The Kid (1921) was Charlie Chaplin‘s first and most autobiographical feature film. Produced for First National, it fulfilled his ambition to move beyond shorts. Critics immediately hailed it as a masterpiece, but its reputation has since suffered due to its many flaws. Of course, no work of art is flawless and the film’s status remains intact. It is, in many ways, a synthesis of Chaplin’s previous work and the work which followed. Chaplin began filming shortly after losing his infant son with first child bride, Mildred Harris. The Kid is, in part, a fantasy about what might have been, which Chaplin wedded to his own bitter childhood memories. The film was also a blueprint for Chaplin’s work process. He took his time filming, much to the chagrin of the studio, who applied considerable pressure on him to speed up the process.
It opens with Edna Purviance as a (single) woman “whose sin was motherhood.” Chaplin, who was himself illegitimate, edits the image of the suffering woman with a shot of Christ carrying the cross. This is visual storytelling, of course, so Chaplin’s not done with the manipulation yet. Our Scarlet Letter-styled heroine sees a couple coming out of a church. The bride, looking shell shocked, is all of about 16 years old. She drops a withered flower, symbolizing her loss of virginity. Her groom emerges, a white-bearded man who is at least 70. The minister and congregation bless the wedding. Edna, empathizing with the bride from afar, is accentuated with a halo round her head as she holds her bastard son. Within a few seconds, Chaplin takes his big swipe at hypocritical American piety, puritanism, and organized religion.
Edna sees an open limousine, darts in through its door (a device he reworked in 1931’s City Lights) and dumps her shame in the back seat, with a letter: “please love and care for this orphan child.”
Now Chaplin has fun. Two robbers steal the car, find the squalling brat in the back seat, duck into an alley and dump him in a nearby trashcan. Cue the Tramp. He finds the bundle of joy and does everything imaginable to dispatch of it, including contemplating throwing the infant into a street grating. This vignette is, often, hilariously cold-blooded. Finally, the Tramp accepts his fate and unofficially adopts the Kid, christening him “John.” The Tramp ingeniously turns a tea pot into a milk bottle and, with a pair of scissors, transforms an ordinary chair into a potty training seat. Meanwhile, the grief-stricken Edna has seen the error of her ways and will, henceforth, lead a life of charity.
Five years later, the infant is Jackie Coogan: the first and probably greatest child star actor in cinema history. The Kid is dressed in oversized clothes, a reflection of the Tramp. Daddy Tramp is teaching junior Tramp the fine art of swindling, which puts them under the radar of resident cop Tom Wilson. High octane slapstick follows.
Loss of mother, poverty, fear of the orphanage, and surreal amorous escapades are all movements in Chaplin’s opus. The Tramps do get plenty of pancakes to eat with the money they swipe from gullible patrons. Little doubt this is fantasy from Chaplin’s own destitute, half-starved London childhood.
John’s fight with a bully neighborhood kid leads to a further fight between the bully’s brother (Charles Reisner, in shoulder pads) and the Tramp. Edna, now a worldwide star (!) arrives to preach the gospel of turning the other cheek. Good news for Charlie that the bully listens, and the second that said bully gets soft, Charlie takes full advantage with a brick in his hand.
When the Kid gets sick, a visiting doctor discovers Edna’s old letter and contacts the authorities. Orphan Control soon arrives and kinetic slapstick is masterfully blended with pathos. Coogan’s acting is simply stunning. Only an ice cube would remain unaffected.
The Tramp flees to a flophouse and, again, the cruelty of poverty blended with inventive slapstick is nearly seamless. What follows has long been a source of controversy: the Heaven dream sequence. Having lost his child, the Tramp dreams of heaven. The Tramp gets his wings and, it turns out, heaven’s not that different from the earthly realm. Temptation arrives in the form of 12-year old Lita Grey, whom Chaplin would marry and bitterly divorce in real life (Grey was the source of inspiration for Vladimir Nabakov’s “Lolita”). Jealousy leads to a brawl and celestial murder. To some, it is an ill-fitting surreal sequence. Yet, it is an aesthetically potent bridge to the finale, which is, thankfully, a happy one.
The Kid is, indeed, awash in mawkish sentiment. However, fused with the fierceness of street survival, apathetic institution, and surrealistic hope, The Kid is a landmark in film as visual storytelling.