The Kid (1921)


  • directed by Charles Chaplin
  • starring Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance
  • The Tramp cares for an abandoned child.

“A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.”

There are many miracles contained within Chaplin’s first feature-length film, The Kid. Yes, the oft-mentioned successful marriage of comedy and drama is one of them and this was the first time it’d been attempted so boldly. More than the innovativeness, I had the expectation that the light and dark would come in and out in waves; one exiting and leaving the door open for the other. One of the many remarkable things about The Kid, though, is that humor and heartfelt emotion are present on screen at all times, sharing the screen throughout. Even during the laugh-heaviest scene, the fight between the kid and the neighborhood bully, I couldn’t help but be affected by a detail like the way Chaplin looked at his unofficially adopted son with pride and commitment.

Something else unexpected for me was how the pacing, editing, and performances transformed the story’s overblown melodramatic elements–the basic human struggles of poverty, class, family, and loneliness—into something subtle, natural, and altogether comfortable to watch. Mostly, melodrama is used to elevate a basic story to inhabit a larger, more universal plain of emotion. Chaplin did the same, but the film defiantly remained very small and personal.

That the film felt personal is not something often said about the works of Chaplin but it’s no mystery why this one was such an exception. The man’s poverty-stricken upbringing, a recent bitter divorce, and the death of his first-born son were all events that had to have put great amounts of feeling into his performance and the story. A lot of the film’s great emotional moments arise from The Tramp either trying to find happiness and stability in the middle of dire economic straits or desperately trying to sustain the familial bond with the orphan while circumstances begin to conspire to have them separated. Viewed with the lens of Chaplin still mourning the loss of his son and marriage, the film’s most enduring scene, the contrast of Jackie Coogan’s face as he is carted away hysterically crying and that of Chaplin who turns almost rabid as he’s overpowered by authorities, is all the more heart-wrenching. There are innumerable faces and moods to the character of the Tramp, but physically intimidating and furious were two traits I’d never encountered until this scene.

With all that said, The Kid doesn’t quite live up to the perfection that I’d label some of Chaplin’s later films. It’s easy to think that a bitter divorce that compelled him to flee California in order to hurriedly edit the film in a Salt Lake City hotel room resulted in him taking his eye off the ball here and there. A surreal, nicely shot, atypical-for-Chaplin dream sequence towards the end of the film was interesting on its own, but rang out like an off-note on the whole. But more than nine decades later it still remains miraculous how one man, representing the film’s lead actor, writer, director, producer, and at least five or six other crewmembers can execute all areas of his vision at such a high level.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: