Charlie Chaplin remains one of the greatest icons in the history of cinema, thanks to his unique brand of silent slapstick comedies, tinged with an underlying sense of pathos. In his lifetime, he had transformed film comedies from being crude knockabout farces to hilarious yet subtle commentaries on life and society.
In 1919, Chaplin, the world’s first millionaire comic, hit a creative block. His studio, First National, was pressing him for a new film. A loveless marriage and the loss of a newborn child had thrown his personal life into great tumult. However, like many great artists of his ilk, Chaplin’s personal tragedy, along with memories of his impoverished childhood in London, formed the basis of his first great masterpiece — one that would take two years to make — The Kid. This year marks 100 years of the film’s release.
The Kid tells the story of a tramp (Chaplin) who unwittingly becomes the caretaker of an abandoned boy (masterfully played by then six-year-old Jackie Coogan). By blending important dramatic scenes into a greater comedic canvas, Chaplin arguably made the first-ever film dramedy. However, antecedents of this dramatic-comic blend can be found in his earlier films. In The New Janitor (1914), a scene where Chaplin’s tramp character comically pleads with his employer to get his job back after being fired so moved an elderly actress, that she remarked, “I know it is supposed to be funny, but you just made me weep!” In The Tramp and The Bank (both 1915), he added pathos to the traditional love story — the leading man does not get the lady, mostly due to a difference in class. These films were small rolls on Chaplin’s creative drum that culminated in the loud artistic bang, which was The Kid.
The Kid begins with a woman (Edna Purviance) leaving a charity hospital with a newborn baby boy. Separation from her husband and destitution force her to abandon the baby at a car belonging to a millionaire. However, the car is stolen by two crooks, who, upon discovering the baby crying at the back of the car, abandon him in a slum. Chaplin’s tramp, while twaddling along in the slum, discovers him. In a series of quick slapstick set pieces, he hilariously tries to abandon the abandoned baby, but fails. Upon discovering a note written by the mother pinned to the baby’s sheets, he warms up and decides to take him in.
Chaplin’s masterful writing makes the element of fate play a crucial role in moving the story along, almost as if it were an invisible character. It is the woman’s fate that she abandons the baby. It is the baby’s fate that he is abandoned by his mother and the crooks. It is the tramp’s fate that he finds the baby and decides to raise him, thus creating a loveable bond between them over the next five years.
This bond is showcased through a series of visual vignettes, which are again testament again to Chaplin’s writing and the potency of the silent film medium. The tramp takes the time and effort of cleaning the kid’s face and neck with a cloth. Now grown up, the kid helps the tramp with his daily chores. The kid turns on the gas in the house by putting a coin in the meter and stealing it again for use later! The tramp equally divides the share of the food — porridge or pancakes — between them, and reminds them both to offer prayers before eating. In a brilliant bit of social commentary, the tramp — who maintains his dignified, aristocratic demeanour despite living in squalor — is mindful of table manners and corrects the kid when he eats with a knife rather than a fork. This is also seen earlier in the film when the tramp, prior to finding the baby, walks around like an aristocrat, complete with worn-out gloves and a case of burnt cigarette butts.
The comedic apex of this relationship is when the tramp and the kid scam slum residents with their business of repairing broken windows— windows which are broken by the kid and repaired by the tramp. In the comedic scenes, Coogan as the kid is the perfect comedic co-conspirator, and becomes a mini-version of Chaplin himself— perhaps the best actor suited to Chaplin’s infamous directorial instructions of mimicking his own performances of the characters.
The woman, the kid’s mother, five years on, becomes a successful actress. Her compassion leads her to the slum to do charity work, as illustrated by one of many brilliant intertitles in the film: “Charity: to some a duty, to others a joy.” As she holds the baby of one of the slum residents, she is sadly reminded of her own child whom she had abandoned. Purviance, as the woman, is brilliant in this scene while conveying at once the suppressed feelings of regret and grief. Again, invisible fate delivers an emotional punch to the gut, as the kid — her son — emerges out of his dwelling and sits beside her. Unaware of each other’s identities, they briefly interact and the woman gives the kid a toy.
The toy becomes a source of conflict between the kid and a slum bully, which results in a hilarious bout between the two. Chaplin, with a surrealist touch, transforms this kiddie brawl into a boxing match, creating a hilarious visual. However, this bout takes a toll on the kid’s health, and when a doctor questions the kid’s parentage, the tramp is cornered. The doctor declares the kid needs “proper care and attention” and leaves. The odds are stacked against the tramp. In a particularly poignant moment, the tramp clasps the kid’s hand and looks into the camera with a helpless, pleading glance. Even a century on, this glance still cuts across the screen like a knife.
“Proper care and attention” means that the orphanage authorities arrive to take the kid away. In perhaps the most emotional moment of the film, the tramp, restrained by officials, looks helplessly into the camera, as the kid tearfully cries out for him at the back of the orphanage van. The visual dynamic of the kid sobbing and the tramp’s defeated glance is tear-jerking, and is testament to the emotional power of the silent film medium. In that moment, both Chaplin and Coogan reveal the universality of the pain of separation, which, despite coming from a black-and-white silent film, is absolutely timeless.
A chase ensues. Chaplin again plays with visuals by making the tramp give chase over rooftops in pursuit of the van on the ground. After he bests the cop and the official, he rescues the kid, culminating in one of cinema’s most beautiful moments. This moment of beauty soon turns into a moment of hilarity, as he drives the driver of the van away in a clever bit of visual slapstick, thus soothing the frayed nerves of an emotional audience.
Although not the end of the film, Chaplin makes the tramp and the kid finally triumph over fate. This may be momentary, but it is the reason that Chaplin is still regarded as a genius — for he would offer the underdog a brief yet substantial a glimmer of hope amid adversities thrown in by fate.
(Cartoon by the author.)
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.