A smile and a tear: The Kid (1921)

A young, unmarried woman (Edna Purviance) gives birth in a charity hospital. Distraught and abandoned by the baby’s father, she leaves the child in the back of an expensive automobile along with a note imploring the owner of the car to care for the new orphan. Later, she reconsiders her rash action and returns to collect her son, only to discover that the car is gone–it has been stolen by two inept thieves.

After discovering the child in the back of the car, the thieves leave it sitting in an alley in a poor section of town. The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) stumbles upon the child and, after various attempts to pawn the crying baby off on other people, finds the woman’s note and decides to raise the boy as his own.

Five years later, little John (Jackie Coogan) and his adoptive father live happily in their tiny apartment. The woman has, by this time, become a famous, rich opera star, and travels to the poor neighborhood to donate toys to the children. On one such trip the woman unknowingly encounters her own son. She soon discovers that the boy is sick and implores The Tramp to call a doctor, which he does. But when the doctor finds out that The Tramp is not the boy’s biological father, he calls the orphanage to come and retrieve the child, setting off a chain of events that threatens to disband the tiny, self-made family.

The Kid marks the first time Chaplin stepped behind the camera to direct himself in a feature-length film. But the prolific performer did not limit himself to merely directing and acting in the film; he also wrote the screenplay, produced it, and edited it (and even then he wasn’t quite done, for when The Kid was re-released for its fiftieth anniversary in 1971, Chaplin composed a brand-new musical score to accompany it). Chaplin had a hand in virtually every aspect of this film’s production, from scouting out the filming locations in Los Angeles to casting the other roles.

It is in The Kid that Chaplin finally brings all of the elements of his Little Tramp persona together into full, breathing life. Here, we see the fullest portrait yet of the character, complete with the co-mingled heart and pathos that define Chaplin’s most legendary role. His Tramp is both a clown and a tragic figure, filled with simple dignity and subject to the whims of a fast-paced world. Yet he is savvy enough to scheme and manipulate circumstances to make a (dubious) living for himself and the foundling, with whom he bonds almost immediately. This easy, close relationship with the kid is not surprising, considering The Tramp is, in a sense, much the child himself. He demonstrates a sometimes childlike wonder about the world, and is genuinely (and frequently) perplexed by the situations in which he inadvertently finds himself, like the street brawl with a musclebound Irish combatant. The character’s innate combination of worldliness and innocence is a big part of the reason why The Tramp has remained an iconic figure well past the heyday of the silent film era.

The movie’s storyline was born out of two traumatic, real-life events that, whether intentionally on his part or not, permeate Chaplin’s performance in the film. When Chaplin was seven years old, he was sent to a workhouse; his mother suffered from mental illness and could not support the family, and would eventually be committed to an asylum due to burgeoning psychosis. Being torn from his mother at such a young age wounded young Chaplin deeply. More than two decades later, in 1919, Chaplin’s teenage wife, Mildred Harris, gave birth to a disfigured child, who sadly died three days later. Considering these experiences, it’s little wonder that The Kid stands as Chaplin’s most personal film. Looking at the movie through the lens of Chaplin’s real life, scenes such as the one in which The Tramp is reunited with John after the social workers try to take him away are made even more poignant.

The idea for The Kid emerged in the midst of Chaplin’s grief for his deceased son, as he began to wonder: what would happen if The Tramp were to be forced into a paternal role, caring for an orphaned child? Chaplin found his muse for the story (originally titled The Waif) in young vaudevillian Jackie Coogan, a precocious performer who had been pushed on stage by his father, also an actor, practically from infancy. Coogan demonstrated a talent for mimicry and a marked naturalness in front of the camera, and Chaplin immediately formed a bond with the child. When he was forced to shut down production of The Kid for a while to make an impromptu short subject, A Day’s Pleasure (1919), to appease his distributors, Chaplin cast Coogan as his son in that film, too. The Kid reveals the depths of the child’s talent; Coogan’s John is a heart-breaker, a wide-eyed, mischievous, and utterly adorable moppet who manages to be more endearing than annoying (something his child-actor successors like Shirley Temple were not always as adept at doing).

For the role of The Woman, Chaplin turned to frequent costar Purviance. Purviance had starred in more than two dozen short films with Chaplin since her debut opposite him in 1915’s A Night Out. The Kid marked her first appearance in a feature-length film, and she would appear opposite Chaplin in one more film, 1923’s A Woman of Paris, before retiring from the screen in 1927. Purviance was a wise choice for the role; The Woman (having abandoned her child at the start of the film) runs the risk of being an unlikable figure, but Purviance’s emotion shines through in a very appealing way that invites the audience’s sympathy for her plight.

The Kid is nothing short of a delight to watch. It is filled with priceless scenes: The Tramp rigging baby gear out of the things around his apartment, including a watering can that doubles as a bottle; The Tramp unknowingly flirting with the wife of his beat-cop nemesis; the kid making pancakes with the confidence of a cook at a greasy spoon; the multiple chase scenes involving police, angry Irishmen, and The Tramp’s frantic, emotional hunt to reclaim “his” boy. The one odd step in the film is the strange “Dreamland” sequence that is tacked on to the last ten minutes of the film, which is a somewhat awkward diversion from an otherwise solidly-grounded story. To a lesser extent, this move away from reality also presents an issue with the film’s conclusion; while there is a gritty realism to the scenes of The Tramp’s poverty-stricken neighborhood, the ending belies the authentically challenging world set up by the first half of the movie for the sake of an obligatory happy ending. Still, on the whole, this is a minor quibble; that ending is, for all its unrealistic expectations, nonetheless a welcome one. Seeing The Tramp find his happiness is a joyful thing, indeed, for who can begrudge our hero?

Ultimately, The Kid succeeds because of its beautiful, highly effective melding of slapstick and melodrama. As the opening title card claims, this one is “a picture with a smile and–perhaps, a tear,” and true, the act of watching the film is a kind of metaphorical tightrope walk between gales of laughter and crying jags. Despite this, remarkably, the movie never delves into the overtly maudlin, and it is ultimately the sweet sentimentality at the heart of The Kid that makes this one of Chaplin’s greatest screen efforts.


This post is part of a “stealth blogathon” (so to speak) being hosted today by another “kid,” The Kid in the Front Row. You can find more information and read his thoughts on this film at his site.

5 thoughts on “A smile and a tear: The Kid (1921)

  1. Honestly, I haven’t seen many silent films. (For shame, I know!) This one definitely looks like one I would enjoy, especially with the crazy maternal hormones I got ragin’! This post also makes me want to go buy a biography of Chaplin. I had no idea that the man behind the silly clown persona had such a tragic background. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Pingback: Film Friday Weekly Roundup - Pretty Clever FilmsPretty Clever Films

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