One hundred years ago, Charlie Chaplain had an ambitious, forward-thinking idea.
He used his star power to demand total creative control of his next movie. The studio let him write, direct, produce, star, and edit the project – taking as long as he wanted.
After a bloated 13 months of production, Charlie Chaplain released “The Kid.” The world was used to seeing Chaplain’s character, The Tramp, in 20-minute short films; “The Kid” was feature length. The world was used to seeing The Tramp in slapstick comedies; “The Kid” had drama and social commentary.
“The Kid” was the second highest grossing film of 1921 and holds up extremely well today. I wanted to watch it mostly to learn about early cinema. But I ended up enjoying the movie thoroughly.
It is interesting that America’s favorite movie character was The Tramp. Because we are not used to seeing lead characters living in abject poverty.
When we meet him, The Tramp lives in a shabby one-room apartment where he has to put a quarter in a machine just to get gas for his stove. In a funny scene, The Tramp takes a cigarette case out of his pocket. The case is actually a sardine can, and it contains various cigarette and cigar butts that he probably found discarded on the street.
The Tramp has neither the resources nor the inclination to be a father. But that’s just what happens. He comes across an abandoned baby on the street. Our hapless hero doesn’t really have a choice so he does the right thing and takes the infant home with him.
Five years later, The Tramp and little John are as close as any real father and son can be. They live together and work together. Jackie Coogan became a breakout star in his own right playing the kid, and his amazing acting is the glue that makes the movie work.
The scene where idiotic government authorities come to take John away is exceptionally well done. Chaplain suddenly brings emotion into a slapstick comedy. We earnestly feel for the kid as he is being carted away and we root wholeheartedly for The Tramp as he works franticly to get his son back. Chaplain nails the drama without resorting to melodrama.
The film goes from effective to fantastic in the final act.
The Tramp is exhausted from searching for John and collapses on the steps in front of his apartment. He suddenly finds himself in Dreamland.
The Dreamland sequence is wild and imaginative. There are angels and devils and surprising special effects. Chaplain’s future wife, Lita Grey, steals the scene as a flirtatious cherub.
Charlie Chaplain is using “The Kid” to give his perspective on morality and religion. But I admit that I don’t know what he’s trying to say. I am guessing that his satire made more sense to people who grew up in Victorian England like he did. A whole lot about Christianity and morality has changed since then.
What hasn’t changed is great cinema. Charlie Chaplain knew how to make a well-crafted, crowd-pleasing film. That’s why every single person reading this column still knows who he is. And only half of you know who was president in 1921.
(It’s okay, you can Google it now; I won’t tell anyone).