Double Take: The Kid (1921)

This installment of Double Take turns its gaze to Charlie Chaplin's debut full-length silent film, which is at turns funny, heartbreaking, and tender.

In Charlie Chaplin’s vision of heaven, paradise looks just like real life, only with more flowers and a lot more small harps.

Steve Leftridge: For our seventh of the 500 films under consideration here at Double Take, our Big Randomizer landed on our first silent film. It’s appropriate enough that our first silent is a Charlie Chaplin classic; it’s further fitting that we start with Chaplin’s first feature-length film, 1921’s The Kid. We have four other Chaplin films on the Big List to get to, but here we are able to establish some elements of Chaplin’s comedic philosophy and that curious psychology behind Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, a creation that is difficult to separate from the auteur behind the camera. There’s also a plot (of sorts) to discuss here, and perhaps some social commentary is called for. And while the behind-the-scenes “romantic” drama between Chaplin and his very (very) young costar Lita Grey (she’s the Flirtatious Angel in the dream sequence) may have been the source of scandalous celebrity gossip at the time, Chaplin and little Jackie Coogan supply some moments of real sweetness in this film, along with some humorous set-pieces. I’m wondering, though, how well some of the comedy translates today. During which scene did you come the closest to laughing out loud?

Steve Pick: LOL? That’s reserved more for the Chaplin shorts of the years preceding The Kid, or for some of the sequences in his later flicks like City Lights or Modern Times. You hit the nail on the head with the word “sweetness”, though, since all the funniest bits in The Kid are gentle and kind. Early on, when we see the infant version of Coogan’s character, John, being suckled with a coffee pot plugged with a rubber nipple — that made me chuckle. Or much later, when the Tramp is hiding John from the guard at the flophouse: the speed with which he pulls the cover over the little boy to make it look like Chaplin is bending his legs, combined with the look on his face of “What do you think I’m doing? My legs just need to stretch like this!” brought a big smile to my face. The whole breakfast scene, especially when Charlie brings his head through the hole in his bed blanket to make an instant poncho, is filled with quiet moments of dulcitude and love.

For me, The Kid is less an out-and-out comedy and more of a love story between a boy and a man. But it’s a very specific kind of love story, in which we see them make the best of a difficult situation, as the Tramp can’t earn enough money to keep their home or clothing in decent shape. So, yeah, social commentary is on the table; in 1921, nobody was afraid of showing conditions the poor had to deal with, nor afraid of showing the good qualities of those who suffer economic privations. For that matter, how shocking must it have been to audiences of the time that this film offered a sympathetic viewpoint to a woman who conceived a child out of wedlock. “Her only sin is motherhood,” the title card reads, and that had to make more than a few ladies swoon in the nickelodeons.

One more thought before I turn it back over to you, Steve. Chaplin rarely worked with a costar equal to his charisma, but little Jackie Coogan, all of six years old when The Kid was made, is his equal in so many of the scenes. That smile could melt the heart of the most miserable cynic in the world, and his body language in the fight sequence is masterful, a perfect combination of pure childishness and coached skill. (Oh, and that reminds me: I think I did laugh pretty hard when, after Charlie had declared John’s foe the victor so as to avoid being beaten by the overstuffed big brother, Coogan jumps up again and bops the other kid in the nose one last time.) Again and again, the charm of interaction between these two talents allows The Kid to overcome its paucity of plot. To think 45 years later that little boy would be Uncle Fester in The Addams Family!

Leftridge: Yeah, The Kid doesn’t double me over the way his earlier quick-hit two-reelers do, although it’s a more charming and powerful film. I’m with you on Coogan. His face shows real torment in the back of that wagon as he’s reaching for his adopted daddy, which makes their gut-wrenching hug-and-kiss reunion (after the zany rooftop chase — cinema’s first parkour scene?) all the more moving. John (as the Tramp spontaneously names him in what appears to be Chaplin’s version of a dirty joke) is the Tramp’s miniature doppelgänger: they’re both unwanted societal outcasts; they’re both physically slight but scrappy and able to adapt cleverly to meager conditions; they are both tough when they are forced to be (taking on and getting the best of bigger bullies in fistfights, for instance), but both are tender-hearted at their cores.

So the presence of the child increases the pathos within the typical Chaplin approach of blending humor and sadness. It is a story that, on its surface, is a sorrowful one — an ostracized mother, a deadbeat dad, an abandoned baby, abject poverty, and class prejudice. However, the Tramp persists through his own pitiable circumstances with quiet dignity. He and his son may have but one set of clothes apiece, but he makes sure that the boy’s ears are clean before mealtime. Each day, the Tramp enjoys his morning “promenade”, the title card reads, which is in reality a perilous walk through a filthy crime-ridden alley, where he must dodge garbage being chucked from second-floor windows. This seems key to Chaplin’s great comic decree: he might be eating a miserable pile of glop, but he does so with delicate, refined table manners.

I wonder if I can get you to talk about that dream sequence at the end. I know some critics have considered it unnecessary. So what do you think it’s doing there?

Pick: I don’t know if it’s necessary, but I’m very glad we have it. The Tramp’s dream presents an image of heaven that is far removed from any theological views I’ve encountered, whether we’re talking St. Paul, Dante, or the Talking Heads. It’s a capitalist society, where wings are purchased (albeit without worry of income) and police walk the beat while still carrying guns. Heaven here looks just like real life, only with more flowers and a lot more small harps. Chaplin’s bored expression while he strums his harp is one of the more subtly humorous moments in the film. (Actually, I just re-watched the dream sequence by itself, and it reminded me of just how low-key are many of the best bits in The Kid.) Most importantly, heaven is a place where St. Peter sleeps outside the gate and devils are allowed in to tempt the inhabitants with sexual desire.

“Why don’t you vamp him?” the devil asks the innocent young woman who is attached to the heavenly version of the bully’s father we encountered earlier in the film. So she dances and flirts and moves in closer to the winged and newly clothed Tramp, and he cannot resist her charms. No problem, though, as her sweetheart catches them kissing, and his angelic impulse is merely to shake the Tramp’s hand. For a brief moment, we are left to contemplate the concept of threesomes in the afterlife until the devil whispers “Jealousy” into the big man’s ear, and he punches the Tramp. This sets up quite a melee in Paradise: as wing feathers fly, the other inhabitants gather around the combatants, the cop comes and arrests the Tramp, who wiggles free and dances around his antagonist before flying over him a couple times and seemingly escaping. But in this version of heaven, the police are as likely to kill as they were in Do the Right Thing, and the Tramp is shot down on the very stoop in front of his flat upon which he had fallen asleep.

Leftridge: Just before entering Dreamland, the Tramp is as down and out as he’s ever been: roughed-up, exhausted, locked out of his apartment. Worst of all, he’s lost his boy. Perhaps the Tramp goes to sleep imagining that death would be preferable to continuing on in his current reality, or that the only likely way he’ll ever be reunited with John is in heaven. We can have a little fun with Freud here, too, if we use our imagination. Once the Tramp gets to the great hereafter, maybe he’s worried about the choices he made on earth, all that lusting and jealousy, and he fears that divine retribution awaits him. He synthesizes that source of reckoning with his most frequent and recent earthbound punisher, the ubiquitous strolling policeman.

One also can’t help but notice that the Dreamland sequence appears to have more to do with Chaplin than to do with the Tramp. That is, Chaplin did indeed later pursue Dreamland co-star Lita Grey, who was just 12 years old during production on The Kid. Chaplin might not have made advances toward Grey on this particular set (as when he flies after her in a big hurry after she flashes him some leg in the film), but he did marry her four years later when she was 16 and he was 35. So sin, lust, and guilt may have very well been on Chaplin’s mind when he made this film. He was also going through an ugly divorce from his first wife, with whom he had a son who had died in infancy close to the time of The Kid. Such events had to heighten the emotional content of this film for Chaplin, even if the dream sequence is more of an excuse for Chaplin to play with some frisky imagery.

Pick: I don’t think this four-minute sequence has any strong relationship to the rest of the film, but it is such a pleasure to watch. This was Chaplin’s first foray into feature-length moviemaking, and it still clocks in at a very efficient 67 minutes. Coming out of the two-reel world in which he had starred for so long, Chaplin probably felt there was nothing wrong with throwing the kitchen sink into the story just to keep the audience entertained. If the sequence had been placed much sooner in the film, it may have been seen as a character development for the Tramp, revealing his fatalistic sense of the world and his determination to take what he could get despite the inevitable suffering. But it comes right before the end and instead serves as a distraction from the main plot, a delaying tactic to put off the inevitable double reunion at the end.

Which brings me to a last question for you, Steve. Given that comedies had barely begun to develop into the thematically coherent feature-length films that drama had already achieved by 1921, how do you think The Kid holds up as a whole? We’ve talked about the acting, the things that made us laugh, and the role of a single sequence, but what do you think of the entire package?

Leftridge: I can point to some flaws that leave the overall vehicle feeling less than optimally balanced. Some of the vignettes go on a tad too long, like the bully sequence, and the Dreamland segment is shoehorned in, as we’ve said. The reunion “scene” at the end feels very abrupt and leaves me wondering about custodial arrangements. The element of the baby-discarding mother turned renowned actress also requires some suspension of disbelief. Yet, for all of that, I still find the film enormously entertaining to watch. For a short film, The Kid contains enough wonderful moments to add up to an excellent whole.

Chaplin creates great warmth and chemistry between the Tramp and the kid, and even during moments of blatant contrivance — especially when the mother holds a slum baby and aches over the memory of her lost son at the very moment that John appears next to her in the doorway — I’m completely on board with the heart-melting sentiment. I love the irony in the fact that people like to quote Chaplin, the great silent star, but he likely would have dismissed our attempts to analyze this film or any of his others. “What do you want meaning for?” he once said. “Life is desire, not a meaning.” And that’s Chaplin’s and The Kid’s lasting gift: the feeling we get from a brief look at a man and his son negotiating life’s desire, at turns funny, heartbreaking, and tender.