It really is a wonder how much joy Charlie Chaplin was able to bring into the world. We’re talking about an artist who was able to delight and move audiences, usually without uttering one word. His work transcended borders, customs, and generations, and is still every bit as charming today as it was in the silent era.
I say that this amount of joy and tenderness is a wonder because it came from a man who didn’t have much of either growing up. Chaplin’s mother spent most of his childhood in an asylum, and his father was absent. If ever there was a “sad clown”…a fool quietly crying on the inside…it was Chaplin.
It should be unsurprising then that his first feature-length film was an unlikely story of guardian and child.
THE KID is the story of a child named John (Jackie Coogan). As he arrives in this world, his mother (Edna Purviance) finds she isn’t ready for the responsibility. She’s sill trying to get her feet on the ground, and the child’s father is nowhere to be found. In a panic, she abandons her child in the front seat of the closest car she can find.
The child is moved to and fro for a little while, until he is finally left for good in an alley. It’s here that a tramp (Charlie Chaplin) happens upon him. While he knows he cannot leave the child there, he also works his way into circumstances where he can’t pass him on to the next unsuspecting guardian. Thus, The Tramp becomes a father figure to a young child who eventually takes quite a shining to him.
I came to THE KID knowing only that Chaplin’s direction of Coogan was the stuff of legend…and to that end the film did not disappoint. The saying is that you’re not supposed to work with children or dogs, but clearly that’s not a saying that Chaplin believes in. Just watching his ease around the infant alone is a thing of tender beauty, but it all finds a new gear when the film skips ahead five years and young John becomes a young boy.
Chaplin and Coogan share an impish camaraderie. They are not just surrogate father and son so much as they are a pair of rascals looking to play the angles and get ahead. Whether its spiking the demand for window pane replacement, gaming the gas meter, or rigging a betting ring, the two actors become such delightful rascals that one is left believing they were kindred spirits in a former life.
That kinship might be what gives the scene when John is taken away by child services such a sense of heartbreak. It’s not that John pleads with every fibre of his young body – though that certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s likewise not that The Tramp makes chase across rooftops in a manner that would make both chimney-sweeps and parkour artists jealous. It’s that seeing this duo forcibly separated gives us a sense of unexpected dread.
We wonder if The Tramp will catch up to the truck, and find ourselves worrying the same way we would if a locomotive were speeding towards an ingenue tied to the train tracks.
Sparking that sort of reaction is no easy feat, but in the hands of two actors so gifted with physical expression, it seems completely natural.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about THE KID for me as a fan of Chaplin was how little I liked it. It’s undeniably great, and Chaplin’s direction of Coogan brought about some of the very best acting one is ever likely to see from a juvenile actor. However, considering the order in which I have watched Chaplin’s films, I have come to expect other things from the man.
As a for instance, there’s the (surprisingly lengthy) heaven dream sequence that ends the film. While Chaplin has always been an artist the works with fanciful ideas, I’m pressed to remember a moment in his great films where he gets this fanciful for this long. Even when he does, they are intermissions, not conclusions. The angels scene being the last thing we get in THE KID is akin to ending THE GREAT DICTATOR with the globe-ballet sequence.
The film promises “a smile – and perhaps a tear”, and indeed it got both. However, in other Chaplin films – namely MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR – I have been left in stitches, and been left sobbing. In truth, it’s not fair for me to rag on the film in relation to Chaplin’s others…much the same way that it wouldn’t be fair for me to skewer AMBLIN’ in comparison to SCHINDLER’S LIST.
However, I cannot deny that of the twenty films I have watched so far in this project, this is the first that feels like a letdown. It’s the first time a film didn’t live up to its reputation, nor to what I’d come to know of the artists involved.
I feel like I’m ragging on this movie, when really I don’t mean to. The fact is I still consider myself richer for finally having seen THE KID.
It comes with a warmth seldom seen in the modern era, and a story that still feels tangible. While it seems to have become fashionable recently to rag on Chaplin in favour of Keaton or Lloyd, I remain convinced that his films come with the most heart and the deepest beauty. His gags might not be as technically difficult, and if Orson Welles is to be believed, he may have had a whole team of writers crafting his gags. However, as a storyteller, and an artist looking to push silent comedy to new heights, Chaplin stands above.
I post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for August…
We have a new participant! Kate Bradford watched BEFORE SUNRISE
and another new participant! Rich Watson watched GONE WITH THE WIND
Will Kouf watched THE KING OF COMEDY
Amir Soltani watched A MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA
Courtney Small watched THE OMEGA MAN (and check out Small’s new digs!)
Andy Hart watched REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
SDG watched THE LION KING
Andrew Robinson watched METROPOLIS
More Chaplin! Josh watched THE GREAT DICTATOR
Bob Turnbull might have won the month. He watched CABARET and A STAR IS BORN
Dan heaton watched BLACK DYNAMITE
Sean Kelly watched HAROLD AND MAUDE