This could be a long one. Charlie Chaplin is my favorite actor and I have to resist the urge to talk about him in every single one of these posts. I don’t think that The Kid is his funniest movie (that’s The Circus), his most complete film (probably City Lights), and it wasn’t even the movie he most wanted to be remembered by (that was The Gold Rush). But The Kid is, all in one movie, funny, sad, tragic and uplifting. It’s a moral tale about the relationships between parents and children and what makes a family.
Just before making the movie, Chaplin was in the middle of an artistically crippling creative block. He was unhappily married to actress Mildred Harris (unknown to most people today, she was a big enough name during the silent era to warrant a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) and was unable to come up with fresh and inventive ideas. Chaplin owned his own studio and had his entire staff on the payroll. He was in complete control of his pictures, writing, starring, producing, directing, casting, and on and on (after the advent of sound he even wrote the scores of his movies and sometimes conducted the orchestras). When he didn’t have ideas everything came to a grinding halt.
The creative block came to an end after the death of his son, Norman Spencer Chaplin. Norman was just three days old when he died. After his passing, Chaplin wrote The Kid and by the time the movie was released, Charlie and Mildred had divorced.
The movie was the first full-length Chaplin film. Charlie plays his “Tramp” character that brought him to fame in 1914 and he would portray on screen almost uninterrupted until The Great Dictator in the early 1940s (in which he made fun of Hitler for an entire film, because he’s the man). A woman, played by Chaplin’s former lover and longtime co-star Edna Purviance, leaves her baby in the car of a wealthy family hoping that it will be raised in better circumstances than she can provide. The car is stolen and the baby abandoned. The Tramp discovers the boy and raises him. They live together, swindle people to earn their living, and try to avoid the cops. Eventually the kid is taken by representatives of The Department of Children and Families (or whatever their early 20th century equivalent was called). The moments that they are together are filled with laughter and love, the moment they are torn apart is heart-wrenching.
In many ways, The Kid and Limelight (a 1952 drama) are bookends to Chaplin’s life and career (even though he had made dozens of shorts before the former and made two more movies after the latter). In Limelight Chaplin plays a vaudeville comedian at the end of his life, dealing with his own mortality, but also the mortality of his career. He must confront what happens to a comedian when he cannot make people laugh anymore. The Kid draws upon his Dickensian childhood growing up in poverty in the Lambeth section of London. It is reminiscent of his own abandonment by his father and his being taken to a workhouse when his mother’s mental instability made it impossible for her to care for him. Limelight is a drama, with some comedy, about a man at the end of his life and The Kid is a comedy with some drama, about family, childhood, and innocence. It’s also a beautiful film.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1921 that are worth seeing):
The High Sign is my favorite Buster Keaton short and a good example of why Keaton is so good compared to other film comedians. In this movie, a banana peel gets dropped on the ground and, if you have ever seen a single slapstick movie, you would assume that the next person would slip on it. But Keaton was original and imaginative and knew that movies are about anticipation. He has multiple characters walk over the peel multiple times without falling. Orphans of the Storm may represent the last great success of D.W. Griffith, perhaps the earliest example of a director reaching the height of fame. The Sheik is a must see as the star-making vehicle and iconic role of Rudolph Valentino. In many ways he set the standards for Hollywood heartthrobs to follow.
Did you know? (1921 Trivial Knowledge):
It’s not a quote in the traditional sense, because you can’t hear what he’s saying, but when the child services people come to take the kid from the Tramp, his crying out for his father is genuinely heartbreaking.
Which DVD version did I watch?
The 2-Disc special edition from the Chaplin Collection-Volume 2
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a strange film. Directed by Robert Wiene, the movie feels like a continuous dream sequence, highlighted by insanity, purposefully stylized sets, a somnambulist (that’s just a fancy way to say “sleepwalker”), and murder (that’s just a fancy way to say “killing someone”). It is also the earliest one that I know of that features a “twist ending” (take THAT M. Knight Shyamaylan!).
Considered by some to be the quintessential expression of Expressionism (did you see what I did there?), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, along with the German Expressionism movement, had a great impact on future movies, particularly in the horror and noir genres. The historical significance of the Expressionism is important to highlight. The movement was very short lived, beginning and ending in the 1920s. It features dark themes, highly stylized visuals, and a disregard for reality or realism. Many Expressionist filmmakers left Germany in the late ’20s and ’30s, bringing its influence to Hollywood. Their visual composition, camera movements, and the ambience of their style permeated the early Universal Horror movies (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.). A decade later, their use of sharp contrasts between light and dark and morally ambiguous characters would be a foundation of film noir.
This is an exceptionally interesting film visually, where characters walk through doorways with no 90-degree angles and trees look so fake they could have been used in an elementary school production (that doesn’t sound like a good thing, the way I wrote that, but trust me when I say that it works). The plot revolves around a Dr. Caligari, who is part of a traveling show. He presents the crowds with Cesare, a somnambulist who answers questions in his sleep (and is SO emo, he’s the fella in the middle in the photo above). A crowd member asks Cesare how long he has to live and Cesare responds that the man will die that night. When the man dies, his friends begin to suspect that things aren’t exactly copasetic with Cesare and Dr. Caligari and try to uncover what is really happening.
I was a little hesitant to make this the first movie that I discuss, because it certainly won’t be for everyone, but it is exceptionally interesting, the ending is truly surprising, and the movie itself has a great historical significance in cinema.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1920 that are worth seeing):
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring John Barrymore, features an absolutely amazing transformation scene and Barrymore used no makeup at all, he just ducked his head, mussed his hair, and contorted his face. The Penalty, starring Lon Chaney Sr., has one of Chaney’s most painful costumes. In order to play double amputee, he had his legs bound with his knees strapped into large cups (or small buckets, I don’t know). Mark of Zorro, starring the immortal Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. is one of the first swashbuckling movies and maintains is vibrancy today. The Saphead is the first full-length feature starring Buster Keaton, one of the greatest comedic talents in movie history.
Did you know? (1920 Trivial Knowledge):
Um, this is a silent film.
Which DVD version did I watch?
The Kino on Video DVD.
My name is Dan. I’m from Rhode Island but I don’t live there anymore. I like lots of things, including comic books, history, Rhode Island, and movies. I thought that the name of my blog, Colossus of Rhode Island, was a dreadfully clever way to indicate that I love the first three things. Colossus is my favorite X-Man, the Colossus of Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (although my historical background is more Cold War-era) and I love Rhode Island. This is a movie blog, but a movie blog with a very particular focus. Beginning with 1920 and working my way to the present, each post is going to be about a movie from that year that I think you should see. I’ll also write about other movies from that year that I liked, put in trivial facts from that year, and a favorite quote (I’ll probably wait until I’m out of the Silent Era to do that though). Here are the rules (always subject to change):
1. I am not necessarily going to point out what I believe to be the best movie from that year, just one that I think people should see.
2. I will try to highlight movies that are relatively easy to download (only legally of course), rent from your local library, or buy online.
3. I am going to try and not be too esoteric with my choices (of course, when you start in 1920, most people will think the choices are esoteric no matter what).
4. I am doing ZERO research aside from watching the movies. Obviously I learned the things that I’m going to say somewhere, but everything that I say will come directly from my brain and I may be wrong sometimes. I will doublecheck the spelling of names, etc. but other than that, I am going to completely embrace the ability to write about something that I have no credentials to write about and not back anything up with citations (which, along with the ability to act like a jerk anonymously, seems to be the great draw of the internet). If you don’t like what you read or disagree with my, that’s fine, but I really don’t care.
5. I don’t know when I’ll get around to the first post, but once I do I’m going to really try to post every week or two. That’s not so much a rule as a general idea of timelines.