The Kid (6 February 1921)
Release Date: 6 February 1921
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 68 minutes (53 minutes, 1971 re-issue)
With: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, Henry Bergman
Story: The Tramp finds an abandoned baby and reluctantly raises the child. As he grows into a useful ally, the Tramp develops a bond with the boy, one he struggles to maintain over the interference of well-meaning authorities.
Production: Charlie Chaplin’s big discovery, going into the 1920s, was Jackie Coogan. The young actor had first appeared in A Day’s Pleasure, but it was during the making of that short that Chaplin began developing what would eventually become The Kid, one of his best and most acclaimed films. As well as offering a showcase to Coogan, The Kid also saw a new maturity in Chaplin’s growing narrative confidence—at last, he’d found the film with which he could mesh his comedy incidents with a proper story and a hefty dollop of emotion. As the title card warns (or, perhaps, threatens) The Kid is ‘a picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear’.
It was while auditioning children to appear in what would become A Day’s Pleasure (the working title was ‘Charlie’s Picnic’) that Chaplin first came across Jackie Coogan. During this period, and in the wake of his own new-born son, Chaplin conceived of a film he was tentatively calling The Waif. A visit to the Orpheum theatre had offered Chaplin the opportunity to see Jack Coogan’s act. He was largely a dancer who, for the finale of his piece, brought onto the stage his then four-year-old son, Jackie. The younger Coogan immediately entranced Chaplin, delighting the experienced comic with his ability to easily mimic his father’s dance moves. Chaplin biographer David Robinson speculates that in the young Coogan’s stage appearance, Chaplin could see something of his own stage debut so long ago during his mother’s act in vaudeville on the British stage.
Both Jackie Coogan’s parents had been in American vaudeville, his mother having once been a child performer known as ‘Baby Lillian’. It seemed that Jackie Coogan was being lined up to follow in her footsteps. However, there was something about the young performer that struck a chord in Chaplin, whether as a result of his recent loss (or his mental preparations for forthcoming, then thwarted, fatherhood) or as a recollection of his own childhood. It was just that, right at that point in 1919, Chaplin did not have a role for the young performer. When the senior Coogan signed to work in films with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Chaplin decided to strike, signing up the youngster even though he had no firm role or film in mind for him, yet…
In a burst of inspired activity that August and September, Chaplin shot with Coogan and Purviance what would essentially become the early sequences of The Kid, a film that would not be released for the better part of two years, in February 1921. The project would, at six reels (about an hour), turn out to be Chaplin’s true feature-length directorial debut. Purviance is seen leaving hospital carrying a new born baby, apparently born out of wedlock (as the intertitle ‘The woman—whose sin was motherhood’ might suggest). She leaves the baby in a parked car (the vehicle actually belonged to film director D. W. Griffith!) and heads off, possibly to kill herself. Fate intervenes when two ruffians steal the unattended car. Upon finding the unwanted baby, they promptly dump the little fellow in a back alley and make off with the car.
This provided an excellent narrative set-up. More than in most of his various films to this point, many of which were simply over elaborated incidents, Chaplin was now thinking in terms of a longer story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end, one which allowed for development of both incident and character, one that might open the door to a certain amount of emotional involvement both for Chaplin’s Tramp and for Chaplin’s audience.
Working with a young performer known as Baby Hathaway, Chaplin spent four days shooting on a cramped attic set built at his studios by Charles D. Hall. It was the kind of room in which Chaplin had himself grown up, impoverished, run-down, and barely watertight. Here, the Tramp having found the unwanted baby begins to fulfill the roles of both mother and father to the child. He has to figure out a feeding regime, provide a sleeping space, and improvise a potty from an old chair with a hole in it and a spittoon. The following week, Chaplin continued filming on this set, swapping out Baby Hathaway for Jackie Coogan, with time having jumped forward five years or so. One or other of Coogan’s parents were on set with him at all times, but Chaplin developed such a simple and close relationship with the boy that their presence was hardly needed to reassure the child. In Coogan, Chaplin had discovered a natural young performer who was also a perfect mimic. He had only to show the child once the kind or action or re-action he needed, and the boy would deliver it, note-perfect not in a mechanical way but in a heartfelt, purely natural and honest way, no matter how many takes the perfectionist Chaplin required.
By the end of September 1919, though, all work on The Waif had ground to a halt. Chaplin’s burst of creative energy had finally come to an end. He had achieved much, but he didn’t have a finished film. In fact, he was only beginning to explore the possibilities inherent in his ideas for The Kid. He finished off this surge with some intriguing footage involving a flea circus that would not ultimately feature in The Kid, but would be put to use in yet another intriguing but unfinished project known as The Professor. With this break in the making of The Waif, Chaplin returned to completing A Day’s Pleasure, if only to keep First National happy (he, of course, found a way to utilize Coogan in that short).
By mid-November Chaplin had returned to the project he was now officially calling The Kid. He shot further footage with Edna Purviance, expanding her story and character, but he would later delete this sequence from his revised 1971 re-issue of the film deeming it to be ‘too sentimental’. Either side of Christmas, Chaplin shot the central section of the film, in which he almost loses the child to the authorities. When the boy falls ill, a doctor calls in an orphanage to take the boy in, as Chaplin’s Tramp is clearly not his father. There follows a frantic and perilous chase as the Tramp crosses the city’s rooftops in pursuit of the wagon taking the boy away. It is one of the few clear moments in Chaplin’s filmography where the Tramp figure is depicted as being simply heroic, putting aside his own selfish needs and catering to those of another. There is physical heroism here too as Chaplin effectively becomes an action hero, out to retrieve his lost child no matter the personal cost. The embrace between Chaplin’s Tramp and the retrieved child is one of the most wonderful moments in all of silent cinema. Coogan’s father Jack was instrumental in helping to direct the boy’s performance in these scenes, so concerned was Chaplin with his own activity. Coogan senior also appeared in a couple of minor roles (including as a thief) in The Kid.
Into February and March 1920, work on The Kid slowed as Chaplin had to deal with drama in his personal life—the long mooted divorce from Mildred was finally underway, and the press were on the case. By May Chaplin was shooting on a ‘doss house’ set that had been built earlier but for which he had no story purpose. Now, it provided a hiding place for the Tramp and the Kid, somewhere they could lay low to evade the authorities. When the doss house master, played by Henry Bergman, turns the pair in, they are separated once more. Falling asleep on the step of his former home, the Tramp enters a dream of an idyllic Heaven, where the local area is transformed into a paradise and everyone in it is good and virtuous; he is even re-united with the Kid. He is, however, rudely awakened from this comforting dream by a cop.
Dreams and fantasy sequences had re-occurred throughout Chaplin’s work to this point, one of the most elaborate featuring in Sunnyside. This one puzzled viewers, with Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie accusing Chaplin of excessive whimsy, while others saw Chaplin’s cut-rate view of the afterlife as suitable to the Tramp character’s world view, a man whose imagination was limited by his surroundings and experience.
First National were growing ever more irritated by their wayward filmmaker. Chaplin had by now spent the better part of 18 months and $500,000 (deficit financing borrowed from the Bank of Italy) on The Kid, well in excess of the time and expenditure First National had expected from him. The distributor planned to count this unexpected feature film as a trio of two reelers and pay accordingly, which would bring in about $400,000, some way short of the actual expenditure Chaplin had already laid out on the project. Further, Chaplin suspected that First National were preparing to side with Mildred in their divorce negotiations, putting his business and the negative of The Kid at risk if it were to be attached to the divorce proceedings.
This led to farcical scenes in August 1920 when Chaplin’s cameraman Rollie Totheroh and studio manager Alf Reeves found themselves packing over 400,000 ft of footage split into 200 ft rolls into a series of 12 crates at 3am. They met with Chaplin at Santa Fe railroad station from where they all fled, with the material that comprised The Kid, to Salt Lake City. In a hotel bedroom they began editing the highly flammable nitrate film into a completed negative, a process that was carried out rather rapidly for Chaplin who had in the past tended to prevaricate over such things. Perhaps the pressures from his private and business life combining like this served to produce his first actual classic full-length movie. Desperate to see how an audience might respond to his work, Chaplin rented a local theatre and staged a preview screening of the first cut of The Kid. It went down so well that Chaplin felt emboldened enough to journey to New York where in a lab in New Jersey, under the guise of the ‘Blue Moon Film Company’, Chaplin finished fine-tuning the edit. In the background to all this frantic activity was an endless commentary in the press on the divorce from not only Mildred herself, but also from a bunch of self-appointed experts who claimed to know exactly what Chaplin was thinking or doing at any given moment.
Finally, the matters of marriage and filmmaking were jointly resolved when Chaplin agreed to pay Mildred $100,000 and a share of their community property, as long as her lawyers withdrew their order that prevented him from putting the by-now long completed final edit of The Kid into distribution. It took from August to 19 November for things to be legally finalized, but everything was signed off on that date. Now all Chaplin had to do was deal with First National over the payment for his first feature film and the release strategy to be followed.
Chaplin came out fighting in the negotiations. The test screening, a habit he had not really indulged in before, had given him an inkling of exactly what he’d got with The Kid. He asked First National for an advance against box office of $1.5 million, with the filmmaker to be paid 50 per cent of all box office takings after First National had recovered their advance. It was an audacious starting point, one that threw the studio. They were simply not going to agree to such an arrangement, and upon viewing the film declared they were unenthusiastic about its contents (regardless of their genuine thoughts on its quality). The quality of the film overcame everything, however, and First National was forced to admit that in The Kid the distributor had something special, a film potentially capable of cleaning up at the box office.
After so long in production and all the drama surrounding its making, Chaplin must’ve been relieved when The Kid finally hit screens in New York from 6 January 1921, opening wider across the country a month later. Over the next few years, The Kid would traverse the globe playing in over 50 countries. By 1924, the places that had not played The Kid could be counted on one hand, including America’s great enemy, the Soviet Union.
Some regard The Kid as the perfect Chaplin film. It works so well, perhaps, because in the Tramp and in the Kid it features too innocent children (regardless of actual age) making their own way through what is certainly a harsh and bleak world. There is much in the pseudo-Dickensian slum setting of The Kid that recalls Chaplin’s actual youth in London. The poverty on display, and the Tramp’s way of coping with it all, were filtered through Chaplin’s actual memories of real poverty he’d experienced. Evading the law and struggling to survive in a life led on the streets was in Chaplin’s bones. When he first finds the abandoned baby, the Tramp does all he can to pass it off on someone else, knowing he is certainly not equipped to give it a home. The Tramp can barely look after himself, never mind a helpless baby. Ironically, it is the law in the form of a local policeman that insists that he should function as a parent to this stray he has found.
When we fast-forward to the more grown exploits of the Kid, we discover that the pair are now partners in a criminal enterprise (or perhaps they could be looked upon as entrepreneurs?)—the Kid breaks windows, so that the Tramp can happen along to fix them, all for a reasonable fee, of course. It is thought that this little sketch developed from Chaplin’s knowledge that this was exactly how the young Fred Karno had made his living for a while; no doubt, Karno told the stories when he was on tour in vaudeville with Chaplin and Stan Laurel. The intervention of another cop brings this enterprise to a premature end.
While Edna Purviance’s distraught mother—who has now found fame as an opera star— searches for her lost son, the plight of the Tramp and the Kid are brought to the attention of the authorities by a well-meaning doctor, in a scene that comes straight from Chaplin’s own experience of being taken to the workhouse. The rooftop chase and recovery of the Kid follows. After hiding out, the Tramp loses the boy once more as Henry Bergman’s doss house manager turns him in for the reward. Waking from his dream of Heaven, the Tramp is taken by a cop to Edna and a reunion with the Kid, all followed presumably by a happy ever after ending. The audience is left unaware of the Tramp’s larger fate—all we know is that the Kid is back with his real mother. Maybe the Tramp will be hired as a gardener?
The effect that The Kid had on the audience worldwide was as much down to Jackie Coogan’s innocent, yet perfect, performance as much as it was to Chaplin’s evergreen popularity. He figured the lad had a big future ahead of him, and it would be unfair to hold him back. Chaplin therefore gave up Jackie Coogan’s contract option, allowing him to map out his own future in film. Part of the comedian’s thinking was that the pair could not actually really work together again, as whatever they did would be unlikely to achieve the same impact as they had with The Kid. Coogan’s father took over managing his son’s career, and he continued to appear in films for First National until about 1927. Becoming a teenager drove the young man off the screen, as he was no longer able to play the ‘cute kid’ roles in which he had become typecast. He was back in the news in his early 20s when he discovered his parents (mother and step-father) had misappropriated his estimated $4 million earnings from his films, leaving him penniless. The result was the Californian Child Actors’ Bill of 1939 (or ‘Coogan’s Law’ as it became know) that protected young actors from their managers, whether parents or otherwise. It would be another 20 years before Coogan made an impact on the screen again, this time on television in the distinctive (and completely different) role of Uncle Fester in The Addams Family Gothic comedy show of the mid-1960s.
One consequence of the battles with First National over The Kid was a lessening of Chaplin’s commitment to the company; after all, he had United Artists waiting in the wings, and his new studio partners were keen for him to add his Chaplin uniqueness to their overall package. He still owed First National three films from his original contract. These would be The Idle Class, Pay Day, and The Pilgrim, and Chaplin would then be free of the contract with First National by early in 1923, allowing him to commit fully to making feature length films exclusively for release through United Artists.
Trivia: The ‘woman’ who tempts the Tramp in the dream sequence in The Kid was played by 12-year-old actress, Lillita McMurray. The young performer fascinated Chaplin, and he soon put her under personal contract. Four years later, now 16 years old (just a year younger than Mildred Harris when she married Chaplin) and now known as Lita Grey, that actress would become Chaplin’s second wife in a marriage that was to prove even more tempestuous than that with Mildred Harris. One of the other children featured in the dream sequence was Esther Ralston, who would later go on to become a major star in the later 1920s.
Charlie Says: ‘We decided to give [The Kid] the acid test and arranged to show it at the local [Salt Lake] theatre without any announcement. It was a large theatre and three-quarters filled. In desperation, I sat and waited for the film to come on. This particular audience seemed out of sympathy with anything I might present to them. I began to doubt my own judgment as to what an audience would like and react to in a comedy. Perhaps I had made a mistake. … A scream of delight went up from the audience, and scattered applause. … There was a laugh that accumulated and increased. They saw the joke! In fact, they laughed hysterically throughout the picture.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964.
Verdict: There is a telling moment in The Kid when Chaplin’s Tramp seems to consider disposing of the unwanted baby he has inherited by tossing it into the sewer he sees beneath a grate in the street. If he hadn’t found the mother’s note, would he have divested himself of a potential burden in the cruelest way possible? No, of course not, but it is a sign of Chaplin’s increasing cinematic maturity that he allows this moment of threat to play out, even if only to provide an example of an action the Tramp would never take. The Kid is easily Chaplin’s first true classic, as moving and entertaining today as it undoubtedly was almost 100 years ago.—Brian J. Robb
Next: The Idle Class (25 September 1921)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
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