The Kid

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USA, 1921

Director: Charles Chaplin

Production: Charles Chaplin Productions for First National; black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: about 52 minutes; length: 6 reels, 5300 feet. Released 6 February 1921.

Producer: Charles Chaplin; screenplay: Charles Chaplin; photography: Rollie Totheroh.

Cast: Jackie Coogan (The Kid); Edna Purviance (The Woman); Carl Miller (The Man); Charles Chaplin (The Tramp); Tom Wilson (The Policeman); Chuck Reisner (The Bully); Thelbert Theustin (The Crook); Nellie Bly Baker (Slum Woman); Henry Bergman (Proprietor of lodging house); Lita Grey (Flirting angel).



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* * *

The Kid was the first feature film that Charles Chaplin devised and directed, the longest film in which he had appeared since Keystone's Tillie's Punctured Romance seven years earlier, three times longer than the typical two-reeler at which he had specialized for six years, and almost twice as long as his other major films produced for First National since 1918. The film's greater length reveals Chaplin's expansion of his comic focus to include more powerful and more personal social, moral, and emotional material. At the centre of the film is the Tramp's relationship to Little Jackie (Jackie Coogan), a five-year-old child who has been abandoned by his unwed mother, found and raised by the Tramp as his own surrogate son. Like the mongrel, Scraps, of A Dog's Life (1918), Jackie is a smaller, alternate version of the Tramp himself—a social outcast, defined as illegitimate by the laws and conventions of organized society, able to survive because he is tough though small, mentally agile though uneducated, alternately hard-headed and soft-hearted when it becomes necessary to be either.

Chaplin transferred many of the Tramp's traits, as well as many of his own comedic skills, to little Jackie. Coogan's brilliant performance, responsible for much of the success and popularity of the film, was the first by another performer that Chaplin totally dominated and controlled, in effect creating an alternative Chaplin in a different physical guise (Edna Purviance's performance in A Woman of Paris, Virginia Cherrill's in City Lights, and Paulette Goddard's in Modern Times would be three later such transmutations). Beneath the fictional material in the film one can strongly sense the influence of Chaplin's own personal experiences—his own life as an abandoned child of the London slums, the death of his own first child, born prematurely, and the collapse of his own first marriage, at least partially resulting from the child's death.

Framing the serio-comic study of Charlie and Jackie's domestic bliss, their poor but tranquil existence vivified by love, is material of an entirely different sort. The film begins with a sequence on the unwed mother's (Edna Purviance) difficult decision to abandon her child, depicting her relationship to the callous father (a painter who no longer thinks of the woman) and to the conventional societal definitions of morality and legitimacy (fraught with explicit Christian symbolism). Whereas the woman observes a socially "legitimate" marriage that pairs a young woman with an old, rich man, her own sort of affair is considered illegitimate, even if the action resulted from love and not money. The Christian symbolism returns at the end of the film when Charlie, searching for the child who has been stolen from him, falls asleep to dream of a more pleasant place where, as in so many other Chaplin dream sequences, the painful realities of earthly existence no longer exist. In this dream, considered irrelevant by some critics, Chaplin recreates a comic version of "the Fall" as a group of heavenly angel-people, including the Tramp and all his other neighbors in the slum, fly through the now white-washed and flower-garlanded streets of a utopian city. The dream collapses and the perfect peace turns to bitter chaos when the Satanic spirits of lechery and jealousy sneak through the gates of the heavenly city. Although the sleeping Tramp is roused from this dream to be reunited with Jackie and Edna, the dream sequence suggests Chaplin's sense of the fragility and transience of the true moments of human love and happiness, only temporary escapes from the sordid realities and painful necessities of earthly life.

—Gerald Mast