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The Kid (1921)

Film Review

THE KID

Release Date: 6 February, 1921

Studio: Charles Chaplin Productions

Directors: Charles Chaplin

Starring: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Cinematography: Roland Totheroh

Special Notes: Great American Films, 1921-1930

This film has been selected to our list of Great American Films, 1921-1930, which focuses on obscure and under-appreciated American film masterpieces.

Synopsis

An introductory subtitle states: this “picture will produce a smile and perhaps a tear.”

In a Charity Hospital, an unwed Woman has given birth. Holding her baby, she sits alone in the park. In his studio, the father, a painter, accidentally drops her photograph into the fire. He recovers the half burned photo, then throws it back. The Woman, wandering dejectedly, puts her baby on the back seat of an expensive car and runs away. Thieves steal the unlocked car. When they hear the baby, they leave him in an alley.

The Tramp, walking along the alley, dodges debris thrown from windows. When he hears the baby cry, he looks up at the buildings thinking the child was also thrown out. The Tramp takes the baby and tries to leave the him with an old man, but the man refuses to take him. He puts the baby with another baby in a carriage, but the mother does not want two babies. The Tramp sits with the baby at a curb and finds the note left by the Woman, “please care for this orphan child.” He regards the baby lovingly and carries him away.

Meanwhile, the Woman has come to a bridge and considered jumping off. Seeing a mother and baby stimulates her to think of her own child. She goes back for him. The car is gone; she faints.

The Tramp decides to keep the baby and carries him home to his poor room. The alley outside his home is dirty; people throw debris into it, but his room is clean and tidy. The Tramp plays with the baby. He constructs a hanging crib; a coffee pot with a nipple on the spout dangles above it. He cuts a cloth into squares for diapers.

Five years pass. The Tramp loves and cares for the Kid. Although their clothes are worn and patched, they are content. Their house is poor, but neat. They eat regularly and say their prayers.

The Kid and the Tramp stand up for one another against the toughs of the neighborhood. They work together to make money. The Kid breaks a window with a rock and runs away. The Tramp passes the house carrying a glass pane and is employed to replace the broken glass. A policeman sees them at work and chases them. After eluding the cop, they return to breaking windows. As the Tramp is making up to a housewife whose window has been broken, her husband comes home. It is the same cop. The Kid and the Tramp flee. Later, they go home to dinner. It was just another day.

The Woman has become a celebrated actress; the Man is now a prominent painter. One evening they meet at a party, and he expresses regret for his behavior.

In memory of her lost child, the Woman distributes charity to needy children. One day, the Kid, sitting on his front step, smiles at her. She gives him a toy and an apple. A few days later, the Kid becomes ill; the Woman gets a doctor for him. The doctor asks the Tramp if he is the father. The Tramp shows him the letter left with the baby and declares himself practically the father. The doctor says the child needs better care and sends the wagon from the County Orphan Asylum for him. The wagon drivers take the crying child, but the Tramp catches up with them. He and the Kid escape. In the meantime, the doctor has taken the letter to the Woman who is overjoyed to find her child.

That night, the Tramp and the Kid find a bed in a flophouse. The Kid has sneaked in. The Manager, who has read about a reward for returning the boy, discovers the child and takes him to the police. At dawn, the Woman comes to the police station, kisses the boy, and takes him to her home.

Alone, the Tramp, sitting disconsolate, dreams. Everything and everybody around him are beautiful; flowers fill the streets; all the residents are angels. The child and the Tramp are winged. Sin creeps into his dream; the Tramp follows a girl whose jealous sweetheart picks a fight with him. A policeman arrives, chases the Tramp, and shoots him. The child runs to him; he weakly flaps his wings.

The Tramp awakens from this dream in the hands of a policeman who takes him in a fine car to a large house. The child comes out and hugs him. The Woman is at the door and asks him to come inside.

Discussion

Chaplin, a meticulous filmmaker, spent almost a year making The Kid, his first feature film (running more than an hour). The film is funny and touching in the Chaplin manner, a series of heartwarming incidents combining mirth, pathos, and sentimentality. The simple plot centers on the loving relationship between the Tramp and the Kid. Although their clothing is ragged and patched and their home is small and shabby, they are together and happy. The overarching plot involving the child's unwed mother who achieves wealth and fame before reclaiming him is weak, old fashioned, and mawkish, but allows a satisfactory ending in which the child and the Tramp attain a wealthy and stable home.

The slum setting recalls the poverty and privation in which Chaplin spent his childhood and youth. Chaplin's "Tramp" character is a reflection of his early life, and he uses the theme of escape from squalor in many films, including Easy Street (1917), A Dog's Life (1918) and City Lights (1931).

The Kid was a worldwide success. Chaplin, already famous for his short films, succeeded greatly with his first feature. A year after its release, the continued popularity of the film is exemplified by the comment of a Norwich, Kansas exhibitor; J.H. Talbot, manager of the Legion Theater, comments: "We didn’t want to be the only theater on earth not to play this picture" (December 1921 edition of the Exhibitor's Herald).

Chaplin's co-star, Jackie Coogan, acclaimed for his affecting portrayal, attained sudden fame. The child star's large expressive eyes, wistful demeanor, and forceful acting had great appeal. Only four months after the opening of The Kid, his father signed a large contract for further films. Jackie's starring films, such as Peck's Bad Boy (1921) and Oliver Twist (1922), were very successful. His success as a film star continued until his teenage years when, having lost his cuteness, his career stalled. Coogan made few films during the thirties and forties. The advent of television opened new avenues, and he appeared in many television series, most notably as bald, fat, homely, and amiable Uncle Fester Frump in The Addams Family (1964-1966) and its cartoon version (1973-1975).

During his juvenile career, Coogan had considerable earnings (totaling nearly $4 million according to his own estimate). His father, Jackie Coogan, Sr., in an interview with The New York Times (4-9-21) calls him "…a fine little fellow and a gold mine for us." His parents, small time vaudevillians, freely spent the money. In 1938, Jackie went to court against his mother (his father had died) to recover a portion of his childhood earnings. In August 1939, Coogan and his mother reached a settlement in which each he received half of the remaining funds (totaling $252,000). In 1939, the California legislature, in response to Jackie Coogan's misfortune, passed the "Child Actors' Bill" (also called the "Coogan Act") requiring a percentage of a child actor's earnings be set aside as savings for the child's adulthood.

Cinematographer Roland (Rollie) Totheroh (1890-1967) was an actor at the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in Niles, California, and had appeared in a couple of Broncho Billy shorts in 1912-1913 before moving behind the camera. Chaplin signed with Essanay in 1915 and made several shorts in Niles. Totheroh first filmed Chaplin in Work (1915). When Chaplin signed with Mutual Films and moved to Hollywood, Totheroh went too. He was the cinematographer for most of Chaplin's films between 1915 and 1947 (Monsieur Verdoux). After 1913, Totheroth photographed only one feature film that did not feature Chaplin, Song of My Heart (1948).

Further Reading

Read our articles about these Chaplin films:

Behind the Screen (1916)

Easy Street (1917)

A Dog's Life (1918)