Retro Review: The Kid
This silent film by Charlie Chaplin is a work in three parts. Some of it is amazing, some of it is mundane, and some of it is just plain weird. All of it has heart.
We’ve talked about Charlie Chaplin before, but mostly in context to his life. I decided to look at one of his signature films as “The Tramp”. Written, directed, and starring Chaplin, The Kid is considered emblematic of the silent film era, and was the second highest grossing film of 1921, just behind “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.
While it runs at a slick 1 hour 8 minutes, the film is jam packed. The first ten minutes are powerful social commentary. The middle is iconic The Tramp comedy, with tender moments laced into the laughs. It is when we get to the ending that things seem erratic and chaotic, with a happy ending that felt a little tacked on.
The Kid (1921)
Edna Purviance plays “The Woman”, a young aspiring actress in a tight spot. She’s an unwed, single mother, and her artist boyfriend (once again simply called “The Man”) has ditched her to follow his dreams. Scorned by society, she makes the decision to leave her child in the back seat of the nicest car she can find, in hopes that the well to do owners will show compassion on the babe. The car is stolen, and winds up in the tenement district, home to Chaplin’s irascible Tramp.
At first the Tramp does everything in his power to be free of his new burden, but he relents and begins taking care of the orphan. The majority of the film takes place five years later, with the Tramp and the Kid (Jackie Coogan) running scams, ducking the police, and forging a bond that no one can break.
Part One: Social Commentary
The first ten minutes are powerful. The Woman’s plight might as well have been filmed in 2017. It is an unflinching, unabashedly liberal condemnation of a society that brow beats a woman into having her child, only to abandon her once the child is born. It tweeks the nose of the state, the church, the institution of marriage, and the bourgeoisie that abandoned this woman in her time of need.
It is an incredible look at a time very similar to our own. The high minded haves and the crude have-nots feel like caricatures of how Liberals and Conservatives see each other today. All the institutions put on trial by this poor forgotten woman are still chugging along, apparently very much unchanged. I was captivated by this introduction to The Kid’s world.
But this film promised laughs as well as tears, so we are whisked on to part two.
Part Two: The Tramp
From pretty much the minute Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp appears on screen, we get a point by point lesson on how Chaplin dominated the silent film era. Emotive, affable, and more than a fair bit mischevious, Chaplin lights up the screen at all times. The minutiae of day to day life in this poverty stricken tenement is a rollercoaster of comedy and tenderness. Chaplin and Coogan have an amazing chemistry, in both the comedy and drama.
I thought this section dragged on a little too long, but it was amazing to see how much could be said without a word. Chaplin was the master, but Coogan was even more impressive, doing everything Chaplin did, but at a very young age. Chaplin had lost a child in real life shortly before filming, and many contemporaries thought that the relationship between Chaplin and Coogan’s characters were all the more poignant due to the loss.
From here things get, well, weird.
Part Three: The Fever Dream
The Tramp loses The Kid (despite a climactic action sequence that involved car chases, roof running, and Chaplin decking no less than three people) when The Woman discovers that her child is in fact alive and well. Returning to what’s left of his life, The Tramp falls asleep in front of his tenement and dreams. The dream is filled with angels and devils, and ends with The Tramp attempting to soar away on angel’s wings, only to be gunned down. It’s a chaotic affair, with placards giving sermons on lust, envy, good and evil in between the vignettes. I didn’t really get what it was trying to say, or why it was in this film at all.
If I had to guess, Chaplin wanted this dream to be the end of his character, who does not die, but is awoken by an officer that reunites The Tramp and The Kid as they live happily ever after with The Woman (who is now a rich and successful movie star). The religious imagery works well, if it’s a final verdict on a man that was a kind hearted scoundrel, and being gunned down would have been a last barb at a society that preached charity while it used the law to crush the poor any time they tried to rise out of their plight. The ending as it stands felt like a last minute edit to give the audience a feel good ending.
The Bum’s Rush
This film is a gish gallop of serious themes and crowd pleasing laughs held together by the dynamic duo of Chaplin and Coogan. The film is emblematic of Chaplin’s aesthetic of combining serious themes and making the bitter pill palatable with his comedic charm. It is also the silent film to rule them all, being added to the National Library of Congress for its merit and sitting at a staggering 100% at Rotten Tomatoes. It is a brisk adventure, with some missteps and odd choices, but it is certainly worth watching… Especially if you want to get the sober truth of what the “Great America” that some are trying to take us back to looks like.
*In one last bit of errata, Coogan became Hollywood’s first bona-fide child star after this film, and he deserved it. Coogan would meet Chaplin one last time in 1972 when Chaplin ended his exile and came to receive a lifetime Academy Award. So life apparently does imitate art.*