Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #22: "The Kid" (1921)

Chaplin and Coogan in The Kid.

The flick: The Kid (First National Pictures, 1921) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 8.3 (Top 250: #124)

Director, writer, and producer: Charles Chaplin (Modern Times, The Great Dictator, City Lights, The Gold Rush)

Actors of note:
  • Charlie Chaplin (The Circus, Limelight, Monsieur Verdoux)
  • Edna Purviance (Chaplin's leading lady, appeared in Limelight, Monsieur Verdoux, The Immigrant and more)
  • Jackie Coogan (as a child: Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Peck's Bad Boy; as an adult: The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Space Children, played Uncle Fester on TV's The Addams Family)
  • Carl Miller (A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate, The Plainsman)

The gist of it: An unwed mother (Purviance) leaves her newborn son in the back of a limo with a note reading "Please love and care for this orphan child," in the hopes that the car's presumably-wealthy owners will raise the boy in luxury. But the car is stolen by a couple of crooks who abandon the brat in a back alley. A tramp (Chaplin) happens upon the little bundle of joy and -- after making a few attempts to palm the kid off on other people -- decides to raise the tot himself.

Five years go by. The woman is now a famous singer, while the child's biological father (Miller) is a successful artist. The child, meanwhile, has grown into a toddler (Coogan) who lives with the tramp in a grungy but cozy hovel. They've grown quite close, and the child cheerfully assists the tramp with his moneymaking schemes. The boy's mother, who has pined for her child for years, learns of his current whereabouts and places a notice in the newspaper that promises a reward for the boy's safe return. A flophouse owner sees the notice and steals the child in the night, leading the tramp on a frantic search for his missing adopted son.

Chaplin: Pathos and mime.
My take: The Kid is Charles Chaplin's first feature-length production, and it's a universally-acknowledged milestone in comedy and film history. As both a technical achievement and a breakthrough in storytelling, this movie marked a sea change in the film industry. Much more has been written about Chaplin and his films than I could ever hope to convey to you here. So how do I approach this towering monolith of popular culture nearly a century after its release? Well, by considering it in relation to a quote from Chaplin himself: "My only enemy is time." The Kid is certainly revered and respected in 2013, hailed by knowledgeable cinephiles as an all-time masterpiece and analyzed by experts who write thoughtful essays about how this work has forever altered the DNA of screen comedy.

But is it any fun to watch or is it merely a museum piece? The answer, for me, was somewhere in the middle. While watching this movie, I kept flashing back to a classic SCTV skit called "Play It Again, Bob" in which Woody Allen (Rick Moranis) tries to get Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) to do a more serious film that would mix comedy and drama. Hope is dubious. "Pathos worked well for for Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason," he explains, "but I could never get it off the ground, you know? You notice those cats do a lot of mime? Well, I never did that, and I'm glad." Pathos and mime are Chaplin's bread and butter. He doesn't just want to make you laugh; he wants you to cry, too. And he's not shy about admitting it. The Kid begins with this title card: "A picture with a smile -- and perhaps, a tear." That's pretty darned explicit, wouldn't you say? I laughed a bit during The Kid  (as detailed in the next section) but was not moved to tears by it.

Granted, the copy I watched in the Mill Creek set was missing Chaplin's intended (and copyrighted) score. The music in this version is generic instrumental filler and is not timed to match the action or the mood of the film in any way. It occasionally just stops, goes silent, and then picks up again during the middle of a scene. How much this blunts the film's emotional impact, I cannot say.

But no score would change the fact that Chaplin's tramp really isn't that great a father and shouldn't be raising a son on his own in a slum hellhole. The child's very vaguely-drawn mother is more of a plot device than a person, and the father is a completely superfluous character who adds nothing to the narrative. Coogan, the first and biggest of what we'd now call "child stars," is quite good as the scrappy title character. As an actor, Chaplin has an odd, almost alien presence with his stylized white makeup and his (much imitated) peculiar, waddling walk. I think a real-life child might be terrified of such a man. Although the soundtrack has been altered, the picture is clear and fairly crisp, allowing the viewer to appreciate Chaplin's careful compositions, as when the child's mother stops in front of a church window and the stained glass window behind her gives her the appearance of having a halo.

A grown-up Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester.
Is it funny: The Kid is amiable all the way through and laugh-out-loud funny in a few scattered sequences. The first big laugh is probably when the tramp, all smiles, hands the infant to another fellow then takes off running. I got a kick out of the scam the tramp and the kid are pulling, too. The kid breaks people's windows with a baseball, then the tramp shows up as a windowpane salesman with incredibly fortunate timing. A dream sequence late in the film was so bizarre that it had me laughing, too. The tramp falls asleep in a doorway and dreams that he is reunited with the kid in Heaven, which turns out to be an only slightly-gussied-up version of his own neighborhood where the inhabitants have white robes and wings on their backs. But even Heaven is patrolled by baton-twirling cops, and the angelic tramp still gets into trouble for flirting with the wrong women, just the way he did on earth. ("On earth as it is in heaven," they say.)

The film's comedic centerpiece is a scene in which Coogan gets into a fight with a neighborhood bully, which is treated like a prizefight with the tramp as the kid's corner man. Then the tramp himself gets into a fight with the kid's older brother, a giant, padded-up brute whose punches can smash through brick walls and bend lampposts. Possibly my favorite quick joke in the film -- at least I think it was intended as a joke -- occurs when a wedding party exits a church, and we see that the groom is an elderly man whose young bride looks miserable at the arrangement. The fact that adorable little Jackie Coogan grew up to be TV's creepy, eyebrow-less Uncle Fester adds a layer of surrealism to the production that Chaplin could never have envisioned.

My grade: B+

(I know full well that this grade should be an A+, but if I were seeing this without any previous knowledge of Chaplin's reputation or his career, a B+ is the honest grade I would have given it. I'm not saying that cheapies like Niagara Falls and Goodbye Love are "better" than The Kid, just that I had more fun watching them.)

P.S. - There is only one menial black character in the film, a very young bellhop who grins broadly when he receives a tip for his services. Maybe not one for the Wall of Fame, perhaps, but not terribly offensive either.