- The Kid (1921) movie overview: An homage to unconventional families mixed with some pointed social commentary, Charles Chaplin’s directorial feature debut is a sentimental comedy-drama that remains just as moving nearly nine decades after its initial release.
The Kid movie overview: Charles Chaplin’s beautifully acted feature debut remains a moving homage to unconventional families
Although I have never been much of a Charles Chaplin fan, The Kid is one sweet picture. In fact, it’s the only Chaplin movie I would want to watch over again. (Note: This commentary refers to Charles Chaplin’s own 1972 re-edit, which runs 53 minutes.)
Penned by Chaplin, the story is a simple one: A poor, unwed mother (frequent Chaplin leading lady Edna Purviance) abandons her newborn son in an expensive car parked in front of a mansion, thinking some rich person will find and adopt him.
Instead, the car is stolen by thieves and the baby is abandoned in an alley. Along comes Chaplin’s tramp, who takes him in after a few failed attempts to give him away.
Five years later, the baby has turned into a kid (Jackie Coogan) who teams up with his foster father in delinquent schemes to make a living fixing broken windows. They reside in a one-room shack in the slums, but their lives are rich with love. The two have a symbiotic relationship to the point where the kid is just a smaller version of the tramp.
Great chemistry among actors
The chemistry between the two is evident by the way they relate and care for each other; I particularly liked the way the tramp kisses the boy goodnight and makes him comfortable when they are hiding out from the police in a flop house.
Besides, Charles Chaplin’s physical acumen is never better than when he is on the run, chasing after the kid when he is finally taken away. His pantomime makes the tramp’s passion for his child all the more convincing.
Jackie Coogan, for his part, is marvelous as the title character. His performance, which goes from comedy to tears, is amazing for a child his age. And to make a good movie even better, the music – composed by Chaplin for the 1971 reissue of the film – is fantastic, perfectly enhancing the action and the pathos.
I was also profoundly touched by the scene where the mother – now a famous opera star – meets the kid in the slummy part of town and doesn’t realize he is her child. The tenderness between the two works on a subliminal level. Somewhere deep inside, they recognize each other, but without actually being aware of it.
Top-caliber sentimental filmmaking
The only thing in The Kid that failed to impress me was the sequence when the boy has to fight the town bully. Fist-fighting wouldn’t be the way for the film’s cunning lead characters to handle conflict. As streetwise types, they would have used their acquired skills to outsmart the violent dumbbells.
In addition, Chaplin’s dream sequence featuring angels was a bit distracting, though I understand his attempt to make a subconscious point about how much the tramp missed his child.
Now, even though I agree with Margo Channing – “I detest cheap sentiment” – I loved this sentimental movie.
The Kid (1921)
Direction & Screenplay: Charles Chaplin.
Cast: Charles Chaplin. Jackie Coogan. Edna Purviance. Carl Miller. Tom Wilson.
“The Kid Movie: Sentimental Chaplin Effective 90 Years Later” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“The Kid Movie (1921) Overview” endnotes
According to several sources, future Peter Pan actress Esther Ralston; one of Charles Chaplin’s future wives, Lita Grey; and Jackie Coogan’s father, Jack Coogan Sr., are all featured in uncredited bit parts.
Tom Wilson, Jackie Coogan, and Charles Chaplin The Kid movie image: United Artists.
“The Kid Movie: Sentimental Chaplin Effective 90 Years Later” last updated in September 2021.