by Ed Howard
Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, The Kid, opens with what might well be a statement of purpose for the master silent comic as he embarked on his feature career. The film’s first title card — indeed, one of the very few titles, and maybe the wordiest, in a sparsely titled movie — introduces The Kid as, “a picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear.” That combination of humor and pathos, already apparent in many of Chaplin’s previous shorts, would become the driving force for his subsequent features, and is already fully in flower in this sweet, sentimental film about Chaplin’s tramp discovering an abandoned child (Jack Coogan) and raising him as his own.
The child is abandoned by a woman (Edna Purviance) “whose sin was motherhood,” a title card informs, and through a series of mishaps it’s the poor tramp who finds the baby. Notably, Chaplin eases into the sentiment, as his tramp is at first anything but caring for the little tyke: he tries to dump the baby on several unsuspecting passers-by before getting stuck with it, sitting on the curb with the kid in his lap, and in a hilarious/unsettling bit of pantomime, he briefly considers dropping the baby down a sewer drain. It’s easy to forget that Chaplin’s tramp, so often considered the embodiment of comic sentimentality, started out as a rough-and-ready scrapper in his early Keystone shorts, and there are still traces of those more unsentimental beginnings here, in that moment with the sewer drain and the later scene where he fights with a burly fellow bum.
In any event, the tramp thinks better of discarding the kid, and Chaplin cuts to five years later, when the pair have become a de facto family. Coogan, who plays the kid as a five-year-old, is a great screen partner for Chaplin, a miniature version of the tramp, shrugging and shuffling in his oversized and raggy clothes, joining in with Chaplin’s petty crimes. The pair create a ramshackle domesticity in the tramp’s small flat, where the bedsheets are full of holes and they cheat the gas meter by reusing the same quarter over and over again. They go out together to “work” by having the kid break windows with rocks, whereupon Chaplin ambles up, not-so-coincidentally carrying a rack of glass panes ready to repair the damage for a fee. This sequence leads to some charming interplay with a beat cop who casually foils the pair’s plans by simply strolling up and looking on suspiciously. Best of all is the scene where Chaplin, without realizing it, pulls his scam at the cop’s own house, and is still there, flirting with the policeman’s wife, when the cop returns and peers out the window above their heads, scowling down at them.
The second half of the film amps up the sentimentality of the relationship between the tramp and his adopted son, as Chaplin’s custodianship of the kid is challenged and some officials try to take him away to an orphanage. This leads to a fantastic sequence in which Chaplin bounds across rooftops, escaping from a cop, to catch up with the truck taking the boy away. When he finally catches up, he leaps off the roof into the back of the truck — a stunt more reminiscent in its physicality of fellow silent star Buster Keaton than Chaplin’s usual pantomime — and fights off the sinister, snooty orphanage representative to save the kid. It’s great stuff, especially when Chaplin caps off the sequence with an emotionally exhilarating closeup of Chaplin and Coogan pressing their faces together.
The reunion is short-lived, though, once the boy’s mother learns that the tramp’s boy is actually her son, who she’d regretted abandoning, and offers a reward for his return. Throughout the film, Chaplin presents an idealized and romanticized image of the mother’s suffering and her inherent goodness despite her troubled circumstances — he even explicitly compares her to Jesus and gives her a saint’s halo in one shot. That heavyhanded idealization of the mother — which Chaplin himself mostly edited out for the 1971 re-release — is one of the film’s few weaknesses, an example of Chaplin’s sentimental streak run amok. In any event, it’s inevitable that the boy will be returned to his mother by the end of the film, with Chaplin eventually joining them to create a new de facto family, the mother’s role restored to the father-and-son dynamic.
Also interesting is the lengthy dream sequence that precedes this familial happy ending, with Chaplin’s tramp dreaming that his rundown neighborhood has been remade as a heavenly, idyllic place where everyone’s dressed as angels. A few devils sneak in and introduce the idea of sin, disrupting the peacefulness of the place by exciting the residents to adultery and jealousy and violence. It’s a fun sequence, kinetic and energetic, with Chaplin in angel wings flying through the air — along with a similarly flying dog — and finally crashing to ground, his wings molting and feathers scattered around him, like Icarus after his fall. It’s a strange sequence, rather disconnected from the rest of the film except in its religious imagery, simply providing an extended pause to delay the final scene’s touching reunion. Chaplin would go on to make more sophisticated and substantial features after this, but The Kid already provides the template for the signature mix of comic mayhem and humanistic warmth that were always the defining attributes of the tramp at his best.