#221) The Kid (1921)

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#221) The Kid (1921)

OR “Waif Waif…Don’t Tell Me!”

Directed & Written by Charlie Chaplin

Class of 2011

NOTE: As is the case with Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush”, there are a few versions of “The Kid” out there. For this post I watched a restored print that has been cut to best match Chaplin’s 1971 reissue of “The Kid”. That seems to be the one Chaplin wants you to see, so that’s what I’m going with.

The Plot: An unwed mother (Edna Purviance) abandons her newborn child with a note asking its finder to take care of the baby. The child is discovered by a tramp (Charlie Chaplin) who, after a few unsuccessful attempts at pawning off the baby, grows to love him, and takes him in, naming him John. Five years later, the mother is now a successful actress whose charity work coincidentally leads to her meeting her son (Jackie Coogan) without knowing who he is. The Tramp’s attempt to raise a child in the slums without the orphanage taking John away is mixed with Chaplin’s trademark blend of slapstick and pathos.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Chaplin and calls the film “an artful melding of touching drama, social commentary and inventive comedy.” There’s also a very informative essay by Chaplin expert Jeffrey Vance.

But Does It Really?: “The Kid” is Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length film after six years of shorts, and that alone would be enough for film preservation. But it helps that “The Kid” is on its own merit a very funny and warm film. Chaplin, ever the perfectionist, has crafted a simple yet powerful story with expertly precise filmmaking. He also manages to get a performance out of child actor Jackie Coogan that is neither too sugary nor artificial. “The Kid” doesn’t get the attention some of Chaplin’s other titles get, but it deserves a place on the Registry, as well as on the Mt. Rushmore of Chaplin’s greatest accomplishments.

Everybody Gets One: The major player making his sole NFR appearance here is child actor Jackie Coogan. That adorable kid would grow up to play, and I swear this is true, Uncle Fester on “The Addams Family” TV series. Let that sink in the next time you watch this film.

Wow, That’s Dated: Gaslights instead of light bulbs. Light bulbs were around for purchase at the time, but they were still considered a sign of wealth.

Other notes

  • The opening intertitle describes the film as “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.” You could put that at the beginning of any Chaplin film.
  • As we watch an unwed mother carrying her baby away from a hospital, we fade to an image of Jesus carrying the cross. Real subtle, Charlie.
  • Carl Miller appears as “The Man” (suggested to be the father of “The Kid”) for one scene. His limited screentime wouldn’t bug me if he weren’t one of only four actors to actually get screen credit, over more prominently featured actors like Tom Wilson as the town’s only police officer.
  • Watching this film in HD brings out with great clarity the layers of makeup some actors have caked on.
  • The Tramp’s first line: “Awkward ass.” I’ve been called that before. Hell, I’ve been called that this week.
  • Yes, our lovable hero: a bum contemplating throwing a baby into an open sewer.
  • The Kid is the only major character who has a name (John). And the scene where the Tramp names him was the film’s first big laugh for me.
  • Ah man, now I want pancakes.
  • The Tramp invented the precursor to the Snuggie!
  • Ah, to be alive in the days when tough guys would wear bowler hats.
  • Surprise cameo by William McKinley as the country doctor.
  • I’m glad we as a society have veered away from the phrase “orphan asylum”.
  • Nice pre-“Vertigo” rooftop chase scene.
  • Did Mom bring her own wind machine to the police station?
  • And then we get to the Dreamland sequence. What the hell does that have to do with anything? Perhaps it’s a young filmmaker used to shorts adding another episode to his screenplay.
  • Side note: The “flirtatious angel” in Dreamland is played by Lita Grey. A few years later Ms. Grey would become the second Mrs. Charlie Chaplin. Not surprising considering that Chaplin’s first marriage to Mildred Harris was dissolving during the shoot.
  • Wait that’s it? The film just kind of ends.

Legacy

  • With the universal success of “The Kid”, Chaplin finished his contractually obligated two-reelers for First National and headed off to his own production company: United Artists. His next few features were more or less vehicles for this film’s leading lady, Edna Purviance, but he struck gold again with, appropriately enough, “The Gold Rush”.
  • Jackie Coogan became a successful child star, and then eventually played, because I can’t mention it enough, Uncle Fester on “The Addams Family” TV series.
  • “The Kid” has been remade twice…for some reason: once in 1986 as the Turkish film “Garip”, and again in 2015 by David Scott Heck, and appears to be a scene-for-scene update of the original.
  • Perhaps to avoid confusion with this film, a 2000 Disney film also titled “The Kid” was marketed as “Disney’s The Kid”. And then that movie disappeared so you don’t have to worry about it.
  • But for me, “The Kid” will always be my nickname for Chaplin’s fourth wife, Oona O’Neill. She was 18 when they wed in 1943; he was 54. We may have to rename the Michael Douglas Scale.

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