In the early days of film, you could be an enormous star and only ever make short films. Especially in the comedy realm, two-reelers (usually around 20 minutes in length) were enough to make lots of money, mostly because the medium was still in its infancy. One of these stars was Charlie Chaplin, a performer-director who was one of the biggest stars in the whole world. He’d never made a feature until 1921. This first feature, which still only runs 53 minutes, is one of the director’s most beloved and heartfelt, one that few can watch with completely dry eyes: The Kid.
It’s amazing to me how much story, how much pathos, and how much hilarity Chaplin and other silent comedians could pack into a relatively short amount of time. It’s not even a full hour and yet The Kid is able to take audiences through a real journey between two completely lovable characters and feel their pain when they are torn apart. Chaplin’s 1931 film City Lights is still his most sentimental silent film, but The Kid is a close second. Chaplin also knew his own skill well enough that he could play the audience’s heartstrings like a sinewy harp.
The story follows the Tramp (Chaplin’s famous persona) as he finds a discarded baby. He tries to pawn the little bundle off on passing mothers, leave the kid where he found it, but he ultimately ends up keeping it after reading the note pinned to the blanket asking for someone to take care of him. The Tramp, being a soft-hearted ruffian, brings the child up himself in the hovel in which he squats. We then cut to the kid as a four-year-old (played by Jackie Coogan, one of the first child stars who’d eventually go on to play Uncle Fester on TV’s The Addams Family). He and the Tramp have a series of short cons going in order to get money to eat, including having the kid break people’s windows so the Tramp can come by and offer to fix it for moolah.
They have great chemistry, and the best scenes in the movie are of the simple-machine contraptions in the hovel Coogan and Chaplin use to make food or clean themselves. However, things are not made to last, because the woman who gave up the child (after the baby’s father proved wholly disinterested) reunites with the kid by accident and begins to regret her decision. Naturally, you know where it’s headed because the Tramp is destined to be the bittersweet hero, but it’s great how it gets there.
A Charlie Chaplin movie is not all about jerking tears. The Kid offers several timeless comedy bits, including a fight between Chaplin and a big huge bully that’s as funny as any Looney Tunes cartoon. The movie also ends with a strange heaven-set dream sequence that required Chaplin to fly on wires. It’s great stuff.
Criterion has been putting out, as they do with every one of their releases, some truly terrific Charlie Chaplin features, and The Kid is no exception. The disc has a 4K digital restoration from Chaplin’s 1972 re-cut of the film, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. So crisp, you’d never believe the movie was 95 years old. It has a very informative feature commentary with historian Charles Maland, as well as a couple of vintage interviews with Coogan and actress Lita Grey Chaplin.
Two of the best features on the disc are specially made video presentations, perfect for film scholars. One is called Jackie Coogan: The First Child Star, a video essay by Chaplin historian Lisa Haven; the second is called A Study in Undercranking, a program all about how the speed of cranking versus the speed of projection used in silent films directly contributed to the comedy. This is presented by silent film specialist Ben Model.
Add to this a 1921 newsreel about Chaplin returning home to England after years in the U.S. and one of Chaplin’s short films, also co-starring Coogan, and you’ve got a must-own for comedy fans everywhere.
Images: Charlie Chaplin Entertainment/Criterion Collection
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!