Today is the anniversary of the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s landmark feature The Kid (1921).
In some ways, The Kid is Chaplin’s most artistically successful film, the one time he achieves a perfect fusion of comedy and sentiment in a single story. Normally, his films have the structure of a string of beads: a series of comic set pieces connected by a plot. In The Kid, the two elements are one. As a title announces at the beginning of the picture he hopes to bring us both “a smile, and perhaps a tear.” Solving how to integrate both the smile and the tear into a unity became his principle artistic struggle.
Essentially The Kid is a mash-up of The Vagabond and A Dog’s Life (substituting five year old Jackie Coogan for the pooch). The Little Tramp finds an abandoned baby on the sidewalk and raises it as his own child. When the authorities learn about the situation they try to take the boy away to an orphanage “for his own good” in a flat-bed truck that looks more appropriate for a dog catcher than Child Services. Driven to Fairbanks-like heroism (the only such scene in Chaplin’s body of work), the Tramp runs across the housetops and jumps over a fence onto the departing truck and takes the Kid back. The reunion with the boy is one of the most moving scenes in all cinema. In the end, the child’s mother (Edna Purviance), now a successful actress, resumes custody of her son, and we are prepared to exit crying – until (as in The Vagabond) the last minute switcheroo and reunion. We get the impression that the Tramp will get to visit the boy at the very least, which is roughly what is appropriate. He has after all taught him to rob, steal and break windows; he probably shouldn’t be a father.
Since it is the new ingredient in the recipe, writers have a tendency to talk about the pathos of The Kid while forgetting to discuss another element that is perhaps slightly important: it happens to be funny. We no sooner meet the Tramp when garbage is tossed on his head out of somebody’s window. When he spots the baby on the ground nearby, he assumes it came from above with the garbage. Once he picks the infant up, it is like a tar baby. He can never put it down; prying eyes are everywhere. He winds up becoming an adoptive father not because he is generous, but because he happened to be walking down the street one day. And while we root for him as a father, and he clearly loves and cares for the boy, he is not exactly a model parent. The Kid’s most famous comic bit is probably the section where the Tramp and the Kid work as a shady team, the Kid busting people’s windows with rocks, the Tramp just happening by with panes of glass to make money by mending them. Chaplin based this section on a real life episode related to him by Fred Karno; it was a con Karno had engaged in prior to his music hall years. Another funny scene has the Tramp coaching the Kid to lose a fist fight; the tough guy brother of the Kid’s opponent has threatened to beat up the Tramp if he wins.
The gamble on “a smile and a tear” worked. The Kid was one of the greatest box office phenomena since Birth of a Nation. In the eyes of the public it put Chaplin on a par with Griffith and Demille. “…this film should go some way to revolutionize motion-picture production in this country,” wrote Francis Hackett in The New Republic at the time, “From an industry The Kid raises production to an art.”
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.