Charlie Chaplin’s career underwent many transitions and transformations, but none more important than the one marked by the making of The Kid. During his time at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in 1914, Chaplin had moved from simply acting in films to directing them. In a few brief years, his movies grew from less than half an hour in length to an hour or more. Released in 1921, The Kid was Chaplin’s longest title to date. Although earlier films of his—A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms (both 1918)—had burst the concise forms of the shorts that preceded them, The Kid was Chaplin’s first true feature, at six reels (originally more than an hour) and with a new dramatic structure. The Kid embeds Chaplin’s Tramp character in the drama of the Woman (played by Edna Purviance), who abandons her illegitimate child and spends her life regretting it. (In Chaplin’s 1972 revision and rerelease of The Kid, the Woman’s story still frames the film, but he eliminated several scenes involving her, as if he regretted splitting the audience’s emotional engagement between the father-son bond that develops between the Tramp and the Kid and the pathos of the Woman’s situation.)
Chaplin’s expansion of the dramatic scope of his films also signaled a shift in mood. Although his melancholy and sentimental side had emerged early on in his filmmaking career (arguably first appearing at the end of 1915’s The Tramp), it was with The Kid that he first fully embraced an emotional approach. The movie announces this with an intertitle: “A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.” This ambiguous tone would mark Chaplin’s films from this point on, and it is here that the roots of the filmmaker’s graceful dance between laughter and grief can be seen. Some critics have claimed that this new emotional depth lifted Chaplin’s art above its slapstick roots. Others feel that it spoiled a rich vein of rough-and-tumble humor and domesticated cinema’s original wild man into a sentimental clown. The truth is that The Kid reveals how closely Chaplin’s irreverent slapstick could be intertwined with his sentiment. And rather than simply making the Tramp more palatable to middle-class tastes of the day, Chaplin’s new emotional range provided the core of his lasting appeal.
Chaplin was born in London in 1889, into a Victorian culture whose art was based in sentimentality. His childhood was one of hardship and deprivation, and his art can be seen as springing from his ambivalence toward that dominant culture, from which he felt excluded but to which he aspired—a love-hate oscillation that fueled both his greatest moments and his most embarrassing lapses. The era’s most popular dramatic form, the melodrama—with its contests between vice and victimized innocence—was already appearing a bit old-fashioned by the end of the nineteenth century. Chaplin’s own background as a performer from early childhood was primarily in the English music hall, where knockabout farces might alternate with sentimental songs, and British working-class entertainment generally found room for both moods, in spite of their apparent contradiction. When he started in movies, he found himself very much at home at Keystone, where Sennett had devised a comic formula that burlesqued the morality, characters, and sentimentality of traditional melodrama while introducing thrills and speed to provoke narrative action. Chaplin joined in this wholesale liquidation of nineteenth-century melodramatic tropes with originality and gusto. Even after he left Keystone, the unmasking of conventional displays of emotion remained essential to his comedy.
In one of the short films Chaplin made for the Mutual Film Corporation, The Pawnshop (1916), a stock melodramatic figure, the honest old man fallen on hard times, enters the Tramp’s pawnshop to sell his wedding ring. Wary at first of this odd customer, the Tramp mocks the character’s theatrical poses. But with a cut in to a closer medium shot, the little fellow’s attitude changes as he listens—while continuing to munch on a cracker—to the old man’s histrionically pantomimed tale of woe and loss. Chaplin’s gags frequently pit natural appetites against ideals of sentiment—and he always sides firmly with the natural man and his needs. As the old man tells his sad story with conventional gestures and expressions, the Tramp expresses increasing sympathy and grief, his lip quivering—even as he continues chewing. The scene’s literal climax occurs when the Tramp can no longer contain his sobs and spews out a shower of cracker crumbs right at the camera, not once but three times. Chaplin’s gag parades its technique: two radically antithetical activities collide—grief and empathy for the old man encountering the physical processes of mastication and swallowing. The disturbingly material (but frankly hilarious) action undoes Chaplin’s emotional expression, exploding sentimental convention by giving grief the form of a torrent of undigested food.
Chaplin was warned by a number of people as he embarked on The Kid that slapstick and sentiment would not mix and that gag comedy could not support the length of a feature film. The success of the movie proved them wrong, even if it remains poised on a knife-edge between a wonderfully original comedy and a perhaps too predictable maternal melodrama. But the old-fashioned plot offered Chaplin the chance to base his comedy not simply in burlesque but in a deeper exploration of the primal emotions of separation and abandonment. His engagement with melodrama no longer relied on Keystone’s parodies of mustachioed villains in top hats pursuing innocent maidens but on the genuine feelings of a family separated and then reinvented, and of a child’s fear of loss and desire for union and security.
The autobiographical aspects of The Kid are often invoked by critics, and they undoubtedly played a role in bringing that emotional authenticity to the film. Chaplin and his brother, Sydney, endured a childhood defined by an absconding father and a mentally ill mother whose children were occasionally turned over to institutions. The Chaplin boys provided emotional support for each other, and that bond lasted all their lives. And shortly before Chaplin started production on The Kid, his teenage bride, Mildred Harris, gave birth to a malformed baby that survived for only three days. While such details may provide background, their explanatory role is never simple. If The Kid responds to tragic aspects of Chaplin’s life, it is by replacing them with a human drama of emotional bonding. The horror of abandonment, the pathetic vulnerability of an infant in a harsh world, provides the dark backdrop against which that vision stands out. Instead of denying such horrors, Chaplin learned from melodrama that hardship could be confronted and defeated. His way of defeating horror was to transform it—by converting loss into gags.
If the film’s opening scenes of the Woman being released from a charity hospital and abandoning her baby seem lackluster, The Kid takes on life with the entrance of the Tramp. His reaction to discovering the infant is entirely unsentimental. He tries to leave the bundle of joy next to some garbage; tries to palm it off on an unsuspecting mother; then finally considers dropping it down a storm drain. The laughs that these acts elicit express humor’s dark side—its delight at forbidden solutions and its tacit acknowledgment of the cruelty of life. The detailed grubbiness of the alleyway and tenement building sets buttresses the hard bite these scenes carry. But Chaplin’s genius lies in the way he reveals how real care and nurturing can emerge from desperation. The Tramp responds to the infant’s absolute dependence after reading the pleading note his mother has pinned to him and, with a shrug, shuffles off into the duties of fatherhood.
Chaplin’s poetic response to the world relies on his ingenious redefinition of objects. Many of his gags repurpose things, transforming their uses and meanings through his inventive play with them. The Tramp’s undertaking of the chores of parenting displays this bricoleur’s imagination. We see him efficiently cutting up and folding cloths for the baby’s diapers, acknowledging from the start that care includes the most basic of bodily functions. Instead of a traditional cradle, the baby hangs suspended in an improvised hammock. His nutritive needs are taken care of by a similarly hanging teapot with a nipple forced onto its spout. The baby voraciously suckles on the nipple, and when it slips from his mouth, the Tramp deftly redirects it. Besides supplying this system for nourishment, the Tramp also entertains the baby with a series of facial contortions, which the infant interrupts his suckling to watch with delight. Rocking the hammock, the Tramp feels dampness, wipes his hand, and again improvises: he cuts a hole in the bottom of a chair, which he then places beneath the baby’s hammock and over a cuspidor on the floor. More fanciful than practical, this conduit for infant urine again shows us Chaplin’s poetic redefining of things, again wedded to the frank acknowledgment of the physical.
All these gags serve to articulate the close bond between child and ersatz father, giving it humor as well as emotional depth. The heart-wrenching sequence in which the Tramp rescues the Kid (Jackie Coogan) from the authorities and they kiss and embrace carries an authenticity the opening scenes of the mother’s plight cannot touch. While the Woman’s maternal dilemma seems lifeless, Chaplin portrays the power of an improvised family and invented home, originating an idea that has had resonance throughout American cinema, with its recurring ad hoc families of misfits, from Rebel Without a Cause to Boogie Nights.
Nowhere is the genuinely poignant sense of human needs and ideals that Chaplin creates through the collision of sentiment with the physical and everyday more poetically achieved than in the Tramp’s dream of heaven when he believes he has lost the Kid forever. Chaplin’s heaven remains a tenement alleyway, albeit bedecked with flowering vines and filled with angelic slum dwellers in nightshirts and wings, playing harps as they skip merrily around. The Kid awakens the sleeping Tramp by tickling his nose with an angel’s feather. Even doggies have wings, and when the Tramp is outfitted with his own pair, he scratches them with his cane and sheds feathers like a puppy sheds fur. But this burlesque paradise is soon invaded by demonic tempters, who sow sexual desire, jealousy, and violence and undermine its harmony. Angelic battles erupt in a flurry of feathers that not only recalls the explosion of crumbs in The Pawnshop but anticipates the shower from a burst pillow in The Gold Rush (1925). A cop-angel terminates the Tramp’s flight with a pistol shot, and Charlie crashes very solidly to earth. This image ends the dream: Chaplin as a fallen angel with crumpled wings. It captures his unique, almost surrealist imagination, and his creation of a new claim on our emotions, founded in the contradiction between desire and reality, heavenly love and a harsh world.
After seeing The Kid, the American poet Hart Crane sent Chaplin a poem, titled “Chaplinesque,” that gets at the film’s ability to generate feeling out of desperate conditions, affirming the power of human caring without denying the reality of loss and lack. The poem ends with these lines:
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.
The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.
The still, small voice that calls forth that human response is at the heart of The Kid, heard within a wilderness of alleyways and ash cans.