father. He is whisked away as the tramp scurries through a window, just out of the cop’s grasp. Climbing along the rooftops, he follows the truck, finally leaping onto the back of the truck to save the boy and escape to a flophouse. Because of a nebby proprietor who wants to collect a reward, the boy is taken away to the police while the tramp sleeps. He soon awakens however, and begins a frantic search for his son.

The mother wanting to know if John has recovered from his illness, returns to the tramp’s home just as the doctor is passing by. Unaware of her true identity, he shows her the note she left with the child five years before. She now knows the truth. Mother and child are soon reunited at the police station. But the tramp still searches…He returns home and finding the door locked, falls asleep on the door step – and dreams a silly dream. It is all about angels and innocence and love and how chaos is introduced to the natural order by Satan – or as a title card warns – “Sin creeps in.” Roses are everywhere in this dream. They line the houses and sidewalks and instantly remind us of the black child presenting the roses to the unwed mother turned actress. Carefree, the tramp flies through the air on giant wings in a visualization of the exhilaration of love – romantic and familial. The flight is also a surreal take on the tramps earlier flight over the rooftops to save his child. Highly comical, this dream scene is also potently moving – especially when a cop arrives to shoot the tramp in mid-flight causing him to fall dead on his doorstep. The image of the broken man laying in a crumpled heap at his door is amazingly shocking coming as it does at the end of such frivolity. It is also a perfect symbolic recreation of the many times cops have interrupted his relationship with John. The cop shakes the fallen angel in an attempt to revive him. Chaplin then dissolves to the same cop waking the sleeping tramp and taking him away in his police car. But he doesn’t arrest him. Instead he takes him to the front door of the actress’s mansion where he is warmly greeted by mother and child. John leaps into his arms as the cop roars with approving laughter at the sight of this heartwarming reunion. The cop leaves and the little tramp is invited inside.

A surprising subtext to THE KID is Chaplin’s apparent belief in (or at least respect for the belief in) the saving power of faith. Along with the opening shot of Christ the film also gives us scenes of the main characters saying “Grace” and praying before bedtime. The mother quotes from the Bible and of course, there is the harrowing brief prayer in the back of that asylum truck. Throughout, Chaplin shows a respect for faith that would be scoffed at by most modern filmmakers.

Also notable is the film’s visual style. Told almost entirely without title cards, THE KID finds its greatest pictorial acumen in a procession of witty pantomimes that are as surprising as they are funny. The best example of this is the blanket scene. As the tramp awakens one morning, the audience is made aware of a large hole in his blanket. He slides under the bed cloths, his head momentarily disappearing then popping up through the hole. The odd little man stands, letting the blanket fall around him like a poncho! All dressed for breakfast, he makes his happy way to the table. With moments like this in his films, it is no wonder that Charlie Chaplin would soon become, in the words of actor and close friend Norman Lloyd, “not only the most famous actor in the world but the most famous man in the world.”

CREDITS: Produced, Written and Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Photographed by Roland Totheroh. Edited by Charlie Chaplin. Music for later rerelease by Charlie Chaplin. With: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan, Jules Hanft, Jackie Coogan Sr.

June 26, 2013 Posted by | classic cinema, film comedy, film directors, film editors, screenwriters, silent film | , , , , | Leave a comment