22 October 2004 | lugonian
Charlie Finds a Son
THE KID (First National Pictures, 1921), a comedy-drama written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), plays an important part his screen career. Aside from Chaplin cast opposite Marie Dressler in TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914), a Mack Sennett production hailed as the first feature length comedy, THE KID starts Chaplin with a whole new cycle of feature comedies, but releases coming once every two to three years. A comic genius who got his start in comedy shorts starting in 1914, eventually under the supervision and direction of himself, Chaplin's methods in movie making improved with each passing film. Like himself, Jackie Coogan, Chaplin's littlest co-star and title character, made such an impression with his initial performance, nearly upstaging his impresario, that he immediately found himself starring in movies on his own, becoming Hollywood's first important child star.
THE KID starts off with inter-titles, "A picture with a smile and perhaps a tear," followed by "The woman whose sin was motherhood," titles much to the liking of a D.W. Griffith directorial tearjerker starring Lillian Gish, yet, in fact, might have seemed more logical for a Griffith film than Chaplin's, whose very name personifies comedy. A young girl (Edna Purviance) leaves a charity hospital with a baby in her arms. who turns out to be an unwed mother whose father (Carl Miller), a young artist, never returns to her life. The mother places her baby in the back of a limousine and walks away. Crooks enter the scene, stealing the car, discover the baby and place it in a trash bin in the poor district of town. Noticing the infant wrapped in a blanket, Charlie tries to pass it off to someone else, but after stumbling upon a note which reads, "Please love and care for this orphan child," he decides to raise the child himself. Five years pass. The kid (whose name is believed to be John), now Charlie's adopted son and sidekick, start off each day with brand new adventures in raising money. As for the kid's mother, she's become "a star of great prominence," devoting her spare time with charitable work handing out gifts to the children of poor districts, where lives the kid. The paths of the kid and his mother meet on numerous occasions, unaware of each other's identities. When the kid becomes seriously ill and in need of immediate medical attention, a middle-aged country doctor, having discovered Charlie not the boy's true father, sends for the authorities from the County Orphan Asylum to take the child away.
THE KID consists of many ingredients to make this an everlasting product, especially for a silent movie made so long ago. Chaplin, who constructs his gags to perfection, has one difficult scene that comes off naturally, this being where Charlie cuts out diapers from a sheet for the infant as he's lying beside him in a miniature hammock crying out for his milk. The baby immediately stops after Charlie directs the nipple attached to a coffee pot (a substitute for a baby bottle) back into his mouth. Another classic moment, on a serious nature, is when Charlie is being held back by authorities, being forced to watch his crying "son" taken away from him. Charlie breaks away and goes after the truck as he's being chased by a policeman from the slanted roof-tops. The close-up where father and son tearful reunite is as touching as anything ever captured on film.
Chaplin and little Jackie (billed Jack Coogan in the opening credits) display their talents as both funny characters and dramatic actors. Little Jackie is especially cute as a miniature sized Chaplin, right down to his baggy pants. Chaplin giving one of his most sensitive performances, is so convincing that it doesn't take away his screen persona as the lovable funny tramp. From this point onward, he would become less characteristic as a slapstick comedian and more agreeable as an serious actor, at the same time, adding more plot, pathos and truly great comedy routines.
As much as the present showing of THE KID barely reaches the one hour mark, Chaplin includes enough gags and pathos to make it work. The dream sequence where he finds himself in Heaven surrounded by angels might appear trite and unnecessary for some, but actually makes it essential to the plot which fits into the scene that follows.
THE KID, which had been unavailable for public viewing for many years, was resurrected in the 1970s in revival movie houses with a brand new and wonderful orchestral score conducted by Chaplin himself in 1971. It would be nearly another decade for many to fully get to see and appreciate this little masterpiece when distributed to video cassette in 1989 as part of the Charlie Chaplin centennial collection, double billed along with a comedy short, THE IDLE CLASS (1921). In the DVD format, the two disc set includes rare out-takes and deleted scenes. Turner Classic Movies has brought forth THE KID as part of its movie library, where it made its debut December 15, 2003, during its weekly Silent Sunday Nights, hosted by Robert Osborne, and later in March 2004 when Charlie Chaplin was selected as its "Star of the Month."
For its age, THE KID holds up extremely well, thanks to the convincing performances of both Chaplin and Coogan. There's no doubt Jackie Coogan (1914-1984) became an overnight star with this one film. He was a natural. While the paths of Chaplin and Coogan would never meet again, on screen anyway, without them, there would never have been such a true classic from the silent screen era as THE KID. (****)