The Kid (1921)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Carl Miller (The Man), Edna Purviance (The Woman), Jack Coogan (The Child), Charlie Chaplin (A Tramp), Henry Bergman (Professor Guido / Shelter proprietor), Tom Wilson (Policeman), May White (Policeman’s wife), Charles Reisner (Bully), Raymond Lee (Bully’s kid brother), Jules Hanft (Country doctor), Frank Campeau (Welfare officer), Frank Blinn (Assistant to welfare officer), Edward Biby (Orphan asylum driver), Jack Coogan Sr. (Pickpocket / Devil), Lita Grey (Flirtatious angel), Silas Hathaway (Abandoned newborn), Minnie Stearns (Woman with pram), Granville Redmond (Older man in studio)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1921
Country: U.S.
The Kid Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The KidWhen Charles Chaplin’s first feature-length film, The Kid, premiered in New York on January 6, 1921, the star hadn’t released a new film in more than a year. His previous two-reeler, A Day’s Pleasure, had premiered on December 7, 1919, and much of it had been shot and thrown together during the increasingly lengthy production of The Kid just so Chaplin could release something to appease First National, the distribution company that had him under contract. That 13-month gap between films was a remarkably long one for Chaplin, especially since he had been releasing multiple one- and two-reelers each year since 1914 (it didn’t help that, due to its rushed and hodgepodge production, A Day’s Pleasure was not one of his more popular or critically well received films). And, lest we forget, at the time, no one had attempted to make a feature-length comedy, a prospect that some argued was simply unfeasible.

But, Chaplin, who was already one of Hollywood’s leading stars and one of the most recognizable faces in the world, proved it could work, and The Kid was an enormous popular and critical success—and not just in the U.S. It was distributed in more than 50 countries over the next three years, where it was received with great enthusiasm, according to Chaplin biographer David A. Robinson (he notes that, by 1924, the only countries that hadn’t seen the film were the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Colombia). Interestingly, The Kid was not initially intended to be feature-length. Originally titled The Waif, the idea for the film—in which Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp character would become a surrogate father to an abandoned infant—emerged partly from his own personal trauma of losing his firstborn son, a malformed child who died after only three days. While Chaplin had been struggling creatively for some time (partially due to his vexed marriage to actress Mildred Harris), The Kid was created out of a sudden and intense creative surge; thus, it is no small surprise that it became his longest film to date.

Part of that creative surge can arguably be credited to Chaplin’s relationship with Jackie Coogan, his five-year-old co-star. The son of vaudevillian parents (just like Chaplin), Coogan was a preternaturally gifted actor and mimic, and he and Chaplin formed a bond that quickly surpassed that of a mentor/mentee and became that of a surrogate father/son. As described by Jackie’s mother, he and Chaplin had a “complex” relationship in which Chaplin became like a child in Jackie’s presence while also asserting a kind of parental role. The closeness between the two is evident on screen and a large part of why The Kid works so incredibly well. The sense of love and affection and protectiveness that the Tramp feels for the Kid clearly emanates from Chaplin’s own feelings toward Coogan. We sense this most powerfully near the middle of the film when the Tramp rescues the Kid from the clutches of a supercilious welfare officer; when he drops into the back of the paddy wagon where the Kid has been thrown like a stray dog, the genuineness of the embrace they share is palpable, making it one of the most emotionally affecting moments in not just Chaplin’s oeuvre, but in all of silent cinema.

As he had already been doing for some time, Chaplin intercuts the narrative in The Kid with various levels of social observation and critique, which we see quite powerfully in the film’s opening sequence that finds a single mother (Edna Purviance, who played the female lead in more than 20 Chaplin shorts) leaving a charity hospital with her newborn child under the withering, critical stares of a doctor and nurse. Desperate and alone, she makes the decision to leave the child in a car in front of a mansion with a note asking the owner to please take care of him. The car is then promptly stolen by two brutish looking thieves who dump the child in an alley when they discover him in the backseat, which is how he comes into the Tramp’s possession. The Tramp at first tries to pass the child off to a mother with a baby carriage, but once he reads the note, he decides to raise the boy himself, which leads to one of the film’s funniest and most poignant bits with the Tramp taking care of the baby with a makeshift array of gear, including a jerry-rigged hammock, a bottle made from an old coffee pot and a nipple, and a potty constructed out of a dining chair with a hole cut in the wicker seat.

Most of the story takes place five years later, with the Kid assisting the Tramp in a money-making scheme in which he breaks windows that the Tramp can then conveniently be on hand to repair. The Kid’s mother has since become a famous opera singer, and she volunteers her time in the slum neighborhood where the Tramp and the Kid live, completely unaware that the Kid is the child she abandoned years earlier. Complications arise when the Kid becomes ill and the Tramp calls in a doctor (Jules Hanft), who is appalled at the child’s living conditions and swiftly calls the welfare officer (Frank Campeau) to take him away. While trying to evade the welfare officer, the Tramp and the Kid hide out in a boarding house, but are betrayed by the manager (Henry Bergman), who reads a notice in the newpaper from the Kid’s mother looking for him. Interestingly, unlike most Tramp comedies that find the iconic character alone at the end of the film, The Kid ends with the promise of family, something that the Tramp is usually, by his very nature, fundamentally denied.

The longer running time and wider array of characters allowsThe Kid to run deeper than Chaplin’s previous one- and two-reelers, most of which were built primarily around gags (although films like 1915’s Work and 1917’s The Immigrant were as much social satires as gag films). The Tramp himself is a much more three-dimensional character here, even though we know precious little about him. Yet, his interaction with the Kid and his assertion of responsibility and filial love makes him both more sympathetic and more rounded as a character. As the Kid, Coogan is a revelation. Had he hit any notes of falsity or forced sentimentality, the whole enterprise would have collapsed. Instead, he gives one of the greatest child performances ever put to celluloid; the scene in which the welfare officer throws him in the back of the truck and he screams and cries for the Tramp is utterly heart-rending in its emotional authenticity, as is the embrace they share when they are reunited.

If The Kid has a weakness, it is the bizarre third-act dream sequence in which the Tramp, who thinks that he has lost the Kid forever and is locked out of his tenement, dreams that the street and alley have been transformed into a kind of makeshift Heaven in which all the characters we have seen, including an antagonistic police office (Tom Wilson) and an adolescent bully (Charles Reisner), are angels and the Tramp is reunited with the Kid. As a bit of desperate wish fulfillment, the sequence has its place, but then it detours into weird territory as the Tramp is tempted by a devil (Jack Coogan Sr.) and a pretty angel (Lita Grey, who would become the second Mrs. Charles Chaplin three years later when she got pregnant during the filming of The Gold Rush) that then creates friction with the bully angel, who is ostensibly her boyfriend. There is a ramshackle charm to the purposefully low-rent nature of the fantasy, with the obviously fake wings and lack of grand production design (it’s exactly the kind of fantasy you would imagine a tramp having), but it feels misplaced. Chaplin had certainly used dream sequences in his films before, but this one simply doesn’t work. Even with that misstep, though, The Kid is a fantastic and brave work, forging new ground in its mixing of comedy and pathos and fully earning its opening title card, which promises “a picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.”

The Kid Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioLinear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by Chaplin historian Charles Maland
  • “Jackie Coogan: The First Child Star,” video essay by Chaplin historian Lisa Haven
  • “A Study in Undercranking,” program featuring silent-film specialist Ben Model
  • Video interview with Jackie Coogan
  • Video interview with Lita Grey Chaplin
  • Excerpted audio interview with cinematographer Rollie Totheroh
  • Excerpted audio interview with film distributor Mo Rothman
  • Deleted scenes and titles from the original 1921 version of The Kid
  • “Charlie” on the Ocean, a 1921 newsreel documenting Chaplin’s first return trip to Europe
  • Footage of Chaplin conducting his score for The Kid
  • Nice and Friendly, a 1922 short featuring Chaplin and Coogan, with a new score by composer Timothy Brock
  • Trailers
  • Essay by film scholar Tom Gunning
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 16, 2016

    The new 4K digital restoration of The Kid featured on Criterion’s Blu-ray is simply superb—a significant improvement over the previously available DVDs and Blu-rays. The transfer was made from a 35mm first-generation 1921 element preserved by the Cineceta di Bologna, although 370 feet that were severely decayed had to be replaced by a first-generation 1921 fine-grain print from the collection of Roy Export (I kept an eye out, by could not determine where the replacement footage was used). The liner notes don’t include details about what went into the restoration, but I imagine it was significant given how clean and stable the image is. There is a real sense of depth in the frame, and the contrast looks very good, although it leans more toward a grayish hue rather than sharp, high-contract black-and-white. The only potential complaint here is that the transfer was edited to match Chaplin’s 1972 rerelease version of the film, which removes three scenes and replaces all of the original credits and intertitles. This is unfortunate from a completest perspective, but it is in keeping with the Chaplin Estate’s insistence that the re-edited versions of his films be given prominence and it is salved to some extent by the inclusion of the deleted scenes (which run only a few minutes) and a sampling of the original intertitles and credits as an extra, which to my knowledge have not been included on previous home video editions. The film’s soundtrack, which is an original score by Chaplin composed for the 1972 rerelease version, is presented in a nice, clean uncompressed monaural mix mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic tracks.
    You will be hard pressed to find any complaints with the stacked extras, beginning with a densely informative audio commentary by Chaplin historian Charles Maland, author of Chaplin and American Culture (1989). There are also two newly produced visual essays: “Jackie Coogan: The First Child Star,” a 20-minute featurette by Chaplin historian Lisa Haven about Coogan’s life and the ups and downs of his career, and “A Study in Undercranking,” a particularly fascinating 25-minute program in which silent-film historian and programmer Ben Model discusses how silent filmmakers used the difference between the camera speed and projection speed to create otherwise impossible visual gags (he draws extensively on Chaplin for examples, but also Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton). There is also a wealth of material drawn from the archives: an 11-minute video interview with Jackie Coogan from 1980 that was recorded by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill for British television; a 10-minute video interview with actress Lita Grey Chaplin that was recorded in 1993 by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance; and 20 minutes of excerpted audio interviews with cinematographer Rollie Totheroh and film distributor Mo Rothman. As mentioned earlier, completists will appreciate the inclusion of the three scenes that Chaplin deleted when he edited the film for rerelease in 1972, all of which feature the Woman, and the complete original credits and a fairly large sampling of the original intertitles, all of which are compared to the 1972 replacements. The credits and intertitles look pretty rough, but the three deleted scenes look great since they were afforded the same 4K restoration as the rest of the film. We also get “Charlie” on the Ocean, a 1921 newsreel documenting Chaplin’s first return trip to Europe in 1921; a few brief minutes of footage of Chaplin conducting his score for The Kid; Nice and Friendly, a 1922 short film featuring Chaplin and Coogan, with a new score by composer Timothy Brock; and three trailers.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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