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The Kid (1921): A Brave Rescue

Describing Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid is like trying to describe the Mona Lisa to someone who doesn’t know what art is or a sunset over the Grand Canyon to anyone who has never seen the sun. Words can fill the void but fail to deliver. It takes a personal experience to truly make it authentic.

So, how do we do this? We will do our best to explain the story and characters and give you are impressions of the film and our chosen That Moment In, but this is one you must seek out and experience. Chaplin is a tour-de-force, handling all aspects of the film, including writing, directing, acting, and even composing the score decades later.

The Kid

The plot is relatively simple: a young woman, unable to care for her baby, abandons him in a rich man’s car, which promptly gets stolen. The thieves, hearing the child, find an alley and dump the infant near the trash. Not long after, The Tramp, on his morning promenade, stumbles upon the swaddled newborn and attempts to give it to a mother walking past, but with no success as the local patrolman suspects some shenanigans. The Tramp takes the boy to his ramshackle apartment and sees a note inside the blanket asking for someone to care for the child. Touched by the baby’s innocence, The Tramp takes John in and decides to raise him as best he can. Life, as it often does, makes things less than easy for him to do so.

Playing The Tramp, Chaplin deftly mixes the right amount of comedy and drama, giving audiences a highly emotional film that even today remains incredibly effective. Chaplin has a real skill in framing his scenes and timing his ups and downs, knowing with pitch perfect accuracy when to move on and when to linger. Modern filmmaking has jaded us to the deceptively simple appearance of early silent films, but there is still much to be learned in how to tell a story with only pictures. This is a masterpiece in every sense and deserves the accolades heaped upon it.

That Moment In The Kid

Scene Setup: The Tramp has been raising John for five years. He’s provided as best he can but when the boy becomes ill, he’s powerless to help. The country doctor visits and realizes The Tramp is not the real father and calls for protective services to take John away.

Why it Matters: The most famous scene in the movie, if not Chaplin’s entire career, this shifts the tone into high drama. While up to this point has not been wild slapstick, there have been lots of sight gags and pratfalls, light ups and downs and mostly some endearing moments between The Tramp and John. As the officials come to literally drag the boy away, it is almost too difficult to watch as The Tramp fights and John achingly reaches for the only father he knows. Being a silent film, we are left with only the incredibly moving soundtrack as the scene’s voice, and it pulls at our hearts as we watch the two become separated. The silent actors are somehow even more harrowing.

More: The Kid is Chaplin’s first full-length film as director, and he embraces the role with aplomb. We have to imagine filmmaking at this time, try as best we can to understand the tools of the trade in that age and notice how well he uses what was available. The shift to drama is sudden and its impact is almost jarring, making it all the more so difficult to watch. This decision to go serious is important and effective, and shows how confident Chaplin is in his story, his characters, and most especially, his audience. 

Let’s watch:

It’s difficult to think about life in a time we have really no connection with. The 1920s might as well be a million years ago for most of us. In our minds, everything was black and white and people moved in jagged fast motion. Police were bumbling fools and everyone had fun drinking illegal hooch in a secret speakeasy. And there were gangsters in fine suits causing chaos at every street corner.

Charlie Chaplin was already a worldwide phenomenon when The Kid was released, one of the most recognized people on earth. His Little Tramp was a cherished and beloved star, something everyone connected with and crowded theaters to watch him make them laugh. The Tramp would become one of film’s most famous creations and is the most iconic of the silent film era, culminating in the the critical hit City Lights in 1931.

Audiences flocked to see the social commentary and jabs at the mundane life of the working class, while championing the American Dream. His broad appeal as an everyday man with nothing to his name but eternal hope resonated across the globe, though not without raising suspicions and making a few enemies. Still, the character was so well-loved, even those today who have never even seen a Chaplin movie know the image instantly. And Chaplin mastered him perfectly. Just look at these 4 seconds.

The Kid
The Little Tramp

The tilt of the hat, the drag off the cigar, the snap of the cane, and that ever-so recognizable gait. We see right away that the character is mostly penniless but rich with pride. It’s dichotomy captured the imagination of movie-goers and propelled Chaplin into the stratosphere, where he will remain.

The Kid lacks a lot of the pratfalls and zaniness of earlier Tramp films, but still manages to have some fun despite the serious themes. The Tramp and John, grifting home owners and shopkeepers with a broken glass scheme, keep a local street cop busy. At one point, Chaplin unknowingly flirts with the policeman’s wife, and a funny little exchange occurs with some hand switching. These bits provide some much needed humor in the otherwise dark story.

The Kid
First National Warner Home Video

Late in the movie, as the Tamp seems to have lost everything, a wonderful moment occurs as he drifts off to sleep on his stoop. Entering “Dreamland”, the Tramp becomes an angel in a city full of angels. There he is victim to sin, dressed as the devil, tricking a taken woman to lure him closer. The screen flashes, “Innocence” and then the girl’s sweetheart arrives, and smiles, asking the Tramp to be off, but sin creeps in, the screen flashes “Jealousy” and the sweetheart turns violent. Angels gather around the scuffling pair and the cop, also winged, enters and chases the Tramp, with some notable wirework for the time on display.

The Kid
First National Warner Home Video
Eventually, the policeman fires his sidearm and the flying Tramp crumples to the ground. What is Chaplin doing here? What is this odd shift in story telling and the sudden play with biblical overtones (earlier in the film we briefly see a shot of Christ bearing the cross). Chaplin himself professed he was agnostic, famously stating that religion has given hope in world torn apart by religion. Still, he does not shy away from the notion of a corruptible man, a society unforgiving and a world too quick to punish a sin. The film is most assuredly an important work for Chaplin as he had recently lost his first son and was undergoing a divorce from his first wife Mildred Harris. The film also seems to parallel a lot of his own life and could be argued as a kind of cathartic work for his troubled formative years.

There have been plenty of memorable child stars in movie history, but none will ever have the lasting impact of little Jackie Coogan. A vaudeville star before he was three, Chaplin discovered him for film in 1919 and the rest is history. The child became a sensation and was earning millions before we was even ten, though, famously, that money was looted by his parents, which prompted passing of the California Child Actors’ Bill of 1938, or better known as the Coogan Act, legally forcing studios to reserve income for children actors. Coogan recovered from losses and went on to even greater fame as Uncle Fester in the beloved television series, the Addams Family.

The Kid
MGM Television

Using the words ‘timeless’ and ‘classic’ are basically a trope in the movie industry these days. They get plastered on posters and advertisements on even the most mediocre work and both terms have essentially lost their value as descriptors. Still, there are many films that merit and The Kid remains firm in that category. Chaplin called the movie “6 Reels of Joy” and he isn’t wrong. This was still a year before the term “movies” was even introduced. Smartly directed, wonderfully acted, and highly influential, it serves as a reminder of how powerful film can be, even without the spectacle of modern advancements.

The Kid (1921): A Brave Rescue

Director(s): Charles Chaplin

Actor(s): Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan

Genre: Comedy

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