The Kid (1921)

Untitled-1I can’t help but draw comparisons between The Kid and Chaplin’s own life as he was growing up in London. At a young age, his mother was committed to a mental asylum, leaving Charles and his brother to care for her (his father died at the age of 38). You could say that he became an orphan. How fitting is it that The Kid, too, has an orphan, and whatever torment Charles endured as a youngster is corrected here with swift and concise storytelling. If only Charles’ own life had such a happy ending. Oh wait, it did. Kind of.

There is nothing special about the story The Kid tells, but the way Chaplin films it elevates it to a higher level. Take for instance the relationship between The Tramp (Charles Chaplin) and John (Jackie Coogan). The story tells us that they are not related — that John is an orphan and The Tramp is his (at first) reluctant adoptive father — yet their chemistry is more solid and more natural than many real families. Somehow, they share the same humour, and they express this shared attribute in a way that solicits laughter and sadness simultaneously.

The film opens with a very God-like superimposition: “The mother – whose sin was motherhood” She is condemned before we even see her. She doesn’t have a name. She is the victim of an irresponsible man, and now her child has no place in her world. So she does the only logical thing: she abandons the baby in the backseat of a car. The car is then stolen by a couple of overly made up crooks who find the baby and ditch it beside a trash can in an alleyway.

Enter, The Tramp. His presence alone inspires happiness, and for a second our attention is drawn away from the helpless infant. He wanders into the scene — not without a few comical moments — and discovers the child. At first he thinks someone has misplaced it — “Here, you dropped something”. But he is later forced to take it under his own wing; how he has any parenting skills or equipment is beyond me. That’s not important I suppose. What’s important is the fact that this poor man, with hardly a cent to his name, has a heart large enough to adopt a son. Then again, all of The Tramp’s personifications exhibit a heart larger than himself.

Five years later, social services invades and threatens to take John away, which it does. The Tramp is then led on a wild goose chase as he tries desperately to reclaim his son.

There are essentially three acts to The Kid. The first involves the establishment of The Tramp’s and John’s relationship. It is a time of great joy: they cook for each other, laugh together, The Tramp even teaches — or encourages — John to fight. They work together to replace damaged windows, which they themselves have damaged. A similar tactic is employed in Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, but with dogs instead of damaged windows. The second is about The Tramp’s fight to keep John, as he battles social workers, doctors, flophouse managers. The third is a wonderful dream sequence in which The Tramp’s neighbourhood is populated by angels. John is with him, and together they fly around, until sin (represented by lanky devilish individuals with Dali moustaches) appears and creates unbalance.

The story is light, often aerated by moments of true comedic genius (such as the scene mentioned earlier: The Tramp mistaking an abandoned baby for a misplaced item), yet it’s weighed down by immense heart. It’s short, sweet, and effective. You’re bound to feel some sourness towards the neglecting mother though, who obviously regrets her initial decision and decides that she wants her son back, now that her acting career has taken off. As a result, the film’s open ending doesn’t necessarily spell joy and closure. In fact, the future of The Tramp and John is even more uncertain than before, since John’s real mother is back in the picture.

There’s no need to talk about Chaplin’s performance, and so the real star of the film is Jackie Coogan who, similar to Nikolay Burlyaev in Ivan’s Childhood, manages to carry the film despite his age. The little intricacies in his facial expressions alone are enough to warrant our sympathy. And yet, above it all, he’s a little rascal at heart.

But the quality of The Kid that stands out the most for me is its innocence. There is not an ounce of badness in it. Yes, it gets its kicks from making us laugh and “shed a tear”, but knowing that its characters are only trying to survive adds that extra oomph. Chaplin lost his innocence at an early age, so it seems apt that he would try his hardest to make sure John keeps his for as long as possible.

Best Moment | When Chaplin puts the baby back, next to the trash can, and then turns around only to face a police officer. Love it.

Worst Moment | Hmmm. Nope.

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