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Story of Film - September 2013
Remind Me

The Kid (1921)

Monday June, 24 2019 at 08:00 PM

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The Kid (1921) opens with the warning "a picture with a smile and -- perhaps, a tear," and it certainly delivers the goods in both regards.

This sentimental Charlie Chaplin film opens with a distraught new mother (Edna Purviance), who has borne a baby out of wedlock, leaving the protective shelter of a charity hospital for the harsh world outside. Desperation compels her to leave the fatherless child in the back seat of a wealthy family's car (loaned by D.W. Griffith to Chaplin for this film). But when the car is stolen, the child ends up abandoned by the thieves in an alley in an impoverished section of the city. The Tramp (Chaplin) stumbles upon the wailing child left in a bundle on the ground, and resigns himself to the child's upbringing. The Kid then flashes forward five years, with the child and his unofficial father having become inseparable companions. The Kid (Jackie Coogan) helps the Tramp earn a living as a window repairman (of the windows the Kid smashes). Their cozy domesticity is threatened when first the orphanage authorities and then the Kid's mother -- who has since become a theater star -- come looking for him.

The Kid was the first feature length film Chaplin wrote and directed, and proved a milestone for the director, who at considerable risk, borrowed $500,000 from an Italian bank to make the film. But the risk paid off when The Kid opened to critical raves and big box office.

The film's ability to combine genuine warmth, pathos and humor would later become a Chaplin trademark. No moment better illustrated that sublime combination than when the Tramp escapes the grim circumstances of his lot in the slums by imagining the place transformed into Heaven and its residents dressed in angel's wings.

Even the story behind Chaplin's making of the film contained an element of melodrama. Severely depressed after the death of his newborn son from birth defects, Chaplin one night attended a vaudeville performance in which comedian Jack Coogan performed with his young son. Chaplin was captivated by the dynamic, talented son Jackie, and began writing a story around the charismatic child, who had been coached as a performer by his father from the age of three.

The elder Coogan essentially put his career on hold to coach little Jackie Coogan through The Kid. Chaplin, in turn, rewarded Jack Senior's role in coaching the boy, as well as assuaged his performer's ego by paying Jack $125 a week, almost double the $75 a week Jackie was getting to costar. Jack Coogan Senior also played several roles in the film, as a bum who picks the Tramp's pocket, as the Devil in the Heaven sequence and as a party guest.

The off screen chemistry between Chaplin and Jackie Coogan was just as strong as their onscreen relationship in The Kid (initially titled The Waif). Every Sunday, during the first few weeks of filming, Chaplin would take Jackie to amusement parks and pony rides and other activities. Some have seen Chaplin's relationship with Coogan as an attempt for Chaplin to reclaim his own unhappy childhood, while others have interpreted Chaplin's attention toward the boy as recasting Coogan into the child he had just lost. The pair remained friends for the rest of their lives and Coogan eventually went on to enjoy a second career as Uncle Fester on the cult TV comedy "The Addams Family" (1964-1966).

Chaplin would also come to have a more involved relationship with another one of his young co-stars on The Kid, 12-year-old Lillita McMurray who plays a flirtatious angel in the Heaven sequence. Four years later, Chaplin and the actress, then known as Lita Grey, were married.

During The Kid's production, Chaplin was involved in an acrimonious divorce from his first wife, Mildred Harris, and her lawyers threatened to confiscate The Kid's negative in the divorce suit. Desperate to save the film he had labored so ceaselessly on from such a fate, Chaplin managed to sneak the 400,000 feet of negative out of California to Salt Lake City where he cut the highly flammable nitrate film on his hotel room floor.

A dedicated perfectionist, Chaplin took five and 1/2 months to shoot The Kid, a huge amount of time for a film production in 1921. But the reward was, again, enormous. Some have credited The Kid with earning Chaplin close to $60,000,000 over the course of time.

Producer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Screenplay: Charlie Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland H. Totheroh
Production Design: Charles D. Hall
Music: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin (Tramp), Edna Purviance (Mother), Jackie Coogan (The Kid), Baby Hathaway (The Kid as a Baby), Carl Miller (Artist), Granville Redmond (His Friend), May White (Policeman's Wife), Tom Wilson (Policeman).

by Felicia Feaster


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