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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review: The Kid (1921)

* * * 1/2

Director: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan

Aside from being one of Charlie Chaplin's most enduring films, The Kid also has the distinction of being his first feature length film. It also has a rather storried production history in that it almost ended up being a casualty of Chaplin's divorce from his first wife, Mildred Harris. In order to keep it from being claimed as part of his assets, the unfinished film was smuggled to Utah, where Chaplin edited the footage in a hotel room. The result is a delightful comedy with just a little bit of pathos mixed in (the formula for all of Chaplin's greatest films) - or, as its opening title card proclaims, "A picture with a smile - and perhaps, a tear - and one of the treasures of Hollywood's nascent years.

The Kid begins with an unwed mother (Edna Purviance) abandoning her newborn son in the backseat of a fancy car with a note begging the finder to care for him. Shortly after she leaves the baby behind, a pair of thieves steal the car and the baby with it and, once they realize that they're absconded with more than they intended, they leave the baby in the street. The baby is soon found by the Little Tramp (Charles Chaplin), who makes a few unsuccessful attempts to pass him off to someone else before finally deciding to raise the boy (who he names John) as his own.

The story then flashes forward five years and John (now played by Jackie Coogan) is now the Tramp's partner in minor crime. Meanwhile, the mother has become a movie star and regularly performs charity work in their neighborhood, though she obviously has no idea that the adorable urchin is her son. After John falls ill and is treated by a doctor, it is discovered that the Tramp is not his biological father and the authorities come to take him away. The Tramp and John go on the run and the movie star learns that John is her son, setting the stage for the eventual heartfelt reunion/happy ending.

The conclusion of the story is never really in question; a comedy isn't going to end with its two protagonists separated, or with mother and son never finding each other. However, even though the narrative path is familiar, the film is nevertheless entertaining. There are interludes of slapstick, action (a rooftop chase as the Tramp pursues the authorities who have taken John away), and a dream sequence in which the Tramp imagines the slum in which he lives as an Edenic paradise populated by angels who find themselves tempted by devilish intruders. The film flows well between these various types of storytelling and at 68 minutes is a fast paced and very well-executed film. Although I don't think The Kid is quite in the same league as Chaplin's masterpiece, City Lights, it's a great film and one which I would recommend to anyone just starting to introduce themselves to silent film.

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