Amidst a sea of personal and professional struggles, Charlie Chaplin created his ‘six reels of joy’ —The Kid 1921. The long-awaited film was spectacularly received, and, as Chaplin’s first full-length feature, is also remembered as his first directorial masterpiece. Viewers flocked, and the Little Tramp, a cinematic icon of hope and humour was truly born to the silver screen.
The Kid begins in a relatively sombre tone, quite unlike anything Chaplin has ever done before. A young woman and her infant son leave a county hospital; ‘alone’ —the title card reads. She places the child in a luxurious automobile, hoping that its owner will provide for the child what she cannot possibly offer. In a surprising turn of events, the car is stolen by a pack of thieves,who, upon discovering the curious entity of a baby, dumps it by a stack of rubbish. Rather reluctantly (and very understandably so) it is a familiar face —the Tramp— who ends up caring for the child.
We then skip to five years later. At first glance, the kid, (who was promptly named John) has become a son to the Tramp. Like a conventional father, our hero combs his little boy’s hair, cleans his ears, and makes him a hearty breakfast of pancakes and syrup. However, it soon becomes apparent that the kid is very much an equal to the tramp —they are partners (and, more often than not, in minor crime to boot). Whether they are stealing back quarters from the gas meter, or breaking and fixing windows together to earn a living, Charlie and Jack make a most magnificent pair.
As John, the little Jackie Coogan (and future Uncle Fester, can you believe it?) is pretty perfect. At the tender age of five, he is like a pint-size beacon of nonchalant humour and sweet tenderness; in short, a mirror of all the qualities which we love in Chaplin’s Tramp. In his first cinematic role, Coogan captured the hearts of a global audience, and arguably became the first child star of the big silver screen.
What struck me throughout this viewing was the effortless modernity The Kid. It’s an almost paradoxical phenomenon: everything from the writing to the acting style is subtly familiar to the contemporary viewer, and yet, the film retains that long-lost romanticism which the great classics have all embodied.
One such example is the scene in which the young woman unknowingly sits on the same step as her son. The two converse amicably, and the woman is poignantly reminded of the child whom she so wants to see again. As they sit silently together, the picture painted is one of heartbreaking irony and powerful pathos. Both do not know the identity of the other, and the result is a wonderful composition, full of drama and quiet intensity.
In what is undoubtedly a film about the relationship between the Tramp and the Kid, the great sympathy awarded to the young woman is almost surprising. Through what seem to be apparently ordinary interactions, Chaplin, Coogan and Purviance evoke great emotions from the audience. We grow to love each of these characters, and the ending of The Kid, one of optimism and poetic satisfaction, is a particularly special one.