22 August 2008

The Kid (1921)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 50 mins.

"Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot." - Charles Chaplin

Chaplin's The Kid is not a perfect movie, but it has become (with good reason) one of his most treasured and famous films precisely because he had such an acute sense of where to put the comedy, where to put the tragedy, and how to shoot both. When you watch a film like The Kid and then move on to The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, and Modern Times, you realize just how entertaining and brilliant Chaplin was. He was a director, a writer, a producer, an actor, an editor, and a composer – frequently all on the same film. There are few working in the arts today that can claim to wear so many hats on so many intelligent productions. Because his films were silent and his character so ordinary, he transcended language barriers. It's not a question of whether Chaplin will be remembered 500 years from now, but who else will be remembered as "The Twentieth Century."

The film opens with a woman (Edna Purviance) who abandons her newborn child with a note urging the finder to love and care for the baby. It is the Tramp (Chaplin) who discovers the boy and eventually adopts him, admittedly after trying unsuccessfully to pawn the baby off onto someone. Five years pass and the baby has grown into the Kid (an impressive Jackie Coogan, who would later go on to play Uncle Fester on the television show The Addams Family), who runs schemes with his father to make a living. The two find themselves getting in trouble easily, often in very funny ways made all the more so by combining the child-like innocence and naivete of the Tramp with the innocence of an actual child.

The Kid has humor throughout, but its first half is decidedly bent toward the comic while the second half possesses an incredible pathos. Melodrama is perhaps the only genre of silent cinema that has not aged very well, but Chaplin knew how to play all the right chords and make them last only as long as they needed to; it isn't simply that the melodrama in The Kid is balanced nicely against the humor (which incidentally is true), but Chaplin was a talented filmmaker who could make it work so timelessly. The plot's main conflict involves the mother searching for her orphaned son and the Tramp's determination to keep the Kid for himself, battling the police and government officials who wish to take the boy away. You might roll your eyes when Lillian Gish screams in fear of her abusive father in D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms, but watch the boy scream for the Tramp from the back of an orphanage's truck and then watch the Tramp jump from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of that truck and I defy you to feel unmoved.

His personal investment in the film is well noted. Much of it grew from the death of his own infant son, and finishing it became somewhat challenging as the complicated divorce proceedings with his wife Mildred Harris compounded. (When she tried to seize his assets, he took the negatives of The Kid across state lines and edited it in a hotel room.) Out of all the tumult in his life at the time, he fashioned a piece of art that is smooth and even. Most of its faults are minor glitches in what should be completely smooth. There's a scene near the end for example (I wouldn't consider this a spoiler, by the way) that involves a surreal dream sequence of a city of angels that is certainly symbolic and telling but also surprising and distracting. Even the cutaways to the mother and her quest for the boy cause the film to lose momentum.

The Kid has been called Chaplin's first feature film, and, depending on your metrics, that could be the case. The 1921 release was 68 minutes, but like many of Chaplin's films, he re-edited it later in his career, adding a new score and excising 18 minutes (now it is only four minutes longer than Shoulder Arms). What seems beyond debate, I think, is that it is certainly Chaplin's first great film. Although he had creative control over most of his productions up to 1921, The Kid might be the first example of Chaplin-as-auteur, a meticulous and conscientious humorist who had a soft-spot tenderness and love. It has a wonderful blend of comedy and drama, and for those who have only a passing interest in Chaplin, you could do no better than to begin by watching The Kid.


Farzan 23 August, 2008  

Great review, this is one of my favorites

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