The Kid (1921)

  • Time: 68 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama | Family
  • Director: Charles Chaplin
  • Cast: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan

The opening title reads: “A comedy with a smile–and perhaps a tear”. As she leaves the charity hospital and passes a church wedding, Edna deposits her new baby with a pleading note in a limousine and goes off to commit suicide. The limo is stolen by thieves who dump the baby by a garbage can. Charlie the Tramp finds the baby and makes a home for him. Five years later Edna has become an opera star but does charity work for slum youngsters in hope of finding her boy. A doctor called by Edna discovers the note with the truth about the Kid and reports it to the authorities who come to take him away from Charlie. Before he arrives at the Orphan Asylum Charlie steals him back and takes him to a flophouse. The proprietor reads of a reward for the Kid and takes him to Edna. Charlie is later awakened by a kind policeman who reunites him with the Kid at Edna’s mansion.

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  • The first feature-length film by Charles Chaplin, The Kid is like the appetizer to a sumptuous buffet characterized cinematically by later films such as The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). The Kid, as its title plainly suggests, is a story about a kid. Chaplin did not give him a name, so I will refer to him as Kiddo. Kiddo is played by Jackie Coogan, an immensely popular child actor of the pre-Depression era.

    In the story, Kiddo is abandoned by his biological mother at birth in a car outside the home of an affluent family. Circumstances arise and very quickly he falls into the hands of The Tramp (Chaplin), a down-to-earth and humble man who lives alone. True to the nature of The Tramp as characterized in Chaplin’s later works, he tries very hard to shun responsibility for taking care of the child. After a series of comical situations involving a lady with a pram and an unsuspecting policeman, he gives up and ends up taking care of Kiddo himself.

    The Kid focuses directly on the relationship between The Tramp and Kiddo. It has no other subplot which makes the film a “simple-minded” endeavor by Chaplin on the intricate bonding between two “simple-minded” characters whom we can clearly relate to. The Tramp-Kiddo construct allows The Tramp to explore his maternal side when he takes on the role as the “mother” of Kiddo. And because his paternal instincts are not strong to begin with, The Tramp faces the challenge of proving his manhood to his “son”.

    In a key scene, The Tramp sees Kiddo in a fight with a local boy. His maternal self tells him to intervene but his paternal self takes over as he teaches Kiddo how to fight. His antics are seen by the local boy’s big, always-ready-for-a-fight brother who insists on squaring against him if Kiddo wins (in which he does).

    The result is hilarious as The Tramp goes one-on-one with the burly man, the sequence itself a prelude to the boxing match in City Lights. More importantly, this scene tells us that The Tramp’s sexual identity tends toward femininity than masculinity as he adopts defensiveness as opposed to aggressiveness in the “fight scenes” in both films.

    Many have the misconception that Chaplin does only comedy. In fact, he is equally adept in dramatic exposition. He reached his peak in City Lights in an extraordinary act of balancing the rigors of both genres. The Kid is not an excellent film, but it is a fair glimpse of his talent in this respect.

    The ending leaves me puzzled as to why Chaplin did not feature Kiddo (as observed in person on screen) in the final minutes. Because if he did so, the Tramp-Kiddo relationship would have been climatically (and satisfyingly) completed after it was separated during the last third of the film. The Kid is decent Chaplin fare, but like I mentioned, it is only an appetizer to greater things to come from the legendary filmmaker.

    GRADE: B (7.5/10 or 3.5 stars)
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