Monday, March 26, 2012
Classic Movie Review: Charlie Chaplin's The Kid
Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid is unique among his films in that it’s the only time we see the Tramp as a family man. Normally he’s on his own and breezing through life. Occasionally there’s a girl and sometimes he even wins her in the end. But to see the Tramp with a child to care for reveals a side of the character unseen either before or after.
To be sure, the Tramp comes to fatherhood like most things in his life – unwillingly and unwittingly. At the start of the film a young woman leaves a charity hospital with baby in arms. Destitute and without means to care for the infant she leaves it in the car of a wealthy man. Regretful a short time later she returns, but the car has been stolen by two thieves who leave the baby in an alley. This series of coincidences leads to the Tramp finding the baby. He picks it up believing it belongs to a passerby. Yet one more coincidence – a passing beat cop – precludes the possibility he can put the child back in the alley. And so a father is born.
We jump ahead five years and the boy (Jackie Coogan) and the Tramp have a cozy arrangement whereby the boy goes around breaking windows and then the Tramp comes by to fix them for pay. He’s taught the child how to survive on the street and without even realizing it, become his father. I don’t think the Tramp understands the bond he has with the child until a doctor calls the state orphanage to come take the boy away.
This sets up one of the most exciting chases and some of the biggest emotional moments of Chaplin’s career. The sight of the Tramp looking despondent as he is held back while the boy is taken and the shots of the child pleading with his captors to bring him back to his father is enough to melt the heart of the most cynical viewer. Then, impossibly, the Tramp breaks free and executes a rooftop dash to catch the truck, beat the guards away and embrace the boy before running away.
After an innkeeper turns them in for the reward money, the Tramp is once again stripped of the boy. This leads into one of the more bizarre and extraneous sequences in a Chaplin film when the Tramp falls asleep on the doorstep of his home and dreams a fantastic scene of himself and the boy as angels flying around the alley where they live. It’s a scene complete with devilish characters interceding in their cherubic flight. This dream sequence has little emotional resonance and doesn’t really add much other than time filler before a policeman awakens him to bring him to the home of the boy’s mother (Edna Purviance), now a wealthy opera singer.
The Kid may have worked better as an extended short of about 40 minutes or so. In fact, at the time Chaplin was contracted with First National to deliver short films, but also given full creative control and in a few cases (The Kid being one) expanded the short to feature-length. Perhaps Chaplin bit off a little more of the pie than he should have. The buildup of the relationship between the Tramp and the child is necessary to achieve the emotional climax when the state agents take him away, but you get the sense that if some fat had been trimmed, Chaplin could have crafted a tighter and more satisfying film overall.