Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid opens with a long shot of a hospital as a young woman (Edna Purviance) emerges carrying a baby. An intertitle says her sin is motherhood and an image of Christ bearing the cross is superimposed over her trek out into the harsh realities of burgeoning modernity. Forlorn and abandoned, the mother dumps the baby, soon to be found and adopted by The Tramp (Chaplin). While The Kid could easily be chalked-up as a sentimental father-son reconciliation narrative, Chaplin’s persistent interest in the juxtaposition of technology and tradition deepens the quality of the film’s convictions by complicating a conventional, melodramatic template.
Take how The Tramp erects a Rube Goldbergian nursery for the babe using a tea pot for a bottle, and hanging rags for a crib. The gag relates specifically to The Tramp’s meager conditions, but also works because the nursery actually works; the devices are functional and serve their purpose just as well as a consumerist tool would. Chaplin’s comedic sensibilities operate similarly, deriving their richness from the unusual (or cinematically unexplored) interactions of human bodies. The film earns early laughs from watching The Tramp scrub behind the ears of adopted son John (Jackie Coogan) with his handkerchief. There’s no punchline here, as the humor of the scene derives entirely from awkward facial expressions and tilts of the body as The Tramp figures out fathering on the fly. In a later bit, The Tramp mistakes the hand of a policeman to be that of a flirtatious housewife and is subsequently placed in a chokehold. The gag’s strength lies in Chaplin’s implicit exploration of thresholds between pleasure and pain—and if that sounds like a stretch, remember that the film opens with the promise to be “a picture with a smile and, perhaps, a tear.” Whether the tears will be of sorrow or joy isn’t so clear.
Throughout, the excesses of contemporary life present themselves in paradoxical ways. When serving breakfast, The Tramp dumps huge portions of indiscernible slop onto his and John’s plates, which gives visual emphasis to class-specific forms of affluence; the Tramp lacks more legitimated forms of wealth, but can still spoil his son according to his own means. The joke is repeated to similar effect in a later scene where the two eat large stacks of flapjacks. In this instance, little John has slaved away making the meal, while The Tramp lies in bed, smoking a cigarette and reading the funnies. If the domestic implications weren’t apparent enough, John hectors The Tramp to come and eat. It’s an odd suggestion, no doubt, that somehow the orphan boy is as much a surrogate wife for the asexual Tramp as a son, but no stranger than the moment much later when, after rescuing the boy from Child Services, The Tramp plants a kiss right on the boy’s lips.
Chaplin calls upon sentimentality to make sense of an evolving cityscape, where lines of houses provide not just places to eat and sleep, but new ways to move throughout a larger space. His interest in such arrangements climax once The Tramp is forced to crawl and scurry across rooftops to find the paddy wagon John’s been thrown into after being detained by an orphanage. Indeed, the trail across the roofs meets the car’s path along designated spaces of travel, demonstrating how wonderfully Chaplin intuits the implications of having the poor Tramp use his will power—and the city’s new design—to thwart the automobiled, unfeeling arm of government agencies.
In fact, once a lodging tenant kidnaps and turns John in for a $1000 reward (his greedy motivations triumph over commonwealth), The Kid confirms its reliance on melodramatic premises for narrative motivation. Melodrama also anchors later Chaplin featuring The Tramp, like The Circus and City Lights, but it works best here, since the fragile relationship between parent and child carries the heart-wrenching pathos of autobiography, as Chaplin made the film after the death of his newborn son. That the film ends in a reunion might as well be an extension of its penultimate sequence, as The Tramp finds himself in “dreamland” among an assortment of angels, played by characters from his real life. But no matter whether awake or sleeping, Chaplin implies, the cinema thrives best as dream and memory entwined.
This restoration is a masterpiece unto itself. Never has a film of the silent era looked so crystal clear as it does here, suggesting the photographic medium of moving images has, for nearly a hundred years, been capable of capturing depth of field, bodies in motion, and the minutiae of human behavior with no less precision than one would expect from the newest digital technologies. One may almost suspect digital enhancement given how good the image consistently appears, but grain remains present throughout, and there’s no real evidence of actual tampering beyond erasing all signs of debris and scratches to the original negative. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack of Chaplin’s 1972 rerelease score sounds impeccable throughout, swelling as it does without any tinning or feedback.
A gold mine. The feature commentary by Chaplin historian Charles Maland is as thorough and informative as one would expect from the author of two books on the director. Maland explains that Chaplin was in "creative and personal crisis" before shooting The Kid, primarily due to the death of his newborn son. Moreover, Maland explains his perceptions on the evolution of Chaplin’s visual and narrative interests, citing scenes from shorts and later films by Chaplin to explain where he understands The Kid fitting into the auteur’s oeuvre. The best supplement, though, is a video essay on Jackie Coogan by Chaplin historian Lisa Haven that explains the young actor’s largely tragic career and status as "the world’s first child star." In fact, the Coogan Law was established in his name, to protect the earnings and assets of young stars from leeching adults. The essay even features archival footage of Coogan dancing at a private party, with Chaplin cheering on the sidelines.
On another, though no less significant, front, silent-film specialist Ben Model explains Chaplin’s use of undercranking and masterfully shows how different frame rates affect any joke that relies on physical movement within the mise-en-scène. The exhaustive supplements also include an interview with Coogan from the early ’80s, as well as talks with actress Lita Grey Chaplin, cinematographer Roland Totheroh, and distributor Mo Rothman. There’s also an assortment of for die-hards only material, like footage of Chaplin conducting a score for the film in 1971 and newsreel footage of the star relocating back to Europe in 1921 following seven years living in the States. Finally, a handful of deleted scenes, a 1922 short film made as a wedding present for Lord and Lady Mountbatten, and an essay by film scholar Tom Gunning round out this most impressive film-school-on-a-disc.
Another chapter of the Charlie Chaplin home-video renaissance is complete, as The Kid makes its way onto an immaculate 4K Blu-ray, with a trolley car full of extras from Criterion.