The Greatest films of all time:10.The Kid (1921)

Introduction:

The Kid is Charlie Chaplin first full-length film as a director in 1921, after 7 years of creating the character of “The Tramp”, a vagrant with a big heart and dignity, helping the poor. Charlie Chaplin is undoubtedly the greatest single name in the history of cinema, an actor, writer, director, editor, producer and composer, or a man of all trades, impossible to match! Charlie Chaplin who goes beyond his films, is the only name in cinema who was known and is still well known by every child, adults and old, not only in US, but across the world. Chaplin who created the character of “the Tramp” earlier from the short film “Mabel’s strange predicament” starring Mabel Normand in 1914, continued with the same character in most of his filmography, so that the name of Charlie Chaplin equals “The Tramp”. This was so much so that Charlie was inseparable from his own character, that when in 1947 he made his first different character in “Monsieur Verdoux”, the world were in shock and hard to accept him in a different role. But since Chaplin was a genius, he shone in his latest films as well and was hailed by viewers and critics alike.

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Charlie Chaplin’s character of “the Tramp” that had been a huge success from 1914 as an actor, continued throughout of his career as a filmmaker as it captured the hearts of people in any lands on the face of earth. “The Kid” is Chaplin’s first feature film written, produced, directed, edited and scored by himself in 1921, after losing a child in marriage with the actress Mildred Harris. Chaplin, while maintaining the character of “The Tramp”, he moved beyond comedy to realism alongside of an infant who had been deserted by his mother on the street, to raise him kindly as another tramp. Dealing with issues of poverty and parent–child separation, The Kid is thought to have been influenced by Chaplin’s own childhood and was one of the earliest films to combine comedy and drama. It was released in January 1921 with instant success, and by 1924 had been screened in over 50 countries. In 2011, The Kid was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Innovative in its combination of comedic and dramatic elements, The Kid is widely considered as one of the greatest films ever made. 

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Due to the uniqueness of Charlie Chaplin and having more than one film in any list of the greatest films of all time, he will be discussed here in some detail.

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Charlie Chaplin: A unique artistic life

Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin, (16 April 1889-25 December 1977) a worldwide icon of cinema spanned a career of more than 75 years, from childhood in the Victorian era of England until a year before his death in 1977. Chaplin’s childhood in London was one of poverty and hardship, with his father being absent and his mother struggled financially, so he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine. When he was 14, his mother was committed to a mental asylum, so he had to start working from an early age, abandoned his education and supported himself through different jobs but mostly acting on stage and music halls, following the footsteps of both parents. At age 15, he played in “Sherlock Holmes” and a year later he was playing on the stage of Duke of York’s Theatre, when his acting was already reviewed well. By the age 18 he was a popular comedian at the Casey’s Circus, where he became the star of the show. 

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At age 19 his performance was already attractive, so he was signed to the prestigious Fred Karno company, which took him to America. Chaplin in US, from early on scouted for the film industry, and began appearing in 1914 for Keystone Studios. He soon developed the “Tramp” persona, became popular and started directing his own short films, almost one per week, then soon moved to Essanay, Mutual, and First corporations. In Essanay Film company, he discovered Dena Purviance whom he met in a café and hired her on account of her beauty, and later on she appeared in 35 films with Chaplin over 8 years, with an involvement in a romantic relationship. By 1915, Chaplin became a cultural phenomenon, and shops were stocked with Chaplin merchandise, and he was featured in cartoons and comic strips, and several songs were written about him. As his fame grew worldwide, he became the film industry’s first international star, he received several offers from different studios, including Universal, Fox, Vitagraph, and Mutual Film Corporation that he chose the last. By 1918, he was already one of the best known figures in the world, and not only in the film industry.

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Despite his refusal to fight in the World War I, Chaplin’s popularity grew even among the troops and worldwide. His name was considered “a part of the common language of almost every country”, and the character “Tramp” was “universally familiar”. In 1917, professional Chaplin imitators were so widespread that it was reported that nine out of ten men who attended costume parties dressed as the Tramp. The same year, a study by the Boston Society for Psychical Research concluded that Chaplin was “an American obsession”. 

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In 1919, Chaplin with D.W.Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, co-founded the Untied Artists, which gave him complete control over his films. His first feature-length film The Kid (1921), followed by A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928) were all made in his own studio. He refused to move to sound films in the 1930s, instead produced City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue. Chaplin became increasingly political, and his next film, The Great Dictator (1940), satirized Adolf Hitler. The 1940s were a decade marked with controversy for Chaplin, and he was accused of communist sympathies. An FBI investigation was opened, and Chaplin was forced to leave the United States and settle in Switzerland. He abandoned the Tramp in his later films, which include Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957), and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).

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Chaplin’s silent films typically follow the Tramp’s efforts to survive in a hostile world. The character lives in poverty and is frequently treated badly, but remains kind and upbeat; defying his social position and striving to be seen as a gentleman. As Chaplin said in 1925, “The whole point of the Little Fellow is that no matter how down on his ass he is, no matter how well the jackals succeed in tearing him apart, he’s still a man of dignity.” The Tramp defies authority figures and “gives as good as he gets”, a representative for the underprivileged – an everyman turned heroic saviour. Several of Chaplin’s films end with “the homeless and lonely Tramp [walking] optimistically … into the sunset … to continue his journey”. 

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Several of Chaplin’s films incorporate autobiographical elements, and as Sigmund Freud believed Chaplin “always plays only himself as he was in his dismal youth”. The Kid is thought to reflect Chaplin’s childhood trauma of being sent into an orphanage, the main characters in Limelight (1952) contain elements from the lives of his parents, and A King in New York references Chaplin’s experiences of being shunned by the United States. Chaplin is simple in his films as he wrote in his autobiography “Simplicity is best … pompous effects slow up action, are boring and unpleasant … The camera should not intrude.” This was hard to understand for some critics who were always looking for an intellectual and sophisticated work on screen, and perhaps Chaplin could have not been this popular if it was not for the sake and popularity among ordinary viewers. So in a way people forced Chaplin to the film industry and critics to praise him as well, as they could not deny all people around the world who loved Chaplin and still do.

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Chaplin’s films are characterized by social and political themes, and in 1972, United States through Hollywood, tried a redemption to Chaplin by granting him an Honorary Academy award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”. At the Academy Awards gala, when the award was handed to Chaplin by Jack Lemmon, he was given a twelve-minute standing ovation, the longest in the Academy’s history. In the 1975 New Year Honours, Chaplin was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II, though he was too weak to kneel and received the honour in his wheelchair. 

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In the early morning of 25 December 1977, Chaplin died at home after suffering a stroke in his sleep, at age 88 years. The funeral, on 27 December, was a small and private Anglican ceremony, according to his wishes. Among the film industry’s tributes, director Rene Clair wrote, “He was a monument of the cinema, of all countries and all times … the most beautiful gift the cinema made to us.” Actor Bob Hope declared, “We were lucky to have lived in his time.” On 1 March 1978, Chaplin’s coffin was dug up and stolen from its grave by two unemployed immigrants, from Poland and Bulgaria. The body was held for ransom in an attempt to extort money from Oona Chaplin. The pair were caught in a large police operation in May, and Chaplin’s coffin was found buried in a field in the nearby village of Noville, but it was re-interred in the Corsier cemetery surrounded by reinforced concrete. Either these two men stole Chaplin’s corpse for the ransom, or believed they could steal his genius as similary this happened when the corpse of the greatest composer of all time Beethoven and the great philosopher Rene Descartes, were dug up and stolen.  

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The Kid: Bitter Reality in Comedy

An unwed young woman ( Edna Purviance) leaves a charity hospital carrying her newborn son. An artist (Carl Miller), the apparent father, is shown with the woman’s photograph. When it falls into the fireplace, he first picks it up, then throws it back in to burn up. The woman decides to abandon her child in the back seat of an expensive automobile with a handwritten note imploring the finder to care for and love the baby. However, the car is stolen. When the two thieves discover the child, they leave him on the street. The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) finds the baby, and first unwillingly takes on the responsibility to raise him and names the boy “John”. Elsewhere, the woman has an apparent change of heart and returns for the baby, but is heartbroken and faints upon learning of the baby being taken away.

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Five years later the Kid (Jackie Coogan) becomes the Little Tramp and partner to the Father Tramp in minor crimes, throwing stones to break windows that the Tramp, can then repair. Meanwhile, the mother becomes a wealthy star, and does charity work among the poor to fill the void of her missing child. By chance, the mother and child cross paths, but do not recognize each other. When the boy becomes sick, a doctor comes to see him, and discovers that the Tramp is not the boy’s father. The Tramp shows him the note left by the mother, but the doctor merely takes it and notifies the authorities. Two men come to take the boy to an orphanage, but after a fight and a chase, the Tramp regains his boy. When the woman comes back to see how the boy is doing, the doctor tells her what has happened, then shows her the note, which she recognizes.

Now fugitives, the Tramp and the boy spend the night in a flophouse, but the manager (Bergman), having read of the $1000 reward offered for the child, takes him to the police station to be united with his ecstatic mother. When the Tramp wakes up, he searches frantically for the missing boy, then returns to doze beside the now-locked doorway to their humble home. In his sleep, he enters “Dreamland,” with angels in residence and devilish interlopers. He is awakened by a policeman, who places the Tramp in a car and rides with him to a house. When the door opens, the woman and the Kid emerge, reuniting the elated adoptive father and son. The policeman, who is happy for the family, shakes the Tramp’s hand and leaves, before the woman welcomes the Tramp into her home.

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The Kid, is the first film to combine comedy with reality and drama, as Chaplin before making his first feature-length film, had decided to make a little change in the world, through laughter. As the opening title says: “A picture with a smile-and perhaps, a tear.” The most famous and enduring sequence in the film is the Tramp’s desperate rooftop pursuit of the agents from the orphanage who had taken the child, and their emotional reunion. The film made Coogan, then a vaudeville performer, into the first major child star of the movies. Many of the Chaplin biographers have attributed the relationship portrayed in the film to have resulted from the death of Chaplin’s firstborn infant son just ten days before the production began. The portrayal of poverty and the cruelty of welfare workers are also directly reminiscent of Chaplin’s own childhood in London. In 1971, Chaplin edited and reissued the film and he composed a new musical score, and he met co-star Coogan for the last time in 1972, during Chaplin’s brief return to America for an Honorary Academy Award.

Mary Pickford has said of the film, “The Kid is one of the finest examples of the screen language, depending upon its actions rather than upon subtitles”. The Kid certainly isn’t only a laugh film, but a reality of the time, right after the end of World War I of America and perhaps Europe. The dynamic between Charlie Chaplin and young Jackie Coogan is, to this day, a high watermark in the adult-child film combo. The Kid reaches the hearts of the audience who want them inseparable and when apart and the Kid is taken away, screaming and crying in the back of the paddy wagon, the sentiment achieved to the highest in the audience. 

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In December 2011, The Kid was chosen to be preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, noting that the film is “an artful melding of touching drama, social commentary and inventive comedy” and praised Chaplin’s ability to “sustain his artistry beyond the length of his usual short subjects and could deftly elicit a variety of emotions from his audiences by skillfully blending slapstick and pathos.” 

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The Kid is not something to only write about, it should be seen, felt and laughed with and not at! The Kid will be felt and laughed with today by the viewers in 21st century, old, young and kids alike as it did almost a century ago. The Kid is the prototype story of our modern time life story, since industrialization, depicted well in Charles Dickens’ novels such as “The Great Expectations”, etc. and Mark Twain’s “Oliver Twist”, etc. The Kid is the story of young mothers’ unwanted pregnancies, unable to raise their owns, leaving them behind on the streets or in orphanages or these days in foster homes. The Kid is the story of such children to be raised in the most unfortunate environment, ending up in crimes for survival and finally in jails and some in death. Chaplin as his first feature-length film shows all these in a very simple language and in comedy in just over an hour to create a tiny hope that this world may change and still there may exist Robin Hoods in the form of “The Tramp” to rescue such unfortunate child and finally join them in the arms of the mother. 

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Chaplin who earlier created the character of the “Tramp” in his shorter films and showed the reality of the modern time in films such as “The Immigrant”, begins a long journey with “The Kid” with the same content story of realism that ends with “Limelight” (1952) and “A King of New York” (1957). Chaplin himself a victim of the poverty and all the misery of the modern life under capitalism, when popular to the world by the character of the “Tramp”, takes advantage of his popularity and not only created more and more comedy in the silent era and thereafter, but pours such a bitter content of reality onto the comic screen. For that reason, he was not and perhaps is not liked yet by the authorities, who later on were only forced to by his popularity and to save the face to commemorate him at the end of his life. Chaplin like D.W.Griffith, the father of American Cinema, who suffered similarly and accused of “racism”, was accused with “communism”, thrown out of US, becoming a “stateless” man such as “Tramp” himself that Chaplin attempted to show it in his last film “A countess from Hong Kong”. Chaplin, the greatest icon of cinema, does not belong to this art medium alone, as he belongs to the world and any other medium as Beethoven is such and he is at the level of Albert Einstein (who sat beside him at the premier of “City Lights” in 1931 in L.A) and George Bernard Shaw (sat beside him at the premier of the same in London)!           

Conclusion:

In closing remarks on “The Kid”, this great and unique film, was made heroically by an artist who had already captured the hearts of the people of the world against all odds, Hollywood glamour for unreal fairly tales films and capitalism. Now 95 years later, this great work one more time, will be redefined based on the following criteria:   

  1. Originality: “The Kid” is not only original in its own entirety and no one has yet dared to make a redo or copy, but it is original in the comedy to be mixed with reality, and laughter with tears. This type of reality comedy has rarely been made even in years to come after Chaplin, or at least not close to his style or his influence. 
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “The Kid”, as detailed above, is not only in its “The Tramp” character that had been already created by Chaplin in his short films, and continued for the rest of his silent era career life, it is in style of storytelling, comedy and story content. The technicality is purely and solely “Chaplinesque” and could not be copied or repeated, so remains to be unique for ever.
  3. Impact Factor: “The Kid” and “The Tramp” and “Chaplinesque” reality comedy style have not only bedazzled the film experts, but all people around the world so much that makes “Charlie Chaplin” the greatest icon of Cinema, belonging to everyone from Africa to America.
  4. Survival: “The Kid” and all the work of Chaplin have obviously not only survived the test of time, but the test of capitalism, Hitler, War, poverty and above all inhumanity. Chaplin through “The Kid” and the rest of his film showed well that in spite of all the inhumanities, we could still be humans with great hearts and there is hope to be rescued even while in the depth of misfortune and at the end of the rope! 

 

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