Thoughts On Chaplin’s “The Kid”

If you ask a Chaplin fan which film they think is his masterpiece, the choice is often City Lights. At times there’s a three-way tie between City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. A few intrepid fans give The Gold Rush some votes, as well.

And yet, there’s another wonderful Chaplin film out there that maybe gets less attention than his post-1920s films. I’ve seen some people describe it as “thoroughly enjoyable,” and “memorable,” and remark that it “holds up extremely well.” Often, it gets the “it’s sentimental, but…” treatment. (Being sentimental is simply not trendy nowadays, you see.) But you know what? I will give it my “Chaplin’s Masterpiece” vote in a flash: The Kid (1921).

Out of all his early comedies, The Kid represents the fullest flowering of Chaplin’s creative talents. To watch it today remains one of the most sublimely emotional experiences in the movies. It has the timelessness of a work by Dickens. Heck, Dickens wishes he had written The Kid.

The story is fairly simple: a despairing unwed mother leaves her baby in a wealthy person’s car with a note saying “Please love and care for this orphan child.” Two thieves steal the car and leave the baby in an alley. The Little Tramp finds him and, after some initial unwillingness, decides to raise him as his own son. Despite his loving care, society intervenes, bent upon putting the Kid in an orphanage…

There are certain elements of The Kid that Chaplin handled with more confidence than in his other films. Mainly pathos, of course (wherever there’s talk of Charlie the word pathos is seldom far behind). He’d been striving stubbornly for pathos at least since The Tramp (1915), but this time it was supported by a deeply personal touch unmatched by Chaplin’s other work.

The Kid, in a sense, was created from a tragedy. On July 7, 1919, Chaplin and his first wife Mildred Harris had their first child, Norman Spencer (Mildred nicknamed him “The Little Mouse”). Sadly, Norman was born with an intestinal deformity and only lived for three days. Later in life Mildred said of Chaplin’s grief: “That’s the only thing I can remember about Charlie…that he cried when the baby died.”

A mere ten days after the death of the “Little Mouse” Chaplin started to audition babies at the studio, the outline of a plot in his mind. Perhaps he drew inspiration from the pain. Perhaps his work would provide him with a bit of catharsis. For while films like Easy Street (1917) and A Dog’s Life (1918) would draw strongly on memories from his childhood in the poorer parts of London, The Kid would top them all.

The sad details of that childhood are well known. Chaplin’s alcoholic father abandoned the family early on, and his aspiring singer mother struggled to feed Charlie and his brother Sydney. When she was stricken with a mental illness the boys were on their own. Chaplin never forgot the misery of those days, and it’s not hard to draw a line from them all the way to The Kid. 

In the film, we have Edna Purviance’s struggling mother who later becomes a successful singer–a life Chaplin would’ve wished for his mother.  We have the talented Jackie Coogan’s character, perhaps filling in for the son he lost. We have the Tramp, being the loyal and heroic father Chaplin never had. We have the small garret much like the one the Chaplin family lived in at 3 Pownall Terrance.

The very building, shortly before being demolished in 1966.

I can say in all honesty that this film has moved me more than any other Chaplin film–yes, even more than City Lights. Anyone can sympathize with his Tramp being generally lonely or mistreated, as in The Gold Rush and City Lights, but there are elements of The Kid that can hit far closer to home. And I know I can’t be alone in this.

What people couldn’t understand the helplessness of having their lives torn apart by an abusive authority?

What young, single mother couldn’t sympathize with Edna’s character and the pain of giving up her baby?

What kid couldn’t feel the terror of being taken away from his parents?

What parents couldn’t feel the devastation of losing, or even nearly losing, a child?

Many of Chaplin’s other films would touch upon broad themes: The Gold Rush explores both hunger and heartbreak, Modern Times critiques industrialization, The Great Dictator looks at the brotherhood of man itself. But The Kid is concerned with the relationship between a parent and child–with family–something not only equally universal but, again, profoundly personal.

In a sense, this boosts the comedy, giving it an edge of sweetness. The Kid is darn irresistible, full of touches like the Kid taste-testing the pancakes he’s cooking and then giving a little nod of satisfaction like a fastidious chef, and sneaking a kiss on the Tramp’s ear to his too-manly-for-that-nonsense chagrin.

Image result for chaplin the kid pancakes

Then there are broader scenes like the one where the Tramp is gleefully flirting with a woman who turns out to be the wife of a cop, and a bit of the Tramp’s classic irreverence in the shady window-replacing business he runs with the Kid’s help. And I love the massive piles of food the Tramp loads onto their dinner plates–and the two stacks of pancakes that he carefully ensures are exactly the same size (no one could ever say he didn’t make sure the Kid was well fed!).

All this drama and humor combines into a perfectly paced story, drawing me into its early 20th-century world every time. The emotional peak of the Tramp rescuing the Kid from the asylum authorities reduces me to a blubbering mess. Whenever people complain about how “overly sentimental” Chaplin supposedly can be, I can only pray that they have not yet seen The Kid–because what sort of stone-cold heart could not be moved by The Kid?

One thing that’s little discussed is the look of the film. It’s full of textures, the kind common to that pre-plastic world–worn brick, old wood, dusty clothing, stained walls, scattered grit and bits of plaster. It’s full of humble details–the broken cast-off chairs furnishing the Tramp’s garret, the large bowl used as a pot cover, a rusty horseshoe nailed over the door. These details were very deliberate on Chaplin’s part, based on the poverty-ridden streets he had grown up on. They also reflected the tenements many lower class people still lived in at the time. There’s a rough, gritty beauty to the whole film. It is a Time and a Place preserved for us on celluloid.

The Kid is significant to film history not for only being a masterpiece, but for being the masterpiece that cemented Chaplin’s reputation. While he was world-famous since about 1914 his films weren’t immune to the critics, who weren’t shy if they thought his latest work wasn’t funny or creative enough (A Day’s Pleasure and Sunnyside were regarded as disappointments). But The Kid changed all that. If there were ever any doubt about Chaplin’s being an “artist” before then, it was a permanent part of his identity post-The Kid.

Image result for chaplin the kid pancakes

I love The Kid. It’s one of my favorite films of the silent era. In my opinion it’s Chaplin’s finest work, and if I had to I might even place it in a top 10 silents list. Part of its extraordinary quality is that Chaplin “wrote what he knew,” as writing classes always tell you to do–he based the plot on his life experiences, whether intuitively or purposefully. The pathos has a ring of authenticity to it.

Chaplin ultimately hoped to be remembered for The Gold Rush. But if anything he deserves to be remembered for The Kid. The image of little Jackie Coogan in his adult cap and his baggy trousers, holding the hand of the Tramp, is as resonant now as it must’ve been for viewers in 1921. And I think it’s safe to say that it always will be.

Extra Thoughts and Some Trivia

  • It’s not uncommon for even masterpieces to have a flaw or two. The Kid is no exception with its dream sequence. I’ve read numerous attempts to explain it or defend it, but so far am unconvinced. You might be able to interpret it as being a reflection on the Tramp’s life: his experiences have been so tough that even his dreams of Heaven itself are spoiled when “sin creeps in” (all theological impossibilities aside). That by itself might be enough to justify the dream sequence. However, the creeping sin is sexual temptation and jealousy. How is that really related to story of the Tramp and the kid being separated by social workers? And how does the bleak ending of the dream square with the hopeful ending of The Kid? What the heck, Chaplin? It’s not wonder viewers have been scratching their heads about those scenes ever since the film was released.
  • That is none other than Lita Grey playing the “flirting angel,” at only twelve years old. A few years later she would be Chaplin’s 15-year-old bride. I’m surprised that many Chaplin fans don’t talk about this more often–but maybe it’s because it makes the scene a little too disturbing (“Vamp him!” “Getting Flighty.”).
  • A friend of mine who has been researching The Kid says that the initial idea for this dream sequence had come surprisingly early in the filmmaking process–not shoehorned in later (Lita Grey later claimed it was created just for her).
  • The “big brother” who menaces the Tramp is supposed to be an Irish tough, which is why he has an exaggerated look. The Tramp’s imagination has a kind of “revenge” on him during the dream sequence–when you first see him he’s prancing around goofily in his angel costume.
  • The scene where the Kid is taken away and the Tramp is being restrained by the authorities, the tears in his eyes were the first time audiences had seen him cry. Chaplin doubtless was working through the very real pain of having been taken from his mother as a child.
  • Jackie Coogan was a massive success as The Kid, not only because of his talent but because he was the symbol of all the orphaned children left in the wake of WWI. In 1924 he helped raise over a million dollars for Near East Relief, and had a special audience with the Pope. Sadly, after his father’s death his mother and stepfather tried to take control over the fortune he had earned as a child star, leading to legal struggles that sucked away most of the money. The Coogan Act was passed to prevent this happening to other child actors. Later in life Coogan would play Uncle Fester in The Addams Family.

33 thoughts on “Thoughts On Chaplin’s “The Kid”

  1. Fabulous post, Lea! I agree with you that in many ways The Kid is the most universal of Chaplin’s films because of its themes of family and home–not to mention the desire to be treated with dignity and compassion, no matter what your social status or situation in life. You’ve done a really nice job of making a convincing case for The Kid’s amazing cinematic strengths and importance in Chaplin’s career!

    Your thoughts on the heaven sequence got me thinking a bit about it. One thing that I noticed when looking at earlier drafts of the scenario for The Kid (compiled after filming was completed) was that the heaven sequence once had even more scenes that related to the theme that in heaven, you wouldn’t have to have any money. The price of everything is a kiss, which led to some silly gags that were cut (Charlie fleeing the shopkeeper who sells him his wings because the man insists on a kiss, for instance, and finally blowing the shopkeeper a kiss and saying, “Keep the change”). There was another, similar “Pay me with a kiss” scene at a lunchwagon. I wonder if part of what Chaplin was trying to get across with this sequence was sort of a poor man’s view that all his problems would be solved if only there was no such thing as poverty, that he could be reunited with The Kid if only he weren’t poor anymore? Maybe it was a way of showing that the Tramp knew that even if he got back The Kid, his problems wouldn’t be over unless the world changed pretty radically? In that context, the heaven sequence makes a little more sense (and also fits in with Chaplin’s growing political awareness), though it still takes a lot of mental wiggling to make it make sense–which I think supports your contention that the scene is flawed.

    I also always wonder if part of what spurred the heaven sequence’s themes of sexual temptation and jealousy was that Chaplin was having an affair with his friend Max Eastman’s lover Florence Deshon while making The Kid. Max was a great proponent of free love, and yet there was still some messy emotional fallout from Chaplin’s relationship with Florence and Max’s simultaneous relationship with modern dancer Lisa Duncan.

    I always think of Max and Florence when Chuck Riesner’s “tough” is initially saying, “Go ahead, kiss!” to Charlie and Lita with a tolerant smile on his face, but then gets violently jealous. I’m purely speculating here, but I wonder if Chaplin was inspired at least in part by the love triangle with Florence and Max (rectangle, if you count Lisa).

    That said, you’re right that these themes of jealousy and “free,” no-strings-attached love have nothing to do with the rest of The Kid. I’m curious what you and the other Silent-ology readers think might have been a better way to end? How would The Kid resolve itself in your ideal movie world? I’ll think about it myself and see if I can come up with an answer I like!

    • Thank you for this awesome comment, Carrie! These details are fascinating. The dream sequence is a little on the long side as it is, imagine what it would be like if all those scenes were left in there.

      Hmm, a better ending for The Kid…aside from removing the dream entirely, which is tempting but would maybe make the film too short (hey, another theory for why it’s there! ;-P), maybe it would’ve worked better if it had just focused on the Tramp and the Kid, instead of those vamping angel scenes. Then there could’ve been some humor to lighten the mood, and then maybe ended with them being separated again–just to drive home the Tramp’s despair, and maybe the idea that he can’t imagine even Heaven not being spoiled eventually (as I touched on in my article). It would fit in with your speculation about Chaplin trying to make a point about society, too.

      A slightly longer end scene, with a little less ambiguity, might’ve been nice too. Chaplin starts the film with religious references to Purviance’s character, maybe he could’ve touched on that again. Although it might be difficult to do in a way that isn’t clumsy or overly obvious.

  2. The other thing that strikes me is that I really don’t think The Kid is that sentimental compared to many films. Compare it, for instance, to Jackie Coogan’s later films. In those, there are many scenes designed to just milk sympathy for Jackie as a poor, tattered orphan and contrived just to feature teary close-ups of him. In The Kid, he’s a sturdy, self-reliant kid, and his relationship with Chaplin’s character only gets really emotional when they almost lose each other–which is totally appropriate. I think in The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr does an excellent job of showing how Chaplin “earned” the sentiment in The Kid in a very intentional way.

    Anyway, I’m so glad you wrote this insightful post about The Kid, and I look forward to what others will have to say about it.

    • Agreed, the story of The Kid is an emotional one but certainly nothing like the kind of sappy sentiment you see in lesser films! Chaplin’s work in general has a reputation for being “over-sentimental” that might not be quite deserved. At times he does milk the pathos maybe a tad too much (as in The Gold Rush) but overall he does take the care to back it up with a good, human story.

      So glad you enjoyed the post, Carrie! 🙂

  3. Fascinating stuff. I’m not sure I’ve ever really given Chaplin a chance (it might have been a mistake to start with Limelight, which is probably the weirdest film I’ve ever seen, and not in a good way). Sounds like The Kid might be a decent antidote!

  4. Such a beautifully written post. I love how you point out the details of the film (its textures, for example) and how it relates to Chaplin’s real life. I’ve always loved ‘The Kid’ and would rank it right up at the top of Chaplin’s works; it’s a major film in his oeuvre.

    I’d never really thought about the heaven dream sequence but you made some good observations on how it doesn’t quite fit in with the film’s focus on the Tramp and the Child. In an odd way it does pick up on some earlier themes in the film, of Purviance’s sex-sin-salvation narrative (a title card tells us that her only sin is “motherhood”: and her devoting herself to the poor is a way to compensate for the loss of her child). What I do like about the sequence is how Chaplin imagines heaven from a poor person’s point of view — everyone still lives in a slum, but now the place is clean and flowers grow on door frames, and the cops are polite and kind. My guess is that the temptation sequence with Lita Grey was first and foremost meant for comedy; to function as lighthearted relief from the Tramp’s sadness at losing his son. Chaplin may have been trying to find a way to get back to the comedy in his story and he comes up with a classic farce situation in the dream sequence.

    Viewers today may associate Chaplin with sentimentality only, but it’s interesting to note how earthy he was in his films, which are often filled with sex gags and even toilet humor. He was never one-note or simplistic in his art. Thanks for your terrific post!

    • Ah, your thought about the sequence being meant for comic relief might not be too far off the mark–Chaplin might’ve been nervous about the amount of serious drama in his film and tried to add more comedy. Still, if that were all the scene was meant for, that seems a tad inappropriate considering the seriousness of the Tramp’s predicament…in my opinion, anyhow.

      I totally agree that many viewers think of Chaplin as “too sentimental” and little else. In his short films particularly his characters was always irreverent and mischievous–flirting with pretty girls, kicking people, pranking them, etc. That’s a part of why audiences at the time were crazy about his character, too–that “oh no he didn’t!” edge! That’s another reason why I think The Kid is his best: he retained a lot of that “spunk” that Chaplin audiences already knew and loved. In The Gold Rush, he became significantly meeker.

  5. The Gold Rush gets my vote as best Chaplin picture, but The Kid is certainly not as appreciated as it should be, and by that I mean on its own merits and not by its historical importance. I would certainly place it above The Circus and all of his sound work!

    • Most definitely! Poor The Circus…Chaplin tried so hard, but he just couldn’t win with all that was happening to him at the time. I love The Gold Rush too, but I simply can’t help being moved by The Kid’s emotional edge. And the Tramp character in The Gold rush is surprisingly meek–whenever I watch it I can’t help wondering what happened to the spunky Charlie of the comedy shorts era! City Lights is a silent comedy that’s just about perfection–only it’s no longer really “of” the silent era. The Kid is right there in the heart of it, and it’s not quite tainted by Chaplin’s later desire to impart political messages, or his more self-conscious striving toward pathos.

    • Thanks for sharing! Glad to see you drop by. Coogan really is just astonishing, isn’t he? Supposedly he was such a perfect mimic that Charlie would simply act out what he wanted him to do, and Coogan would imitate him to the letter.

  6. I already shared this wonderful blog of yours on my Chaplin Facebook page. I think you covered just about every aspect of the movie that could be covered, and expertly so. The only point I would add is that Chaplin obviously understood the bedrock rule: You don’t screw around with someone else’s kid.

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  10. “what sort of stone-cold heart could not be moved by The Kid?” There is so much meaning in that question. Whether you cry or not, this movie will be in your mind forever. When I think Chaplin, I instantly think of The Kid (after the mustache of course!). I believe this is way above and beyond the more talked about films in all movies. Yes, I say all movies, not just silent! (Adventurous statement, I know). This is always one of the first silents I show those who are willing. It gives me that simple sweet moving feeling that I got when I watched True Heart Susie, except this one makes me cry every time. It’s so beautiful, and it makes me wonder if they made Jackie Coogan cry, or if that was acting. (The emotion seemed so real!)

    • Oh, I really agree with your adventurous statement! And I would argue that The Kid is ultimately Chaplin’s greatest film. A big secret of mine is that the ending of City Lights barely makes me well up for whatever reason, but the scene where the Tramp and the Kid reunites? I’m a basketcase.

      Chaplin said that Jackie was made to cry by his father, who took him aside and basically threatened to send him to a workhouse if he didn’t tear up. As we can see, the threat clearly worked. Also, YIKES.

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  13. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who thought the dream sequence in The Kid was odd! Until that point, I thought the movie was slightly maudlin at times with a few funny scenes scattered throughout. When the dream started, I was thoroughly confused… Is it an allegory for what is happening? Is supposed to be funny? Should I be having to think this hard about it?

    In the interviews that I’ve seen and read with Jackie Coogan, he said that Chaplin told him sad stories before the crying scene and made mournful faces at him while filming to get him in the right frame of mind. It’s possible that he is being dutiful to the memory of his father by not mentioning any threats that he made about repercussions for a poor performance.

    • I’ll bet you’re right about Jackie–it’s not uncommon for kids to feel like they have to “protect” their parents, even if they’re being mistreated.

      Yes, that sequence never quite makes sense to me. At least we know Chaplin was trying to go “deep”!

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  16. Watching the highest grossing movies of 1921, The Kid really stands out. Of the seven top-grossers that year, The Kid was the only one not based on pre-existering literary or stage material, which I found very interesting.

    The dream sequence– yeah, I got nothing. It’s cute in its own way, but it never feels properly integrated into the narrative.

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