Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Kid - 1921

“The Kid” (1921), Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, ties together episodic bits in the life of an orphaned child and the Little Tramp who raises him. What ties the flow of funny or heartbreaking short scenes together is Chaplin’s wonderful sense of place. The slum these two characters live in is a world unto itself, and they are survivors in this world that is not supposed to be funny, but frequently is.

Their streets are mean and dirty. Their flat is crumbling about them, and their food looks like just so much garbage in a steaming wash tub. There is nothing meager, though, about their sense of purpose in surviving poverty, and their attachment to each other.

Charlie Chaplin’s character, and the world he lives in, is equal parts honor and larceny, but underhandedness only in a sense of survival because that it what it takes to survive. The kid, played by Jackie Coogan, breaks windows with rocks so that Chaplin, a street peddling glazier, may repair them to support them both.

When a bratty kid steals Coogan’s toys, given to him by the kind lady who later turns out to be his natural mother, Coogan thrashes the brat in a fistfight. Chaplin’s pride in his boy soon turns to thoughts of self preservation when the brat’s old brother, a bully played by Charles Reisner, threatens to beat up Chaplin if Coogan wins the fight. Chaplin, in comedic timing worthy of a true champion admonishes Coogan with a quick, “You wicked boy,” and plants his foot on Coogan’s chest to keep him from winning.

Inevitably, the bully wants to fight Chaplin anyway, and the voluminous padding under Reisner’s tight turtleneck making him look a little like the Michelin Man tells us he is a strong and powerful fighter. We need not fear for Chaplin, however, because underhandedness is his code of honor, and he repeatedly clunks the bully with a hidden brick.

We see trickery at work as well in the flophouse (no politically correct homeless shelter in 1921), where Chaplin tries to sneak Coogan in without paying extra for him. Chaplin pays for a cot in a barn of a room lined with other sleeping men and hides Coogan successfully, until Coogan, raised by him to be good as well as sneaky, after a snuggle and a kiss, slips out of bed and onto his knees for a quick bedtime prayer, and they are caught, and he must pay extra. A nice touch is the thin, pitiful jets of gaslight being turned down by the proprietor, and then later frantically turned on again by Chaplain when he realizes his boy is missing.

Edna Purviance plays the woman who abandoned the kid as a baby and who, now a successful performer, pines for her lost son. That they are eventually reunited, all three in Purviance’s mansion is meant to satisfy the audience and resolve Chaplin’s and the kid’s hopeless future, but her mother’s love is not so meaningful to us as the anxious moments earlier in the film when the orphan asylum authorities try to remove the kid from Chaplin’s care. Coogan is removed, kicking and crying and dropped into the truck bed the way a dogcatcher rounds up a stray dog. Young Coogan is handled and manhandled so much in this film, it’s a wonder he lived to grow up.

When Coogan is taken from him, Chaplin struggles bodily with the authorities and when they restrain him, his expression thrown like a dart at the camera is one of animal pain and fear. Chaplin expertly, with one deep look into his stricken face, illustrates our deepest sick fears, our worst nightmares about losing our children, and cuts to the heart.

In a vigorous chase over rooftops, with the asylum vehicle driving the street below to show perspective of height, Chaplin escapes the authorities and leaps to the truck bed, reunited with his boy with a clinch of a hug and a desperate kiss, and charges at the driver in a physical threat to leave them alone. That his lithe, graceful little form, so successfully used to comic effect can be actually threatening as he stamps his feet at the intimidated asylum officer, is somehow touching.

Chaplin was very good at exploiting his abilities, and at exploiting the emotions of the audience, who were always right in his pocket.

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