Undoubtedly Chaplin’s finest film of the period and one of the highlights of his long career, The Kid was not only his first feature film but also in my opinion his first great work. Produced at a difficult time in the star’s life, The Kid is the first of several Chaplin films which perfectly balanced comedy, drama and pathos. His previous films had often contained at least one of these elements and earlier films such as A Dog's Life and The Immigrant had provided at least two, but for the first time in 1921, despite personal tragedy and pressure from his studio, Chaplin created his first true masterpiece.
Production began in 1919 just ten days after the death of Chaplin’s baby son Norman. Chaplin, who had been struggling creatively, was instantly hit with an idea that was to become The Kid. As his Tramp character Chaplin finds a baby who has been abandoned by a poor single mother (Edna Purviance). The Tramp ends up raising the child alone and when he is around six or seven the child (Jackie Coogan) helps his adoptive father in his window repair business. The father follows the boy around town as the boy breaks windows. Soon after being smashed, the man turns up to repair them. All is well until the boy falls sick and a Doctor realises the Tramp is not the natural father. Soon after Social Services arrive to take the boy from the man in what is one of the most gut wrenchingly moving scenes in cinema history.
It will be obvious to anyone with knowledge of Chaplin’s life that The Kid is a very personal film to its Director/Star. In a sense there is more of the real Chaplin in Jackie Coogan’s character than his own. Chaplin was taken from his mother aged just seven in Victorian London during a childhood that was fought with poverty, mental illness and hardship. Even the streets and sets which form the backdrop of The Kid have a Victorian London-Dickensian feel to them and look nothing like L.A. Chaplin’s relationship both behind the scenes and on screen with his co-star may also represent the lost relationship between himself and his own son. It has been said that Chaplin treated the young actor as though he was his own son throughout filming. As with a lot of Chaplin’s great films there was a lot of himself in the themes and the plot itself meant a great deal to him.
The obvious anguish on the faces of both actors when they are forcibly separated is one of the most incredible scenes I have ever seen on film. It brings a tear to my eye every time I see it and for me is also Chaplin’s finest hour as an actor. Jackie Coogan who is remarkable throughout the film is also brilliant in the scene. The looks of elation when they are reunited and their kiss is so heart warming to see. It really feels as though the two actors are father and son during that pivotal scene. In other scenes together they form a great comedy double act. Despite Edna Purviance’s frequent appearances in Chaplin’s films, The Kid is the only time when the star had a true co-star. And what a co-star. The film instantly propelled Coogan into the limelight and made him Hollywood’s first child star. Coogan’s acting performance is up there with the best of any Chaplin film and to be honest, with any child actor. He saw fame and money in the 1920s before falling on hardships later in life, only to have his career resurrected in the 1960s as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family, an unlikely role for the former cute kid.
Like many of his feature films, Chaplin revisited The Kid in his twilight years to create a definitive version. Along with removing some very symbolic scenes featuring Edna Purviance and Carl Miller (the kid’s parents), he also composed a wonderful score to accompany the film. Chaplin’s score works perfectly with the visuals, capturing the mood at every turn. It is also quick to change and in one early scene turns from a dramatic, slow paced sound as Purviance gives up her baby to a jolly foot tapping number with the arrival of The Tramp. Always the perfectionist, Chaplin not only went back to make changes in 1971 but in 1919-21 actually filmed more than fifty times more material than was ever used in the finished product. For the time that was an astronomical amount and goes some way to explain the length of the shoot and the concern the studio had for the picture.
I’ve never found The Kid as funny as some of Chaplin’s later films or even some of his earlier ones but the film nonetheless contains an awful lot of great comedy. Some of the highlights include Chaplin finding the baby and believing he has been thrown out of a window, the kid’s run in with a policeman and the Tramp trying to kick the kid away when the policeman is watching them. Despite some fine comedy that is liberally scattered throughout, it is the drama that takes centre stage. The pacing is also much slower than his earlier work and as a result payoffs are that much more enjoyable. The window smashing scene is one of my all time Chaplin favourites. Around the mid point of the film there is a strange and surreal dream sequence in which the Tramp falls asleep on the step outside his house. In this sequence the entire cast play angels who frolic in a flowery and bright world which is infiltrated by demons who enter the body of the characters, changing their attitudes to one another. I’ve always thought the sequence was a little out of place but enjoyed it anyway. It almost feels like an intermission for the main feature but has some nice moments.
One moment which isn’t so nice is the inclusion of thirteen year old Lita Grey who just three years after the film’s release would become Chaplin’s second wife. Charlie Chaplin was renowned for his interest in younger women and was at the time going through a divorce from his first wife Mildred Harris who he had married when she was seventeen. Chaplin spotted Lita Grey on a tour of his studio and gave her the role of an angelic temptress, making her up to look older and kissing her on screen. Nowadays actions like that would end Chaplin’s career but at the time they caused much less sensation. Even so his actions with the likes of Grey and Harris have left a big “BUT…” over an otherwise flawless career.
Leaving scandal and problems behind the scenes aside for a moment though, The Kid is one of my favourite Chaplin films and manages to combine so much that made the Actor/Director great. It is deeply personal, funny, charming and engaging and though much shorter than a modern feature, was a confident first step in the direction that would lead to his more popular and enduring work.