“A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear,” The Kid was the first full-length feature directed by Charlie Chaplin. The film’s centenary is being celebrated with a progressive Chaplin retrospective that will unfurl in Australian cinemas for the rest of this year and into 2022, continuing a pandemic-era trend of revisiting classic movies on the big screen. Part One of the festival, which begins this month, is devoted to Chaplin’s silent films. Part Two, to be held next year, will feature his talkies.
It’s hard nowadays to imagine how big a star Chaplin was in the early days of the industry. Born in London in 1889, he had begun his career in vaudeville and was talented enough to be invited to join a troupe that toured the United States. During a second American tour in 1913 he was offered a job in the motion pictures and relocated to Hollywood. His trademark character, The Tramp, was born in only his second short film and became an instant favourite.
In an era when everyone was mad for the movies Chaplin’s rise to fame was stupendous. The public became obsessed with The Tramp, who was recognised and adored internationally. Never out of the papers, (often for the salacious details of his private life), Chaplin was paid one of the highest salaries in the world by the Mutual Film Corporation. By 1918, at the age of 31, he had signed with another company, First National, built his own studio, and was given complete creative freedom.
The Kid was the fruit of that deal, although he quickly grew disenchanted with First National, who were reluctant to fund his ambitious plans. At a time in which short films were churned out on a weekly basis, Chaplin wanted to produce a longer, more artistic feature. Even before shooting began in August 1919 he had formed the independent distribution company, United Artists, in collaboration with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffiths, but was still obliged to fulfil a six-film contract with National Mutual.
The company preferred films of one or two reels but The Kid – at 68 minutes – turned out to be a six-reeler. Filming was disrupted by Chaplin’s marital problems. In September 1918 he had wedded 16-year-old actress, Mildred Harris, who had falsely believed herself to be pregnant. The couple had a son that died after three days, and by November 1920 they were divorced.
As the press descended on Chaplin he avoided the studio, and the production languished. Fearing Mildred would claim the negative of the film as a “business asset” he fled to a hotel in Salt Lake City, where he could edit the rushes in secret while avoiding lawyers and process servers. In New York he dressed in drag in order to keep a dinner date with writer, Frank Harris, without being recognised.
As soon as the divorce came through Chaplin began negotiating in earnest with National Mutual. He knew he had a hit on his hands and wouldn’t allow himself to be short-changed. The movie was finally launched on 6 January, 1921, in New York, and met with huge success. Over the next three years it would be screened in 50 countries to universal acclaim.
Many believe The Kid to be Chaplin’s finest film, even allowing for later masterpieces such as Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). The increasingly nightmarish circumstances of his divorce, in which Mildred kept escalating her demands with the secret encouragement of National Mutual, meant The Kid was finished under extreme duress. It’s arguably his most personal movie, with child co-star, Jackie Coogan, acting as a substitute for the son he had so recently lost.
As late as 1971 the 82-year-old Chaplin would compose a new musical score for a re-release and cut several scenes he felt to be too sentimental or heavy-handed. These scenes, despite their mawkish symbolism, have now been restored. In viewing the film today we need to put ourselves into the shoes of a 1921 audience, accustomed to the over-the-top signalling of emotion found in melodrama and continued by the silent film. It wouldn’t be until the arrival of sound in 1927 that a more realistic style of acting would evolve.
The Kid was a breakthrough for Chaplin and for the industry in the way it combined slapstick comedy with the kind of drama that touched viewers’ hearts. There are plenty of brilliant moments in the early silents but most of the stories are strictly one-note affairs. In The Kid there’s a touch of true artistry in the way Chaplin frames a scene or choreographs an action sequence.
In the first minutes we meet a woman (Edna Purviance), who emerges from a hospital bearing a child she has had out of wedlock and an expression of grim tragedy. In despair she leaves the baby in the back seat of a fancy car with a note imploring the finder to love and care for this “orphan”. When she walks away the car is stolen by a couple of crooks who deposit the baby in an alley where it is found by The Tramp.
At first Charlie makes strenuous, comical efforts to rid himself of this unexpected burden but eventually decides to raise the child himself. Five years later the two of them are living together in a seedy garrett. The little boy has become Charlie’s Mini-Me, having learned his quickness and his grifting ways. He even cooks pancakes while Charlie stays in bed. There follows a sequence of marvellous set pieces – dodging a policeman, getting into a fight, a night in a dosshouse, and a thrilling rescue when Charlie snatches the boy away from two thugs sent by an orphanage. Towards the end there is an extravagant dream sequence in which everyone in the neighbourhood becomes transformed into angels with fluffy, cheap-looking wings.
Jackie Coogan, who was only four years old when shooting commenced, stakes a claim to be the most remarkable child actor of all time. Brought up in a showbusiness family he had amazing self-confidence and agility, while looking too cute to be true. The Kid would make pre-teen Coogan a superstar who travelled the world meeting celebrities and statesmen. But by the age of 13 he was declared “senile”, as his infantile chutzpah waned. Of the many small roles he would play in later life he is best remembered as Uncle Fester in the Addams Family.
Neither would Coogan be the only child in the movie to play a role in Chaplin’s life. Succumbing to his fatal predilection for young women, Chaplin was charmed by a pretty 12-year-old called Lita Grey, whom he dolled up as a vampy angel in the dream sequence. She would become the second Mrs. Chaplin at the age of 16, in a marriage conducted in Mexico. This union would prove to be an even bigger disaster than the first. Mildred had hit Charlie for a divorce settlement of $100,000, but Lita told the world that her husband was a sexual pervert and walked away with $500,000 – a new American record. When Chaplin advised viewers they would respond to The Kid with a smile and perhaps, a tear, he had no idea that he would be speaking to his own experience.
The Kid (Charlie Chaplin Retrospective)
Written & directed by Charles Chaplin
Starring Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, Tom Wilson, Lita Grey
USA, rated G, 68 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 10 July, 2021