THE KID (Charles Chaplin, 1921)

Writer-director Charles Chaplin made cinema’s most brilliant satirical comedies, works of genius; but his first feature film, The Kid, has little to recommend it. Obliquely echoing Oliver Twist (the transmutation of the Dickens material is much the most interesting aspect of the film), The Kid shows Chaplin’s Tramp finding and raising an abandoned baby born out of wedlock. Five years later, the boy is kidnapped and returned to his mother, who has since become rich.
     While sitting on the curb with the discarded infant in his arms, Charlie opens the storm drain grating and considers dropping the bundle in—a moment promising a great film. Not only is it hilarious, but it underscores the additional stress that children bring to the poor. Of course, Charlie does not have to face the social stigma that the mother would have faced—and the distancing provided by his split-second contemplation of infanticide, followed by Charlie’s assuming responsibility for the boy’s care, allows us to take in this distinction between mother and adoptive father. Why couldn’t the film have continued in this alert, incisive vein? As it is, only one other aspect of the father-son relationship, when the boy is five, revisits this high standard of comedy: the pair’s teamwork as the boy breaks neighborhood windows with stones (after an hilarious windup for each pitch) and his father trots along, huckstering and installing new window glass! For the most part, though, The Kid consists of one unfunny sequence after another, including a flat, leaden one in which Charlie dreams that the tenement block is some sort of heaven.
     Chaplin poured into the film his sorrow over the death of his infant son and a recollection of his own childhood poverty. Street, apartment, flophouse: all these are threadbare, grimy, realistic.

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