Comedy · Criterion Collection · Silent Film · United States

#799 The Kid (1921)

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#799 The Kid

1921 // USA // Charlie Chaplin

Criterion Release Date: 16 Feb 2016 (LINK)

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If I have to choose one silent film for people who has never watched a silent film before, I would pick The Kid without a second thought. It is short in length but not short in content (just slightly under one hour screening time), and most importantly, it carries the universal language of love, lost and family, just as the famous opening title card stated “A picture with a smile, and perhaps, a tear”. Yes, the dialogues are silent, the pictures are black and white, but they never hinders the audience from understanding and enjoying the story. All in all it’s the visual gag from Charlie Chaplin’s “A Tramp” that made us laugh, the desperate tears upon separation from Jack Coogan’s “The Kid” that made us cry.

The film opens in a D.W. Griffith style melodrama, a woman (Edna Purviance) abandoned her illegitimate child after discharge from a charity hospital, a story parallel to the one in Orphans of the Storm, a Griffith’s film made in the same year. Nonetheless, the tone immediately changed to more uplifting and comedic when the Tramp showed up in a alley, picked up the abandoned baby accidentally at first, and willingly after reading the leftover note by the mother. Charlie Chaplin’s pantomime gesture, meticulous utilization of props integrated into the visual gag and storytelling are hard to be missed.

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One gag can be build up and used, and still paid off upon the second and third time, for example we saw the debris being thrown down the alley, the second time it hit the tramp, we got a small laugh; and now for the third time, there is no more debris but a baby lying on the ground, so the gag became the moment while the tramp discovered the baby and looked up to the building, as he believed the baby was thrown away just like the debris. We would laugh at the tramp’s naivety, at the same time, we sadly realize he is right, the baby was abandoned just like throw-away debris. Throughout the film we could find such small details of gesture and moment that provide a gag-within-a-gag strategy, showing Chaplin’s meticulous planning in choreography and hidden meaning.

The story soon jumped 5 years ahead, showing the growing up kid played by Jack Coogan, a child actor almost as good as, if not better than, Chaplin. There’s a balanced naturalism in their performance, filled in the 5 years blank with a genuine father-and-son relationship convincingly. Jack Coogan was as charming as a child actor could be, the moment when he was being forced to separate from his adoptive father is truly heart breaking. A similar tour-de-force performance in contemporary Hollywood could be found in Jacob Tremblay from Room (2015), both gave an outstanding and emotionally affecting act upon the most unbearable moment of human life. Charlie Chaplin may find his own shadow on Coogan as both worked in theater/dance hall in a very young age.

There are lots of laugh-out-loud moment, like the bully-turn-boxing scenario, foreshadowing a later boxing scene in City Lights (1931); or the flophouse scene when the tramp has to hide the kid in order to avoid paying two people price. But the transcendent moment, in my opinion, is the dream sequence. Chaplin rarely incorporate a non-reality section in his films, but in The Kid, arguably the climax of the film, he chose to insert a dream world of people (with dog) with wings. The pure paradise was soon invaded by the devil, causing the flying Tramp being shot down by the police. There is the uncaring inflexible bureaucratic system to be blamed of, or the biological parents who failed to share the responsibility of raising a child. Chaplin showed a world full of sinful people, but at the same time, joyful and righteous acts. Like any other Chaplin’s films, there is a happy ending, a belief in humanity. The Kid is more that a laugh and a tear, it’s also what humanity can achieve via cinema.

Film Rating: 5/5
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