"The Kid" **** (out of ****)
As the Charlie Chaplin retrospective here in Chicago continues at the Music Box theatre, I attended the screening of "The Kid" (1921) last night.
It had been years since I saw "The Kid" back on VHS. I had never seen it on the big screen. As the years have past, I had forgotten just how good this movie is. How effortlessly Chaplin switches from comedy and pathos, often within the same scene.
In "The Kid" a mother (Edna Purviance) has a child out of wedlock. Afraid and alone the woman decides she is unable to take care of the child herself. Walking down the street she passes the home of a wealthy family. Her plan is to leave the child in the family's car which is parked directly in front of the house. As she does this two thieves take the car, notice the baby and leave it in an alley. At this moment, our hero, a Tramp (Chaplin) spots the baby and decides to raise it.
I would imagine on some level "The Kid", which was Chaplin's debut feature length film, had autobiographical traits. The story must have hit Chaplin on some deep, personal level. Chaplin had come from a poor family. He too was separated from his mother at an early age. He, along with his brother, were put in an orphanage. This period in Chaplin's life, understandably, left a lasting impression on him. The fear of being alone, of being poor again, going hungry never completely left Chaplin. These are themes which find themselves not only in this particular film but are themes which can be found throughout all of Chaplin's films. It has been said that despite Chaplin's great wealth he had a tendency to be on the frugal side. His reasoning? He never wanted to go hungry again.
The film now jumps to five years later. The Kid (now played by Jackie Coogan) lives in the same impoverish life as the Tramp. But, oddly enough, they appear happy. The child simply doesn't know any other life. Together they go around the streets and hustle. The Kid breaks windows with a rock as the Tramp just so happens to be a window repair man unsuspectingly walking by.
Within this five year period we learn that the woman has become a major star, though not clearly stated as to what kind of star, one can assume she has become some sort of stage actresses. Remembering her humble beginnings the woman often visits the slums to give charity to the children and their families. One day, unknown to her, she meets her son.
That scene, along with a few others, hit such a high emotional level I honestly would not be surprised if it brought someone to tears.
In scenes such as the one described or the more famous chase scene, where care takers have come to separate the Kid and the Tramp, as the Kid cries, pleading for the Tramp to come and rescue him, the film is working on a level of melodrama which quite frankly can make some uncomfortable.
I remember back in college, when I was taking some film classes, we were shown the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and films such as "All That Heaven Allows" (1955) and "Written in the Wind" (1956). The students would often find the films campy and overly dramatic to the point they would actually laugh at scenes which were meant to be heartfelt. I thought about that as I watched "The Kid". I was afraid the audience would react the same way, especially since the theatre was mostly comprised of college aged students.
But I've always felt the genius of Chaplin was his ability to find humor in dark moments. He never gets too serious on his audience. Take for example a moment in "The Kid" when after the thieves leave the baby in the alley, initially the Tramp doesn't want the baby, he doesn't want the responsibility. So, the baby passes the hands of several people as each person tries to avoid taking care of it. In another movie this could have been a very emotional scene. Think of the image of a baby being left all alone in an alley. It can be quite sad. But no. Chaplin has managed to find a way to present this material to us and still find ways to make us laugh. Think of the scene in "The Gold Rush" (1925) when Chaplin eats a shoe. He is so hungry, so desperate that he has resorted to such an extreme act. Again, this is a scene which in another movie could have been played for heartening melodrama. But once again, we find ourselves laughing.
Much of the cast I felt understates their performances. This isn't really a broad slapstick comedy. Sure, Chaplin inserts a few moments of broad humor, but Edna Purviance for example, tries to make her character believable. She had worked with Chaplin on several shorts such as "The Immigrant" (1917), "Sunnyside" (1919) and the two-reeler which played on the same bill as "The Kid", "The Idle Class" (1921). Chaplin also gave her the leading role in his next feature film, the very serious "A Woman of Paris" (1923). Plus, Chaplin gives Jackie Coogan a lot to work with. Coogan goes through many emotions, playing sweet, funny and dramatic. I'm sure at the time of release Coogan's performance must have astonish audiences and I think it can still wow 'em today.
I was also surprised how relatively short the film is. Less than an hour. But it feels complete. There were only a few moments when I thought the editing was a bit choppy and left out a few things.
All things considered "The Kid" is a great film. A masterpiece. An amazing display of Chaplin's genius simply because of the way the film is able to work on so many levels. Chaplin's wonderful gift for combining comedy and pathos has rarely worked as effectively as it does here. This is one of Chaplin's very best films (though my favorite is still "Modern Times" (1936), which will also be shown at the retrospective). An emotional, funny, heartwarming film.