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