The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid

There is an anecdote about a meeting between Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin in which Einstein commends the comedian by saying, “What I most admire about your art is your universality. You don’t say a word, yet the world understands you.”

To which Chaplin answered, “It is true, but your glory is even greater. The whole world admires you even though they don’t understand a word of what you say.”

What Einstein says is true, and how Chaplin reacts exemplifies his knack for sharp, truthful comedy. Throughthrough his nameless characters, Chaplin is able to let his viewers relate with the most universal themes in life: Love, loss, happiness, and sadness, while at the same time delivering among the most timeless comedy in cinema history. We laugh, we cry, and we empathize. The Kid is a film that is driven purely on heart – the source of our deepest feelings of joy and sorrow – and the reason why the film endures almost a century later.

The film begins with Edna Purviance as a single mother without the means to raise her newborn child. In desperation, she decides to leave the infant inside a car owned by a wealthy family. After she leaves, two thieves appear and steal the vehicle with the newborn inside. When they discover the baby crying in the backseat, they dump it somewhere in the slums where it is then chanced upon by a carefree tramp (as played by Chaplin, in his iconic character’s first feature film appearance). After a comedy of errors trying to get rid of the child, the tramp eventually accepts his fate and takes in the newborn as his own, seemingly undaunted by his hilarious inadequacies as a parent.

The story that follows largely involves the exploits of this unlikely duo five years later, and is most of the films’ source of comedy. Due to the film’s simple plot, the gags play out somewhat as a vignette of comedic skits surrounding the tandem of the tramp and the kid.  It features the surrogate father and son hustling through the city streets trying to make a not-so-honest living, then them roughing it up in the middle of the rural neighborhood, and also making ends meet in their small but cozy apartment space. What shines through the clever and witty humor is their odd partnership as equals, which sees the kid loving and caring for the tramp as much as the tramp does for the kid.  And similarly, Jackie Coogan serves as a most capable co-star, not at all playing second fiddle to Chaplin, but instead sharing the limelight in what is one of the best child performances of all-time.

The only thing that seems to stifle the momentum that the film builds throughout Chaplin’s exploration of this father-son relationship is when the mother comes back into the picture. While I realize the importance of this character, if there’s anything to be said against the story, it most likely has to do with the mundanity of the mother who seems to function mostly as a device to move the narrative forward through odd contrivances and coincidences. I guess such is life though with its quirky twists of fate; but I was far less interested in anything involving Purivance than Chaplin and Coogan, so I would still consider her a weak link.

Other smaller issues creep up towards the ending such as maybe that dream sequence seemed out of place (it felt more like a device to showcase some cool camera tricks than anything else) or that the ending of the film felt a little too abrupt. In the end though, Chaplin’s ability to deftly balance slapstick and melodrama in a neat package wins over anything that could said about The Kid. Here is a film that knows exactly what it’s set out to do: It opens with the following words: “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear” – and that is exactly what we get.

Rating: B+ (great)

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