Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Kid (1921)

Director: Charlie Chaplin                                Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Film Score: Charlie Chaplin                           Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance and Carl Miller

Though I’m much more a fan of Buster Keanton’s character than Chaplin’s little tramp, there’s no denying Chaplin’s visual style as a director is light years beyond any of the other silent comedians. And that is really the area that I appreciate about him most. Another thing that was great about Chaplin was his ability to wring emotion out of his dramatic scenes that were every bit as charged as what D.W. Griffith could do. Chaplin had a deft touch with the camera, especially in his set ups and the way he framed shots. In many ways he was a forward thinking director who most fit the auteur theory in the silent era. He not only wrote and directed and starred in his films, but often wrote the film scores which include memorable melodies that have stood the test of time even today. The Kid, his first feature length film, boasts his most famous composition and is as masterful as silent comedy gets.

The story is a simple one. Edna Purviance leaves the charity hospital with her baby, desperate because she cannot provide for him and not knowing where the father, Carl Miller as a poor artist, has gone. She leaves him in the backseat of a car in front of a mansion in the hopes the wealthy owners will raise her son. But thieves steal the car and instead the boy winds up in Chaplin’s lap. The film jumps ahead five years and has the young Jackie Coogan working him and living a fine life together as tramps. Meanwhile Purviance has become famous as a performer while Miller has equaled her fame as a painter. She does charity work in Chaplin’s neighborhood and, discovering that Coogan is her child, offers a reward in the paper for his return, leading to a tearful reunion in the police station.

As this was Chaplin’s first real feature, he used many actors that had worked for him previously on his series of shorts for the Mutual Film Corporation. Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s leading lady in all of the Mutuals, plays the woman. Albert Austin, the great character man, plays one of the men in the shelter, while the pickpocket is none other than Coogan’s father. Henry Bergman does double duty as Purviance’s benefactor as well as the man who runs the shelter. And the flirty angel is Lita Gray, who would go on to star in The Gold Rush. Chaplin gives his usual terrific performance, by now having made dozens of shorts featuring his character, but Jackie Coogan is stupendous. His tiny body juxtaposed with his prodigious acting talent must have been a marvel for audiences of the time to watch. He and Chaplin are superb in their scenes together and one wishes they could have done more work together.

The film, of course, was a smash hit with audiences at the time. There are some great comedy sequences, the window repair scam, the fight with the neighbor kid, and especially the rooftop chase. But as in nearly every great comedy feature from the silent era, the story runs out of gas at some point and that’s when the star inserts a lengthy sequence that is really only intended to pad the film to feature length. For Chaplin in this film it is the dream sequence, where everyone in the tenement gets angel wings and the paradise is spoiled by a group of devils. He does, however, make some good transitions into and out of the sequence. Other than that, however, The Kid is a near perfect blend of comedy and drama and remains one of the comedian’s best films.

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