Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – The Kid (1921)
Of all the Charlie Chaplin masterpieces we can name — and from Easy Street (1917) to Modern Times (1936), there’s quite a few — one feature is perhaps extra special: The Kid (1921). One of Chaplin’s earliest features, it’s certainly the most heartfelt and personal film he ever made.
At the time, Chaplin was at a turning point in his career. The Kid was the fifth film he made for First National, the others being A Dog’s Life (1918), Shoulder Arms (1918), A Day’s Pleasure (1919) and Sunnyside (1919). Unlike the Keystone, Essanay and Mutual studios he’d worked for previously, First National gave Chaplin the time and creative freedom he needed to meet his own (insanely) high standards.
Another reason he was at a turning point was the tepid response to A Day’s Pleasure and especially Sunnyside. After the years of Chaplinmania that even the dourest critics weren’t immune from, the two shorts were considered disappointments. With stars like Roscoe Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd gaining their own huge followings, people wondered if the Little Tramp was losing his touch. Little did they know that Chaplin’s attention had already turned to his latest feature, a profound project that would draw upon his impoverished childhood in London as well as a very recent personal tragedy.
Around 1917, Chaplin had met sixteen-year-old actress Mildred Harris at a party held by Samuel Goldwyn. The two became involved, and as Chaplin later delicately put it: “There were dinners, dances, moonlit nights and ocean drives, and the inevitable happened — Mildred began to worry.” Wanting to avoid the scandal an out-of-wedlock pregnancy would cause, the two married — only to discover Mildred’s condition was a false alarm. The marriage was limping along when Mildred did indeed become pregnant, and on July 7, 1919, their son Norman Spencer Chaplin was born. Sadly, the infant had an intestinal deformity and only lived three days. Later in life, Mildred would recall: “That’s the only thing I can remember about Charlie…that he cried when the baby died.”
Only ten days after little Norman’s death, Chaplin was auditioning babies at his studio, the threads of a story forming in his mind. And as luck would have it, during this time he also saw four-year-old Jackie Coogan, a child actor who was appearing in his father’s act at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. When he met the Coogans at the Alexandria Hotel a couple of days later, Chaplin spent nearly two hours talking to and playing with little Jackie in the lobby, later proclaiming: “This is the most amazing person I ever met in my life.”
Chaplin began filming his new project in 1919, under the working title of The Waif. The story was relatively straightforward but deeply emotional: a poverty-stricken mother (Edna Purviance) leaves her baby boy in a wealthy family’s automobile, with a note saying, “Please love and care for this orphan child.” The car is stolen by two thugs who abandon the infant in an alley. He’s found by the Tramp, who reluctantly decides to adopt him. “The Kid” grows up very poor but well-looked after, the Tramp fastidiously making sure he’s clean and well-fed. All is relatively well until the Tramp gets mixed up with authorities who try to forcibly take the Kid away from him.
The Kid is infused with autobiographical details. After his alcoholic father abandoned the family, Chaplin also grew up in poverty. He also had to contend with authorities who sent him and his brother to various charity schools. He went through the pain of having to commit his own mother, a struggling singer, to an insane asylum. The gritty attic where the Tramp and the Kid live is based on 3 Pownall Terrace, the cramped, dingy London garrett where the Chaplins once lived. The Tramp is the devoted father figure Chaplin never had, and Edna Purviance’s character eventually becomes a successful singer — a fate Chaplin no doubt fantasized for his own unfortunate mother. Some scholars have theorized that The Kid was Chaplin’s way of working through his painful childhood memories. And perhaps he was reinventing his life story to become more at peace with it.
The Kid’s most famous sequence, where the Tramp and the Kid are separated by the authorities, took over a month to film. Its most famous and heart-tugging scene, the moment when the Tramp and the Kid tearfully reunite, was filmed in Olvera Street in the oldest part of Los Angeles. (The brick buildings in the background still stand today, worn but instantly recognizable.) Jackie’s father took on the task of making sure his son cried during the emotional shoot, apparently whispering that he’d be sent to an orphanage if he didn’t. Indeed, Jackie cried so stormily that Chaplin would feel alarmed, although the child actor insisted, “I knew Daddy was fooling.”
Chaplin patiently coaxed an amazing performance from little Jackie, who had a wonderful gift for mimicry. One of Jackie’s parents were always on hand to watch rehearsals, and they were continually amazed by how beautifully the two worked together, and how warmly paternal Chaplin was to Jackie off the set. Clearly, the precocious child actor was a stand-in for the son Chaplin had so recently lost.
To the world, Jackie Coogan was also a stand-in for the many orphans of World War I, which had ended only a couple of years prior. He would also come to symbolize orphans of other conflicts. Becoming a major star in the 1920s, in 1924 he toured for the Near East Relief Foundation, which raised the modern-day equivalent of $13 million for children in need.
Today, The Kid has more than stood the test of time. With its universal themes of the relationship between parent and child, the helplessness children can experience, the fear of loss, and the struggle of poverty — all sweetened by some of Chaplin’s finest gags and comic touches — its story remains every bit as powerful as it was back in 1921.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterlyand has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.