The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp
Jackie Coogan as The Kid
Edna Purviance as The Woman

Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Written by Charlie Chaplin

Running Time: 68 min.
Not Rated

For the longest time, I figured that any significant leap forward in filmmaking technology was an appreciated advancement. Sure, things like black and white and silence can be used to great effect (see this year’s Best Picture), but that’s when they’re implemented by choice rather than limitation. Technicolor > black and white. Talkies > silent pictures. New, no matter how clumsy in its early stages, is always better than old.

…or so I thought until I saw my first 3D movie last December. After paying an extra $3 for a little pair of plastic glasses, I spent the next two hours with the vague sensation of seeing out of both eyes separately, a whopping headache, and a lot of unresolved anger towards Stephen Spielberg.

All of which has little to do with The Kid, save for making me wonder if sometime in the late ’20s, someone walked past a movie house advertising yet another talkie and muttered to herself, “Seriously?”

Movie poster for The Kid

When did you last see six reels of joy?

The Kid was my first silent movie, and if you’re going to start somewhere, Chaplin is it. It opens upon a young single mother abandoning her infant child in the hopes of a better life for both of them, but her plan goes awry and the baby finds himself in the hands of The Little Tramp—one of Charlie Chaplin’s recurring characters.

The Tramp, after trying his best to ditch the baby, eventually relents and keeps him, naming him John. Flash-forward five years and the two are partners in crime, dabbling in a little light con-artistry. Meanwhile, the mother has become an actress who, never forgetting the loss of her baby, does charity work with underprivileged children. Things come to a head when John falls ill: the doctor treating him discovers the not-so-legal adoption, the Tramp tries to rescue the boy from the authorities, and the mother realizes that John is her son.

This movie is funny and heartstring-tugging in turn. The scenes between Chaplin and the kid are absolutely adorable, and I suspect the child labour laws of the time were such that they did some pretty unpleasant things to wring such a great performance out of little Jackie Coogan.

Jackie Coogan in The Kid

I admit it. One of my ovaries just twitched.

This movie is also old. This movie is so old. “How old is it?” I hear you say.

I don’t know…like, older than my grandparents? The point is, when I think of old movies, I generally think of things made under the Hays Code. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see how sensitively the movie treated the character of the mother. There’s nothing at all lurid in the film, but I can’t help but think that if it were made ten years later, she would have had to have been narratively punished for being a no-good hussy. As it is, Edna Purviance’s performance is wonderful.

The lack of speech wasn’t something I keenly felt, although I was surprised at how much there was to lip-read in between the dialogue cards. Chaplin is incredibly engaging to watch in any scene he’s in, and the emotions come through without any of the mugging or…I shudder to say, mime, that I had braced myself for.

What did surprise me was the soundtrack. I knew that music usually accompanied silent movies, but I thought—at least in a big picture like this—that the songs were chosen to reflect the scenes. Apparently, heist music hadn’t been invented yet in 1921. Or fight music. Or threatening-a-baby-with-a-gun music.

Still, constant plinky piano aside, this movie is recommended for anyone who likes physical comedy, adorable moppets, women done wrong who set things right, critiques of failing social safety nets, and the prospect of angel dogs on strings.


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