Filmsite Movie Review
The Kid (1921)
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The Kid (1921) is silent comic star Charlie Chaplin's classic of comedy and pathos - his first feature-length film (it was a more sophisticated six-reeler or "6 Reels of Joy" than his previous shorts). It was the first film that he wrote, produced, and directed, and soon became his best-remembered and most-loved film.

An inter-title for the slapstick comedy (and soap-opera tearjerker) stated that it was "a picture with a smile - and perhaps, a tear," and many argued that the film was Chaplin's most personal and autobiographical work. This film paved the way for Chaplin's future feature films - he continued to make silent films that extended well beyond the advent of "talkies" (including The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936)) until his first full-length sound picture The Great Dictator (1940).

In 1971, fifty years after the film's original release, Chaplin composed an original orchestral musical score for the reissued film (based on a theme from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (Pathétique)), and re-edited the original 68 minute film (of 6 reels) for re-release in 1972. To emphasize the father-son bond more strongly, about 15 minutes of overly-sentimental scenes of pathos were deleted (involving the character of the Kid's guilt-wracked mother, her reconciliation with her husband, and some of the film's more overt religious symbolism). Thus, most modern versions of the film are at about 53 minutes of length.

In First National's silent short film (with only a few inter-titles) - a sentimental, charming semi-autobiographical tale with both humor and pathos, Chaplin starred as his famous 'Little Tramp' character. All of the main characters in the fable-like, universal tale had generic titles: the Man, the Woman, the Child and a Tramp. Some of the film was shot on-location near Olvera Street (an historic section north of downtown Los Angeles, transformed in 1930 into a colorful Mexican marketplace and cultural center), as well as Universal City, Pasadena, Eagle Rock, and Occidental College.

In the 'love story' of sorts, the destitute Tramp discovered, rescued and adopted an abandoned, orphaned baby from a woman "whose sin was motherhood." After the Little Tramp unsuccessfully tried to find a home for the child, he assumed responsibility, raised him for five years, and taught his sidekick kid (Jackie Coogan in a star-making role) to survive on the streets as a con artist. Later, the desperate, 'fallen' unwed mother (Edna Purviance) reappeared, after having becoming wealthy, and sought to regain custody and get the child back through social welfare workers in a heartwrenching, melodramatic moment. The Little Tramp resisted having the child taken away by orphanage officials in the film's highlight scene - a dramatic rooftop chase followed by a tearful reunion.

Along with hysterical slapstick humor in various bits, the most engaging segment was the fantasy dream sequence in which the Tramp sat on a doorway stoop and dreamt of a blissful, happier life in Heaven, with the poor transformed into white, feather-winged angels. The film's all-too-simple conclusion reunited the Kid, the mother and surrogate 'father' - apparently to live in domestic bliss together with all their needs met.

After an extended year-long shooting schedule (due to an inordinate amount of reshoots due to perfectionist Chaplin), 18 months in overall production time, and other complications involving Chaplin's impending divorce with his wife and financial issues with the studio, The Kid (1921) was finally officially released in February of 1921. It emerged as one of the greatest commercial and critical successes in its year of release. It was the second-highest-grossing film of 1921 (taking in about $2,500,000), behind Rex Ingram's anti-war epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), with a star-making role for Rudolph Valentino.

Chaplin's sentimental, melodramatic film inspired future works such as The Champ (1931) (teaming another popular child star Jackie Cooper with Wallace Beery) and Three Men and a Baby (1987). There were three remakes of various kinds:

  • Sidewalk Stories (1989), African-American director/actor Charles Lane's Chaplinesque black and white, low-budget, nearly silent version of The Kid, updated to 1980s New York (with a black father figure - a poor street artist, and orphaned female toddler - Lane's 2-year-old daughter Nicole Alysia)
  • Big Daddy (1999), a severely-criticized Adam Sandler film (Sandler received the Worst Actor 'Golden Raspberry' Award), although some reviewers found it amusing (at the Kids' Choice Awards in 2000, it won Favorite Movie and Favorite Movie Actor)
  • The Kid (2015), a faithful modernized remake of the film released by actor/writer/director David Scott Heck - a version that was carefully constructed and filmed to eliminate inconsistencies, errors, and plot holes

Jackie Coogan's father Jack Coogan, Sr. played three different small uncredited roles in the film - as a pickpocket, a guest, and as the 'Devil' in the dream sequence. Young 4 year-old Jackie Coogan, who was discovered in the Orpheum Music Hall (in Los Angeles) on stage with his father performing a virtuoso vaudeville dance, was hired by Chaplin, and first played an extra in a crowd scene as Chaplin's younger son in the short A Day's Pleasure (1919). With the release of The Kid, he became the first child star of the era, and received notoriety world-wide. Later to future generations, he was known as Uncle Fester Frump on the mid-60's television sitcom show The Addams Family (1964-1966) and its cartoon version (1973-1975).

The California Child Actor's Bill, better known as the Coogan Law, was enacted in 1939. The child labor reform act took place after 24 year-old Jackie Coogan sued his parents (mother and stepfather) in 1938 for mismanaging and exploiting his career and spending his acquired fortune as a young star (estimated to be approximately $4 million). In August 1939, Coogan and his mother reached a settlement in which he received about half of the remaining funds (totaling $252,000), or $126,000. To protect the earnings of other child actors, the Coogan Law required that 15% of a child's earnings be set aside in a trust that could not be tapped without a court order until the child came of age. Various child labor laws and other similar acts have since been established.

Chaplin's young 12 or 13-year old co-star Lillita McMurray, who portrayed a flirtatious "temptress angel" in the film, became his second wife 3-4 years later due to pregnancy. 35 year old Chaplin married his underage, 16 year-old The Kid co-star, now known as Lita Grey, in 1924 - it was a coupling that lasted only three years.

[Note: During filming, Chaplin was in the midst of a difficult divorce from his first wife, teenaged bride Mildred Harris, a 17 year-old whom the 29 year-old Chaplin married in 1918. They had one child in 1919 who survived for only three days. It was widely theorized that due to the death of Chaplin's firstborn infant son just ten days before the production began, the actor transferred his fatherly concerns as a surrogate care-giver to his young waif co-star Jackie.]

Plot Synopsis

Title Screen:

The dramatic film's four main cast members were presented on one of the opening title screens, with very general cast names: The Man, The Woman, The Child, and A Tramp. The first inter-title hinted at the film's revolutionary hybrid of two genres - comedy and tragic-tinged melodrama:

A picture with a smile - and perhaps, a tear.

An Unwed Mother's Dilemma:

The front of an austere, three-story CHARITY HOSPITAL came into view. At the maternity hospital's imprisoning front metal gate, a Woman (Edna Purviance), an unwed "fallen" mother, was dismissed from the protective confines of the facility by a stern-faced, cynical-looking, white-uniformed nurse, after she had given birth to a child out of wedlock:

The woman - whose sin was motherhood.

As she left the facility, the metal gate was locked behind her - it was a symbol of her personal shunning and her deviation from the norms of the unforgiving society of do-gooders that had quickly punished her. She would receive no more help from the charity hospital and was now on her own. The ostracized, ashamed and dejected mother faced a major dilemma as she entered the harsh real-world, with the baby bundled in her arms. There was a corresponding view of a painting depicting Jesus carrying the burden of his crucifix-cross up an incline - similar to the Woman's burden of a child (born to her without accepted societal wedlock). Upset and distraught, she sat down on a park bench in a wooded area, "Alone," not knowing what to do next. The desperate mother had no visible means of support to keep the fatherless child. The scene dissolved into black with a slowly-closing iris.

Meanwhile, a Man (Carl Miller), an artist in his studio, was conversing with an older artist and/or potential customer about one of his recent paintings, while he glanced at a photograph of the Woman sitting on his chimney mantle. He was the deadbeat and irresponsible father who had abandoned his pregnant girlfriend. As he turned and reached for a rolled-up piece of paper behind the photo, he carelessly and accidentally struck the photo, sending it tumbling down from the mantlepiece into a burning charcoal fire. He reached to retrieve the partially-charred photo around the edges - the Woman he had once loved and created a baby with - but then callously and indifferently tossed it back into the fire to let it fully burn, as he lit his pipe with a flame at the end of the paper. The scene dissolved to black.

The mother placed the infant baby (Silas Hathaway as baby) in the back seat of a rich man's parked, luxury Model T (a wedding limousine), hoping it would be adopted and well cared-for. She kissed her child one last time, and (off-screen) left a note for the ostensibly wealthy owner to raise her socially doomed baby. She fled and returned to the park bench, and shortly later wandered off. She wasn't expecting that two shady-looking car thieves (Albert Austin and Arthur Thalasso) would come along, steal the car, and drive away from the affluent area.

When later, the two thugs parked the limo for a smoke, they heard the infant's piteous crying in the back seat. They panicked and discarded (or dumped) the Kid in the derelict, poverty-stricken slum neighborhood's alleyway near some trash cans.

The Adoption of an Orphan:

"His morning promenade."

During a perilous 'morning promenade', the happy-go-lucky, suavely-debonair and genteel yet impoverished bum - a shabby-looking Tramp (Charles Chaplin) (with his characteristic floppy shoes, hat, cane, ill-fitting pants, mustache, and coat), was first seen walking along and swinging his cane. He had to dodge being hit with a customary assortment of dumped trash from an upper second-floor window, but then was unsuspectingly hit by debris thrown from an opposite direction. He swore: "Awkward ass." He reached with his fingerless gloves for his sardine-can cigarette case and picked out a half-smoked butt. He delicately removed each of the gloves, lit his cigarette butt, and then decided to not pocket his gloves, but toss them into a trash can.

When he heard a baby's cries and saw a blanket covering the abandoned young infant, bundled up in the filthy, garbage-strewn alleyway, he looked up - wondering to himself if the baby had been tossed from the window. Within a series of brief slapstick scenes, he made a few frustrating attempts to pawn the baby off, first by placing it in a lady's (Edith Wilson) baby carriage, and telling her: "Pardon me, you dropped something." She denied that the baby was hers and angrily refused to care for a second child. All the while, he was being carefully watched by an alert Policeman (Tom Wilson) on patrol. A second attempt was made when he handed the baby to a bearded old man while he tied his shoe, and then ran off and hid in a shed. The elderly gentleman deposited the baby into the same lady's baby carriage parked in front of a shoe store. She blamed the Tramp, who happened to be passing by, accosted him and whacked him with her umbrella, dragged him over to her carriage, and forcibly insisted that he again take the infant - under the watchful eye of the summoned policeman at the scene.

The Tramp sat on a curb and considered tossing the infant into the open grating of a street-gutter sewer, but changed his mind after reading the mother's pleading note pinned to the baby's blanket ("Please love and care for this orphan child"). He placed the note in his coat pocket, and resigned himself to adopt the Kid and assume the duties of fatherhood. When he returned to his run-down residence, he was questioned at the front stoop by occupants of the local whorehouse, who asked: "Is that yours? What's its name?" He didn't answer, went inside, paused, and then returned with a one-word reply: "John."

[Note: Was this a 'dirty' toilet joke by Chaplin?]

With his bundle in his arms, the Tramp entered his one-room, studio-sized, slum garret-apartment, and tried to amuse and distract the crying child with toys.

Meanwhile, the distraught Woman, unsure about her decision to abandon her child once her maternal instincts revived, returned to where she had left her baby - inside a fancy car parked front of a luxury mansion, but the vehicle was no longer there. She became frantic and alerted the limousine driver and mansion's butler that the car was missing - it had been stolen with the baby inside - and then promptly swooned, fainted and collapsed on the front doorstep.


In a number of inventive fathering scenes to take care of the baby's basic bodily functions, the Tramp ingeniously improvised or devised an elaborate hanging sling-cradle or swing-hammock, and a feeding or nursing milk-bottle apparatus with a rubber nipple attached to the spout of a suspended coffee pot.

Some critics found the depiction of some of the subject-matter 'vulgar' or in 'bad-taste', however, such as:

  • cutting the baby's diapers from pieces of cloth
  • touching the damp bottom of the baby's hammock and realizing his hand was wet with urine
  • rigging toilet facilities: he cut a round hole in the wicker-bottom of a chair, placed the chair directly underneath the baby's sling-hammock and then put a cuspidor-receptable (or spittoon) on the floor below the chair - to catch urine

Five Years Later:

Five years later after considerable parental molding, the boy had become a younger doppelganger version of his foster father - a child clone of the adult Tramp, and the father-son duo had developed a strong and loving bond. The Kid wore oversized clothing (overalls and a large cap) and a page-boy haircut - both were society's outcasts who had been forced to adapt to harsh and meager conditions. Their dingy living quarters were marked by broken, cast-off furnishings, and a rusty horseshoe (for good luck) nailed over the door. The apartment's exterior streets were populated by thugs - and strict societal forces (i.e., a strong police presence to enforce laws and ever-watchful social reformers).

A policeman walked by the front of their shabby, humble abode and with his hands on his hips, suspiciously spied upon the Kid (Jackie Coogan), who was sitting on the curb. The young boy was carefully and delicately manicuring his nails.

Inside their shabby but neatly-kept shack, the Kid was instructed to: "Put the quarter in the gas meter." As a clever survival tactic, the Tramp had rigged the gas meter device so that the Kid could trick the meter into lighting the stove, and then retrieve their quarter from the coin box. Other vignettes illustrated how the cute Kid had been responsibly raised by the Tramp. Before their daily work routine, the Tramp inspected his 'son's' hands and ears, wiped his neck with a dampened handkerchief, blew his nose, and looked for head lice.

The Scam - The Broken Window Repair Business:

They worked together as a profitable partners-in-crime team to make a living - a breaking/fixing windows scam-business, where the father (an itinerant street-vendor-glazier) would happen to coincidentally arrive after acts of vandalism performed by the son. Before the boy was sent out to perform his part of the scam (throwing stones, breaking windows, and running off), the Tramp asked the boy: "You know what streets we worked today?" They were planning their new route for the day's routine of breaking and repairing window damage.

The Kid tossed three round stones at a window and then fled. The Tramp conveniently walked by and was commissioned to repair the window. Meanwhile, around the block, the Kid tossed more rocks at another window. As he wound up for a third attempt to throw rocks at another window, his extended hand came into contact with a watchful cop standing behind him. To appear innocent, the Kid pretended to be juggling the rock, and then tossed it away to the ground before running off.

The cop's suspicions heightened when he saw the Tramp repairing the first window, and the female homeowner paid him a dollar for his services - the nervous Tramp felt compelled to return the fee to the woman. The cop then watched as the Tramp and Kid joined up together in the middle of the street - although the Tramp kept trying to dissociate himself from the incriminating boy by kicking him away. The patrolman trailed after them - as they made a quick dash around a street corner.

The next inter-title stated: "All's well...Job number 13."

[Note: The Tramp was unaware that Job # 13 was at the policeman's own apartment.]

As the Tramp was showing the housewife (May White) his handiwork at the 13th window repair job of the day, he innocently put his arm around her waist to position her properly to view the installation of a plate of glass. When he was scolded for being too forward with her, he apologetically doffed his hat to her, but then backed himself into the crook of her arm (as she was leaning on the window sill). They playfully shared a laugh together, not knowing that around the corner, her "off-duty" policeman husband had entered their home. They continued to brazenly and flirtatiously laugh and share some whispered jokes, and she jokingly poked him in the chest with her elbow. As he was about to return the innocent gesture with his trowel, he thought she had put her hand on his shoulder. However, he was being grabbed from behind and choked (through the open window) by her enraged husband. When the Tramp realized he was being accosted, he raced away, and a chase ensued. Both the Kid and the Tramp were able to elude the policeman and escape into their home.

In their one-room dwelling, they celebrated with a feast of food. The stove had been heating a pot of stew (with a large bowl servicing as a pot cover) after they returned from their day's work. The Tramp scooped out for each of them a sizable pile of food onto their plates. Shortly later, after finishing the gigantic portion he was served, the Kid (and the Tramp) daintily used a makeshift finger bowl to clean up.

The Mother's Fortunes:

The inter-title stated: "The woman - now a star of great prominence." The Woman had become a successful opera singer with great material success. After a recent performance, she had received a large floral arrangement with a congratulatory note: "Congratulations on your performance last night." Her Maid (Kathleen Kay) entered to announce the arrival of "Professor Guido, impresario." The fawning, over-emoting Professor Guido (Henry Bergman) expressed more praise: "Read what the critics say...wonderful!" and handed her the notices to read, as another florist delivery was being made by a young black boy, who was rewarded with a tip.

"Charity - to some a duty, to others a joy." The Woman had volunteered to devote some of her time to charity work in the slum area, to substitute for the abandonment and loss of her child, and to relieve herself of the guilt and void within. The childless woman was in the Kid's neighborhood, distributing gifts to the poor children. Unknowingly, she sat on the front stoop of the Kid's home while holding one of the slum babies in her arms. As she thought back and remembered her lost son, still terribly pained and regretful, the Kid opened the door behind her and sat on his own front step. She even unknowingly smiled at her own offspring, and gave him a plastic toy dog and an apple. As she sadly walked off, the Kid waved at her, but she didn't notice.

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