The Kid (1921)

I knew at some stage I’d have to review a Charlie Chaplin film, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. When I was a kid we had a VHS tape of some Chaplin films and he absolutely terrified me. There was something about the fact that he didn’t talk and that his eyes never really changed expression that gave me nightmares. And of course, they’re black and white silent films, so I figured when I watched one it would be like going to a museum or taking an ice bath. I never anticipated to actually enjoy myself. Or laugh. Or be genuinely moved.

Charlie Chaplin described 1921’s “The Kid” as “a picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear,” and as simple as that is, and it is a simple story, it delivers on both counts. A young mother (Edna Purviance) leaves her newborn baby in an expensive automobile outside a grand mansion with a note saying “Please love and care for this orphan child”. Two thieves steal the car and leave the baby in an alley, where the Tramp (Chaplin) finds him and though he initially tries to sneak him into another mother’s pram and considers leaving him down a gutter, he brings the child to his dilapidated home and names him John. Meanwhile the young mother has had a change of heart, and when she returns to where she left the baby and learns that the car has been stolen, she faints in despair. Five years on, the Kid and the Tramp are thick as thieves (literally) and have come up with a ruse where the Kid runs around throwing rocks at windows and just as the owner of the house comes outside and gesticulates angrily at the sky, the Tramp conveniently walks by with window panes at a competitive price. Meanwhile, the young woman has become a glamorous actress but is left hollow and pining after the baby she left behind. We follow the characters as they go about their lives, dodge the authorities and ultimately reunite the Kid with his mother (I think spoilers are allowed by now).

First and foremost, this is a funny movie. The dynamic between the Kid and the Tramp is sweet and believable; they’re good buddies and have a fun little routine together. The Kid is a plucky little thing, and one of the funniest scenes in the movie is him getting into a fist fight with another local street urchin, but once the Tramp realises the other kid’s dad is huge and scary, the Tramp tries to get the Kid to throw the fight. I laughed at the Tramp’s funny walk and getting hit by things, and I laughed at the way the Kid runs away whenever he’s done something naughty. It was pretty incredible to see; when a movie is stripped back to basics, without even the luxury of dialogue, it can still make people laugh, and cry, over a century later.

Chaplin wrote the score for the film himself, and it still stands up today; again, without dialogue, its incredible how powerful the music is in conveying the emotion of the scene. I can understand Chaplin’s importance to cinema; this film is surprisingly well balanced and structured and its easy to empathise with the characters and root for them. The Tramp and the Kid love each other and the image of the Kid holding his arms out and reaching for the Tramp when the local orphanage authorities come to collect him is brutal and heart wrenching.

This is a beautiful, funny, sweet and moving story. It’s everything that movies should aspire to be, silent or not, and a pretty remarkable experience knowing where cinema has gone since then. Without all the bells and whistles that films have the luxury of today, Chaplin was able to weave a pretty captivating little tale by using the bare bones of storytelling and appealing to the most primal of our common experiences as people. And I haven’t had a nightmare about Charlie Chaplin since.

By Jock Lehman

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