The Kid (1921)

The Kid is Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, and it is far from Chaplin’s peak, though still pretty great. It is perhaps the most melodramatic of the Chaplin films I’ve seen, yet never loses control of its tone too much one way or the other. It’s on the “mawkish” side of charming, but quite charming nonetheless.

The story follows Chaplin’s Tramp adopting a baby he finds on the street after it is abandoned by its poor mother. Six years later, the mother has had a rapid rise in fame and fortune, and she honors her long-lost baby by providing significant charity and service to the poor. Meanwhile, The Tramp and The Kid (Jackie Coogan), living poor and pulling scams, are constantly getting into trouble and evading the cops.

Eventually, the The Tramp and The Kid are separated, briefly amping up the melodrama and angst for an otherwise low-key romp. But of course there’s a happy ending, though it is oddly truncated — we see The Kid and The Tramp reunite for all of 10 seconds before the film cuts to black.

Speaking of the ending, it contains the biggest hiccup in what is otherwise a terrific transition from shorts to features for Chaplin: a goofy, extended dream sequence that runs for several minutes. Various actors from the film dress up in angel and devil suits, and we get some mischief disguised as a mini-moral play, but it comes right before the happy ending, totally throwing off the film’s pace.

There are a few terrific slapstick set pieces, which is of course what most of us are here for. The runner up is the early scene before the time jump where The Tramp accidentally finds the baby and unsuccessfully tries to get rid of it, only to be thwarted by various obstacles and street-goers.

But the best part of The Kid is a fight scene towards the middle of the film: The Kid gets into a scuffle with a kid on the street and The Tramp eggs him on, until The Kid’s opponent’s older brother, who is a huge burly guy, shows up and starts threatening revenge if The Kid wins the fight. Then, of course, The Tramp is trying to stop The Kid from winning, a hilarious reversal; and things only escalate from there. Across its six minutes, it’s one of the great silent slapstick comic fight scenes I’ve ever seen. The timing and gags are terrific, but the way it shifts the conflict about ten times is what sets it apart and makes it feel so creative.

No surprise that Chaplin is excellent; he’d long perfected his Tramp routine and knew just how to time every gag and perfectly modulate his energy. What is a surprise is that Coogan is quite good as The Kid, amiably keeping up with the antics around him despite being only six at the time the movie was filmed. He went on to childhood stardom and a long acting career.

Chaplin is one of the best to ever make movies, and even if this feels a bit like a minor work of his, less funny or stirring than his best work, it still is a delight that holds up more than a century later.

Note: I viewed the Chaplin-endorsed, 53-minute, 24 frames-per-second cut of The Kid that he re-edited many years later. Both this shortened director’s cut and the full original cut, which is about 67 minutes long, are easily found online.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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