Adoptive Love: The Compassion of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid

Note: This is the hundred-and-twelfth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1921 film, THE KID, directed by Charlie Chaplin.

Right off the bat, let me get something out of the way about THE KID. It’s often cited as Charle Chaplin’s first feature length film, which I can understand. But technically, SHOULDER ARMS (1918), with an over 40 minute run time, would be classified as feature length by the traditional rules of the classification. But it is true that THE KID was an outstanding, different production following seven years of incredible short films. Anyways.

Although Chaplin had co-founded his own distribution company, United Artists, alongside other film giants Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith, he still owed his current home, First National, some movies. Therefore, THE KID was made in this period of desired artistic growth, but still under the “old regime.” It’s not compromised because of this, but it’s worth noting that it was sandwiched between a few “old style” shorts before Chaplin blossomed into full-fledged feature filmmaking, with many, one could say too many, years between projects. But then the wait was almost always worth it.

In any event, THE KID was made following a pretty revolting period of Chaplin’s enduring legacy. He was into younger girls, and girls is what they were. He married 16 year-old Mildred Harris, an actress who had notably appeared in a couple of Oz films and INTOLERANCE (1916), in 1918 following an ultimately false alarm pregnancy. But then, Harris became actually pregnant in 1919; their son, Norman Spencer Chaplin, died at three days of age. The two divorced in 1920, and from many accounts, Chaplin was a bitter partner who felt the relationship was impeding upon his career. This was not the first or last time Chaplin would take advantage of young girls and women and/or enter into, for lack of a better word, problematic marriages. Harris worked very sparingly into the sound era, and after two further marriages, died in 1944 at the age of 42 from pneumonia.

Losing his own child and gaining a new reflection upon his own troubled, poverty-stricken childhood have been cited as inspirations for the development of THE KID, which began production in August 1919, a month after the death of Harris and Chaplin’s son. Whatever his reasons for making the film, Chaplin produced a deeply funny and emotional work with compassion for the “irregular” circumstances of the lower class. THE KID also famously introduced Jackie Coogan, a huge child star of the silent era who, in a lot of ways, foreshadowed the career and personal paths of child stars to come. He’s the reason for the Coogan Act, a law that set standards for schooling and hours worked for children on film sets and put aside money from their payment into a trust. (Coogan got screwed over by his mother and stepfather, who blew a huge portion of his accrued fortune). He never truly had a huge downward spiral, but after the heights of his early career, it was hard for him to match his status. Still, though, he found everlasting fame as Uncle Fester on THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1964–66).

OK, but what was I saying about a deeply funny and emotional work? Well, as you might expect, Coogan played a huge part in making THE KID a success. His heartfelt, endearing performance perfectly complimented Chaplin’s as the Tramp, a character whose remarkable, universal ability to adapt across all his films manifests into sudden tenderness and compassion here. Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s most frequent co-star, plays the small but pivotal role in THE KID. As a new and single mother, she leaves her baby in the car of well-to-do family. But when hoodlums steal the car, the baby ends up in the wrong part of town and, through a hilarious series of events, in the hands of the reluctant Tramp.

But as mentioned, the character takes on most any task with relative aplomb. Whether he’s searching for gold or auditioning for a circus, the Tramp is defined by a sort of cool, initial aloofness. And that’s how he sets into the construction of a funny little Rube Goldberg-esque system to take care of his new charge. When we fast forward to when the boy is around five years old, we find that the Tramp has recruited the child to help him carry out his schemes. This never feels predatory or exploitative; the Tramp is himself kind of a big kid, and his crimes petty enough so as not to truly feel like a moral line is being crossed here. As in many other instances, Chaplin is illustrating here the kinds of things poor people have to do to survive. He never condemns these acts, only portrays them with a goofy sensibility. And in fact, he portrays authority, such as the block’s cop, as a sort of threatening but ultimately inept force.

And if this little partnership never feels strange, it’s because Chaplin illustrates the father-son bond with conviction. The characters clearly love each other, and when the boy falls ill, social services men are sent in to take him away from his adoptive father. The scenes that follow are probably the least funny of the whole picture, but no less affecting. Coogan’s calling out for his dad from the bed of a truck and the Tramp’s frantic attempt to beat past his assailants to get back to his son are tear-inducing. Chaplin sends his character across the rooftops to get back to the boy, a clear indication of the emotions at play here, even if there is no biological connection.

Ultimately, things are wrapped up pretty neatly, as Purviance’s character comes back into the scene and presumably brings the child back into her life, and the Tramp with him.

I say presumably because the film ends with the cop, no longer threatening by the way, bringing the Tramp to her home (the poor single mother is now a successful performer) and reuniting the father-son pair. They walk into the house, and the film is over.

But before this happens, the Tramp truly loses the boy. After rescuing his son from the truck, they stay in a flop house, the owner of which recognizes the kid as the subject of a search and takes him to the police station. Once again, the Tramp’s frantic search drives the relatively high stakes of this comedy film. But ultimately, he returns, dejected, to his old home and drifts off on his doorstep, dreaming of a heavenly version of the decrepit block.

Like, literally heavenly; all the denizens now have angel wings. The Tramp’s son is there. It’s a strange scene, some might say disparate, but besides its incredible contribution to the future aesthetic of studio-bound Hollywood filmmaking (the whole film does this to some degree as well), it represents the purity of the Tramp. He’s a simple man, and when all hope is lost, he simply dreams of a world where it is all present. And then it comes crashing down when “sin” invades this pseudo-Heaven, when forces outside of his control, forces that want to take without consideration of the happiness that is being fostered there, exercise their power.

Chaplin makes a case for the abandonment of traditional social structure with THE KID. He makes clear that the nuclear family concept is not always the path to happiness for a child, and that an outcast from society can actually enrich lives as well. Chaplin strengthens the points he made in A DOG’S LIFE (1918), and does so with a more compassionate figure: a human child. I may not have spoken much about it, but rest assured THE KID is also funny. But the humor is in service of the film’s emotional core, giving weight to the personalities and dynamics at play. And really, explaining the balletic, clown-like performance of Chaplin’s comedy probably does it a disservice. THE KID is funny though, and smart and compassionate and humanitarian. Rarely do you find a comedy that communicates these things so exquisitely; but then, Chaplin would soon make a career that existed in rarefied air.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.