not in our stars, but in ourselves
Most everyone knows how dully didactic Charlie Chaplin became later in his career, having started out making madcap comedies for Keystone, Essanay, First National, etc. Once he began to read and believe his own press, he was, well, insufferable. All the traits that later became liabilities are present in The Kid (1921), his first feature film – but The Kid is still great, if creaky and sentimental. It works, I think, because it was so deeply felt: Chaplin had been raised by a failed vaudeville star, until he and his brother were sent to workhouses – in true Dickensian style. The opening intertitle of The Kid proclaims that it is a “picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.” There are some smiles, but the tears are more affecting – and, frankly, memorable.
An unwed woman (Edna Purviance), “whose sin was motherhood” as the intertitle puts it, leaves a charity hospital with her newborn baby. The father is a starving artist, evidently unable or unwilling to commit to the woman and her baby. She doesn’t believe she can provide for the child, so after some REALLY heavy-handed religious imagery (as she carries her baby, the image of Jesus carrying his cross is superimposed; as she passes a church, the stained glass window behind her lights up to give her an apparent halo; etc., etc.), she abandons the baby with a note in a fancy car. Her hope is that the wealthy owners of the car will raise the baby, but the car is stolen by two crooks who abandon the crying infant in the gutter. There, the Tramp (Chaplin) finds him, and decides to take him in. Five years later, the kid (Jackie Coogan) is a perfect little mimic of his adoptive father; the woman is a successful actress; her ex-lover is a famous painter; and the Tramp is genuinely attached to his son. When the kid gets sick, however, a meddlesome doctor asks the Tramp if he is the boy’s “real” father, and the Tramp admits that he found the apparently orphaned baby, and has raised him ever since. The doctor calls the goons from the County Orphan Asylum, and they tear the kid and the Tramp away from each other.
And if it doesn’t rip your heart right out of your chest, I don’t know what to tell you.
Nevertheless, there are some curiosities about the film. I won’t say that they’re weaknesses per se (although the religious nonsense re-annoys me every time I watch), but they can detract from the main point: the lovely, touching relationship between Chaplin and Coogan. One example: when the newly successful exes meet at a party – which, by the way, feels more like a party among the smart set in an Edith Wharton novel, rather than among the smart set in 1921; there are already signs here that Chaplin chose stubbornly to remain in his childhood rather than join the present – the camera literally cuts to a book called The Past, which an unseen hand opens to a chapter called “Regrets.” I don’t think that was supposed to be a joke, although I do laugh at it every time.
Another example is the famous dream sequence, after the Tramp has lost the kid. In it, the Tramp and the kid and everyone else live in a paradise, with angel wings and everything. Then “sin creeps in,” personified by creeps in devil costumes. One of the devils whispers to a young girl (Lita Grey – more on her in a minute), “Vamp him.” This she duly does. The same devil whispers something in the Tramp’s ear, and he begins to pursue the girl ardently. Her sweetheart sees the two of them kissing, and the devil whispers into his ear – at which point the sweetheart is consumed by a jealous rage. He chases the Tramp, who tries to fly away and is shot down by a policeman. It is a strange interlude in a film that seems to be mostly about innocence and the bond between a parent and a child. It’s an entertaining interlude – don’t get me wrong. But here we have vamping and ardor and jealousy, none of which is present elsewhere in the plot. This isn’t a Busby Berkeley flick, you know? A random dream sequence here just seems puzzling, however fun it may be.
And by the way, about Ms. Grey: she was 12 years old when she shot this, and married Chaplin three years later. At 15. Yes. His previous wife, Mildred Harris, was 17. In highly apocryphal circles, Lita Grey and Charlie Chaplin were rumored to be at least partial inspirations for Lolita Haze and Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s novel.
I’ll leave that one for the scholars; all I know is that The Kid is worth seeing for this, my favorite intertitle, and this alone.