Blog Directory CineVerse: Here's looking at you, "Kid"

Here's looking at you, "Kid"

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Kid, a 1921 silent comedy-drama film directed, written, produced, scored, and starring Charlie Chaplin, remains one of the artist’s most renowned and timeless creations. The narrative revolves around a vagabond who stumbles upon an abandoned infant, taking on the role of a surrogate parent. Six-year-old Jackie Coogan portrays the child, whose presence becomes an integral part of the tramp's existence, as they grapple with the hardships of poverty, the complexities of social services, and the challenges of life on the streets.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of The Kid, which occurred last week, click here.

What’s significant about The Kid is that this was Chaplin’s first feature-length film he directed and wrote—a six-reeler that spans over 60 minutes. Chaplin had been increasing his runtimes over the previous few years, but this was a gamble on his part financially and artistically that a 60-plus-minute movie would be commercially successful and embraced by the masses, which it was. (Note that the original 1921 version of the film was slightly edited by Chaplin in 1971 and given a new score he wrote; the director excised some shots and scenes he feared were too maudlin for contemporary viewers.)

The Kid is also noteworthy for its groundbreaking narrative approach, seamlessly blending elements of comedy and melodrama, at a time when the two weren’t commonly mixed. It aptly demonstrates Chaplin's knack for melding slapstick humor with poignant and emotionally resonant moments, earning it a place as one of the earliest instances of a dramedy (comedy-drama) in cinema.

Jackie Coogan's performance garnered deserved critical acclaim, too. His work in The Kid, at the tender age of six, solidified his position as one of the first major child stars in the history of film.

This work also serves as a platform for social commentary, shedding light on the trials and tribulations of the impoverished and the obstacles they confront, including the inadequacies of the welfare system. It emerged as one of the early films to address social issues through a combination of humor and storytelling.

Consider that Chaplin came from a childhood of poverty and abandonment. He had an absent father and a mother who couldn’t provide financially for her children; she was committed to a mental asylum when Chaplin was 14. The boy also was forced to serve in a workhouse twice before age nine. Additionally, Chaplin’s newborn son died of birth defects just days after being born in 1919, and he experienced a troubled marriage and impending divorce from his first wife. All of these factors contributed to the narrative, acting, and sentimental/melodramatic tone of The Kid. “The horror of abandonment, the pathetic vulnerability of an infant in a harsh world, provides the dark backdrop against which that vision stands out. Instead of denying such horrors, Chaplin learned from melodrama that hardship could be confronted and defeated. His way of defeating horror was to transform it—by converting loss into gags,” opined Criterion Collection essayist Tom Gunning.

The thematic thrust of The Kid concerns socioeconomically disadvantaged surrogacy, or the concept of a “stray adopting a stray.” Despite his impoverished position and several attempts to skirt any responsibility, the Tramp ultimately chooses to keep the orphaned and abandoned infant as his own, and he finds a way to make this arrangement work practically and financially. Even though he is not the boy’s biological father nor is he an ideal provider financially, the Tramp develops a stronger bond with young John than most dads would with their sons.

Reinvention and resourcefulness is a further collective idea espoused in this film. The Tramp is forced to get crafty and adaptive with the meager means he has. He recycles or reconfigures several objects and cleverly finds solutions to common parenting problems like the need for diapers and bottles by being quick-witted. Gunning continued: “Chaplin’s poetic response to the world relies on his ingenious redefinition of objects. Many of his gags repurpose things, transforming their uses and meanings through his inventive play with them…We see him efficiently cutting up and folding cloths for the baby’s diapers, acknowledging from the start that care includes the most basic of bodily functions. Instead of a traditional cradle, the baby hangs suspended in an improvised hammock. His nutritive needs are taken care of by a similarly hanging teapot with a nipple forced onto its spout.”

The Kid also reminds us that we are our brothers’ keepers, suggesting that, regardless of our station in life or lack of resources, we have a responsibility to step up and help those less fortunate, the emotional rewards for which can be priceless. Per film essayist Audrey Fox: “It’s a tremendously optimistic view of humanity, that a reclusive and antisocial person who is perhaps least likely to seek to protect the herd would nonetheless make the choice to care for a small, helpless child for no other reason than instinctual compassion. This raw empathy is why “The Kid” remains Chaplin’s most emotionally complex film, and how his simple story of would-be father and son has maintained its relevance for a century.”

Additionally, this movie stresses that maintaining a traditional family dynamic is often in a child’s best interest. Remember that the Tramp is, in reality, a con artist by necessity who trains his child in the business of bilking customers who wouldn’t otherwise need his products and services. Like a Jean Valjean who would steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, the Tramp remains sympathetic to us because of his low socioeconomic underdog status and the fact that he chose to unofficially adopt John when he didn’t have to. But this hardscrabble life likely would have led to a lack of opportunities and higher risks for John growing up. It’s fortunate, then, that he is reunited with his mother by the conclusion of the story and that she allows the Tramp to presumably remain in John’s life, although we don’t know to what extent. John will assumedly be safer, healthier, and better advantaged under her roof while also, hopefully, benefitting from a continued relationship with the Tramp. Fox added: “It’s crucial to the impact of the story that the Tramp’s way to earn a living lies outside the law: it further highlights how removed he is from a traditional community and creates a natural conflict within the narrative. The life he can provide for his child is loving, but is that enough?”

Similar works

  • A Dog’s Life, a short also by Chaplin
  • Paper Moon
  • Sidewalk Stories
  • A Perfect World
  • Little Miss Marker
  • News of the World
  • The Midnight Sky
  • Up
  • The Mandalorian
  •  Leon: The Professional
  • Kramer vs. Kramer

Other feature films by Chaplin

  • The Gold Rush
  • The Circus
  • City Lights
  • Modern Times
  • The Great Dictator
  • Limelight

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