The Kid (1921)
The Kid is a 1921 American silent comedy-drama film written by, produced by, directed by, and starring Charlie Chaplin, and features Jackie Coogan as his adopted son and sidekick. This was Chaplin’s first full-length film as a director (he had been a co-star in 1914’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance). It was a huge success, and was the second-highest-grossing film in 1921, behind The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 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 one of the greatest films of the silent era.
68 minutes (original cut)
53 minutes (1971 re-release)
An unknown 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. Unwilling at first to take on the responsibility, he eventually softens 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 having been taken away.
Five years pass, and the child (Jackie Coogan) becomes the Tramp’s partner in minor crime, throwing stones to break windows that the Tramp, working as a glazier, can then repair. Meanwhile, the woman becomes a wealthy star. She does charity work among the poor to fill the void left by 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. He 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 the 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 $1,000 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 John 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.
Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp
Jackie Coogan as The Child (“John”)
Edna Purviance as The Woman
Carl Miller as The Man
Tom Wilson as The Policeman
Henry Bergman as Night shelter keeper / Professor Guido
Charles Reisner as Neighborhood bully
Raymond Lee (child actor) as Bully’s little brother
Lita Grey as Flirtatious Angel in Heaven scene
Jules Hanft as the country doctor
Frank Campeau as Welfare officer
F. Blinn as Welfare officer’s assistant
Jack H. Coogan Jr. (father of Jackie Coogan) as Pickpocket / Guest / Devil
Granville Redmond as The Man’s friend
May White as Edna’s maid
Silas Hathaway as Infant The Kid, the last surviving cast member
Albert Austin as Man in Shelter/The Car Thief
Esther Ralston as Extra in the Heaven Scene
The Kid is notable for combining comedy and drama. 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. Several of the street scenes were filmed on Los Angeles’s famed Olvera Street, almost 10 years before it was converted into a Mexican-themed tourist attraction.
After production was completed in 1920, the film was caught up in the divorce actions of Chaplin’s first wife Mildred Harris, who sought to attach Chaplin’s assets. Chaplin and his associates smuggled the raw negative to Salt Lake City (reportedly packed in coffee cans) and edited the film in a room at the Hotel Utah. Before releasing the film Chaplin negotiated for and received an enhanced financial deal for the film with his distributor, First National Corporation, based on the success of the final film.
Twelve-year-old Lita Grey, who portrays an angel in the film, was Chaplin’s second wife from 1924 to 1927.
In 1971, Chaplin edited and reissued the film and he composed a new musical score.
Chaplin and co-star Coogan met for the last time in 1972, some 51 years after The Kid was first released. It was during Chaplin’s brief return to America to receive an honorary Academy Award for his lifetime contribution to cinema.
The Kid was acclaimed by film critics upon its release.
A reviewer from Theatre Magazine glowingly wrote, “[Chaplin’s] new picture, The Kid, certainly outdoes in humor and the special brand of Chaplin pathos anything this popular film star has yet produced. There are almost as many tears as laughs in the new First National release–which proves the contention that Chaplin as almost as good a tragedian as he is a comedian. The Kid may be counted as a screen masterpiece.”
Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance writes, of the legacy of Chaplin’s The Kid: “The Kid remains an important contribution to the art of film, not only because of Chaplin’s innovative use of dramatic sequences within a feature-length comedy, but also because of the revelations The Kid provides about its creator. Undoubtedly, when Chaplin penned the preface to The Kid, “A picture with a smile–and perhaps, a tear,” he had his own artistic credo—and life—in mind.” Mary Pickford said of the film, “The Kid is one of the finest examples of the screen language, depending upon its actions rather than upon subtitles”.
In December 2011, The Kid was chosen to be preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. The Registry said 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.”
As of June 2019, The Kid has earned a rare 100% perfect rating on film review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes based on 30 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.51/10. and a 8.3 user rating on the Internet Movie Database, placing it at number 101 among the site’s Top 250 Titles.
As at 2019, Silas Hathaway, who played the titular Kid as a baby, is the last surviving member of the cast and crew.
In 1989, Charles Lane directed and starred in Sidewalk Stories, a remake of the film, updated to 1980s New York.
Some have called the 1999 comedy Big Daddy a loose remake of the film as well.
In May 2017, it was announced that FilmNation Entertainment is remaking The Kid as an animated sci-fi movie. The untitled film will be directed by Christian Volckman and Rupert Wyatt and is said to be “inspired by the characters and themes in The Kid.”