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Classic Films: Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID

Classic Films: Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID

Welcome to a new weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film available on streaming. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.

Vintage Footage Movie Concessions 1950's

History

At the start of the 1920s, film was a burgeoning industry. Audiences flocked to theaters to take in a silent movie. In that time, a trip to these “movie palaces” as they were then called was a bit flasher compared to now. Often, there would be live music such as pianos and strings accompanying the picture. Newsreels and cartoons showed before films for pre-show entertainment. Out of these palaces, the first major stars of cinema were born.

Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish, Rudolph Valentino, and Clara Bow are just some of the silent movie actors who became household names during the ’20s. The biggest, and quite possibly most influential of all-time, was Charlie Chaplin. The son of music hall entertainers, Chaplin started appearing in films in 1914. His now iconic character “The Tramp” first debuted in an 11-minute short film the same year. Chaplin’s brand of comedy flourished, paving the way for other comedy actors such as Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton.

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp
Chaplin’s debut as “The Tramp” in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914).

By 1915, Chaplin was a cultural phenomenon. Stores were stocked full of merchandise resembling his Tramp character. Even a few songs were written in tribute to him. He became the film industry’s first international star. Chaplin began to experiment with elements of comedy on screen. In one of his short films, The Bank, he gave the comedy a sad ending — something unheard of at the time. But as he churned out film after film, Chaplin became frustrated with studios refusing to give more money to fund his movies. In 1918, Chaplin joined together with stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and filmmaker D.W. Griffith to form a new distribution company – United Artists. For this new venture, Chaplin remarked that he wanted to make films that would “make his mark on a changed world.”

Importance

Released in 1921, The Kid was Chaplin’s first feature-length film written, directed, produced by, and starring him. Clocking in at 68 minutes, the film concerns “The Tramp” looking after an abandoned child as events unfold that put his care in jeopardy. The movie is widely considered one of the greatest films in cinema history. The Kid was one of the first films to combine elements of comedy and drama in the same motion picture. It achieved instant success and became the second-highest grossing movie of 1921.

Charlie Chaplin in The Kid

While comedic, the film also delivered a strong social message. The depiction of poverty was influenced directly by Chaplin’s own childhood in London. His family had no means of income, and Chaplin was sent to a workhouse at only seven years old. At the age of 10, Charlie and his brother were forced to fend for themselves after their mother was committed to an asylum for her ongoing battle with mental illness and the early death of their father. This realistic depiction of poverty was masterfully blended with moments of slapstick comedy, giving audiences a real emotional reaction to the characters and their situation. Many believe the relationship between “The Tramp” and “The Child” was in fact influenced by the death of Chaplin’s infant son shortly before production on the film began.

As the opening credits of the film begin, the preface states on screen, “A picture with a smile–and perhaps, a tear.” The Kid sums up Chaplin’s artistic intent well, to be inventive and stretch the limits of comedy, all while making audiences feel and think.

Charlie Chaplin in The Kid

Film Facts

After production wrapped, the film was tied up due to an ugly divorce between Chaplin and his first wife who sought to attach his assets. The raw negative of the film was allegedly smuggled in coffee cans by Chaplin and his associates to Salt Lake City, Utah where it was edited in a hotel room.

In 1971, the film was was edited and re-released by Chaplin. A new musical score was composed by Chaplin himself for the reissue.

The Library of Congress chose The Kid for preservation in their National Film Registry in December 2011. 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.”

Scene from Charlie Chaplin's The Kid

The Kid is available to stream as part of The Criterion Collection on Hulu.

What’s your favorite Charlie Chaplin movie? Which classic movies would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!

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