The Kid (1921, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Cooper
The experience of being taken from his mother and placed in a home for destitute children had a profound effect on Charlie Chaplin, and its apparent that those traumatizing childhood experiences had a strong influence on The Kid. Chaplin also seemed to always identify more with the people living at the bottom rung of society’s ladder and that can be seen here as well. At time maudlin and over sentimental, The Kid withstands being simply a mushy film by delivering strong laughs and telling an honest story.
The film opens with a woman newly released from the hospital, having been abandoned by the father. She abandons the child in a parked car and through a series of slapstick circumstances the child ends up in the care of the Little Tramp (Chaplin). The Kid grows up, he and the Tramp embark on a series of neighborhood scams to make ends meet. Eventually, the Kid gets sick and the Tramp must fight to keep his child from being taken from him.
What’s most startling about the film is the abject poverty and dirtiness of the film. These characters truly live in the dankest slums, where violence is a daily and commonplace occurrence. Despite this coldness of the world around them, Chaplin does a wonderful job of conveying the loving nature of the Tramp and the Kid’s household. They are both shown taking care of each other and that’s what makes the scene where the Kid is being taken from the house even more heartbreaking. Some of the plot twists the film takes are ludicrous but they fit with the more earnest tone of that time period.
It’s worth noting that Chaplin had lost a child, who had lived only three days, right before he met little Jackie Cooper and began developing the concept of this film around the young star. It can been seen that Chaplin was working through the issues of his own childhood and his emotions after losing a child of his own. The Kid is not a perfect film, Chaplin made far better, but it does highlight his ability to take short film material and begin to stretch it into longer narratives.