The Kid (Charlie Chaplin, 1921)

chaplin_the_kid“A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.”

Boy, is that the understatement of the century.  That disclaimer of sorts is seen just following the opening credits of “The Kid,” Chaplin’s first feature-length film (if you can call 50 minutes feature-length…), and it describes some of his most famous movies like “City Lights” and “Modern Times”, and this is certainly no exception.  The “smile” (the laughs, really) are there as they always are in a Chaplin film, with the Tramp as his usual awkward, lovable self: clumsy yet incredibly graceful thanks to Chaplin’s talent as a physical artist, initially conceited only to learn a valuable lesson in compassion, that wonderfully goofy facial expression, the eternal feet-sideways shuffle, and so on and so forth.

Even so, despite being such a short movie, there are some very weird and awkward pacing problems, as if the rope holding the narrative together is frayed at the edges.  So many of the set pieces are wonderful, like the Tramp’s run-in with an amorous housewife and her jealous cop husband, the Tramp and Kid’s break a window-fix a window scheme, and the Tramp’s angelic dream…but that dream seems like a short film that was on its own that was included here to pad the already-miniscule run-time.  Other narrative-based scenes here and there, like the plights of the Kid’s mother and the man I’m assuming is her love interest but who we never see after that opening scene, also feel just stuck in there, as if from a different movie.  Small complaint, though, because Chaplin is Chaplin at his best and just about dominates the proceedings.  And this was made in 1921 for god’s sake, and was his first feature-length film, so pacing issues might as well be swept under the rug.  Miniscule complaint 🙂 .

I’m not gonna go on and on about Chaplin and his acting prowess, though.  It’s been covered ad nauseum by every critic and basic film lover who’s ever lived, even by me in my reviews of Modern Times and The Great Dictator.  Rest assured, though, young Chaplin here is indeed vintage Chaplin and vintage Tramp, so if you’ve seen one moving image of the Tramp you know what to expect here.  I won’t go on about it because shockingly, Chaplin isn’t my main focus in a Chaplin movie.  It’s young Jackie Coogan as the titular Kid.

Could this be the greatest supporting performance of all-time?  That’s saying a hell of a lot, and I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of films from each decade, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a supporting performance quite like this one, that so perfectly supports the main performance.  And Jackie Coogan was barely over five years old when he filmed “The Kid.”  His Kid, abandoned and entrusted to the care of the woefully underprepared Tramp, is the Tramp’s perfect parallel and his perfect foil.  Just as the Kid mirrors the Tramp’s gymnastic-like mannerisms, this outcast child is made for this iconic outcast character, and indeed this very young actor was made for Chaplin, the soon-to-be legend of cinema.

I was amazed at how effortless young Coogan’s acting seemed.  The scene of the Kid and Tramp’s window-breaking scene, for instance: the Kid throws rocks at windows and runs away, only to have the Tramp, disguised as a window repairman, just happen to stroll by just in time for the resident to plead for his services.  The Kid, with that ever-hopeful and all-knowing gleam in his eye, tongue sticking out to one side, twirls his arm and heaves the stone, reaches into his pocket for another, and reaches back to throw…only to have his arm hit the chest of a cop, standing behind him without his knowing.  In classic slapstick fashion, Coogan’s arm just floats there, as he gives off facial expressions at first signifying concentration, then ‘what the hell’s that?’, and finally ‘uh-oh.’  He tries to act natural, folds his arms, kicks the air, and finally points the cop towards something that’s not there and runs off.  Now, you’ve probably seen a sequence like this in every other slapstick movie ever made, but this is 1921, years before any of those movies came along, and this is a 5 year old kid doing all this.  And it’s a 5 year old kid who shows unfathomable composure and confidence doing funny-acting that we’d take for granted in any other situation.  Boy, how many times did this kid have his arm burned with cigarette butts to get him to do what he does on-screen 😆 ?

Coogan’s acting chops are like a comedic veteran a la the Three Stooges or even his co-star Chaplin, but the keyword for me is effortless: namely, how effortless he induces both laughs and tears both physically and facially, especially in conjunction with Chaplin alongside him.  In their shitty apartment, for instance, the Kid keeps the Tramp in line, futzing with the gas meter to get his quarter back, waking up the Tramp for breakfast, and then works in complete conjunction with the Tramp in their little scheme: always as expressive, and always as acrobatic as Chaplin.  Later, Coogan commands screen-time of his own has he gets in a fight with a local bully – again, just as physically expressive as Chaplin but on a smaller scale, even squirming and clawing at the air like the most expressive 5 year old you’ve ever seen when the Tramp hold him in mid-air for fear of himself having to fight the bully’s monstrous older brother.  I know I’ve said ad nauseam by now that Coogan’s acting is effortless, but I have no other way of describing it.  He just makes child-like physical expressiveness and tugging at the heartstrings so easy, like he’s having the time of his life, not even having to think about looking good on-screen.  I would say that it’s just him acting natural, but surely nobody, not even a happy-go-lucky little kid, acts that expressive and, well, Chaplin-esque (the only verb I could think of 😛 ) in real life, right?  If it wasn’t for Coogan’s very famous co-star and his legendary reputation, I’d be amazed that a little kid like this could make such movie-like, exaggerated mannerisms seem so natural and true-to-life.  But put together with the master of that, it feels right at home.

I’ve already said that “The Kid” may very well have the best supporting performance of all-time.  How about the best climax, too?  And that scene about 35 minutes in, when the men from the orphanage try to take away the sick Kid and the Tramp desperately tries to get him back, is where the “tear” portion of that opening disclaimer comes in.  It’s interesting I criticized the movie for some awkward pacing, because it’s the awkward pacing of the final 15 or so minutes that make the climax as powerful as it is.  There’s still about 15 minutes of screen time following the climax involving the now-homeless Tramp and Kid, the mother, and the Tramp’s dream, but it all might as well have been an incoherent whirl to me following the emotional onslaught of that famous scene.  I knew about it going in and assumed it was at the end of the film, but seeing that it wasn’t at the end surprised me.  It’s filmmaking at its finest, and nothing following it could meet up to the sheer emotion, the laughs and tears of it.  I revisited the scene many times after I finished the movie and almost broke it down shot-by-shot to get to the bottom of why it is so representative of the best that the art of cinema has to offer.  Sure, Chaplin as director tugs the melodramatic heartstrings to the nth degree with the exaggerated villainy of the orphanage man, the terror of the Kid, and the desperation of the Tramp, not to mention setting it all to his own score based on Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony.  It’s melodramatic, but it works because of the very essence of silent cinema, where exaggeration is necessary to convey the deepest of emotions and bring out the deepest of emotions in the audience.  Chaplin knew this and was the master of this, which is why the Tramp is one of the great enduring movie characters of all-time: he’s a silly clown, but you care deeply for him during his plights, especially when that plight involves a now-helpless surrogate son.  Slapstick physical comedy becomes slapstic-esque physicality that’s all too serious as the Tramp wrestles with these men and the Kid hits them over the head with a rolling pin.  As in his finest films, Chaplin transitions from pure comedy to pure heartbreak with the snap of a finger.

I said that Chaplin was the master of the essence of silent cinema, and for one key moment I was incredibly glad that “The Kid” was a silent film.  With the Kid now in the paddy-wagon about to be taken away, he looks out, reaching out his arms, letting out a scream in pleading for the Tramp to help him.  There’s that old horror adage that the most frightening things are what you don’t see, and in this case the most heartbreaking scream from a child is one you don’t hear.  You only see the Kid crying out, leaving you to imagine the most blood-curdling, tragic scream to end all tragic screams.  If Jackie Coogan made innocent hijinks look so effortless, then he makes mind-numbing despair look like an absolute breeze.  It’s a face I won’t forget for a long, long time.  

You have to marvel at how Chaplin directs the whole scene, as it cuts back and forth between the terrified Kid outside and the restrained Tramp back in the apartment: both wide-eyed, near tears, and with that same look of terror at the prospect of losing one another.  They’re in separate locations, but with the cutting between the two, the Kid might as well be crying, throwing up his arms, and pleading for the Tramp as if face-to-face, and the Tramp’s face shows you that he hears those pleas.  That editing, the acting, and the swell of the music as despair becomes a chase across rooftops, which eventually becomes triumph, all make for a climax that’s both tragic and celebratory, and ultimately draining.  It rivals the final scene of “City Lights” as the most tearjerking that Chaplin ever made, and there was so much more to it than simply the acting of the two leads (which was outstanding to begin with).  Pacing flaws be damned, to me “The Kid”‘s greatness comes from that great supporting performance and that great scene.  When they’re put together, it shows you how Charlie Chaplin wasn’t merely one of cinema’s great actors, but easily one of its great directors, and quite simply one of the great artists of the twentieth century.



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