Our review of The Kid (1921) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published February 16th, 2016, is also available.
A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.
The Kid blossomed out of the disintegration of Charlie Chaplin's marriage to Mildred Harris and the death of their infant son, both traumatic events that served as grist for Chaplin's creative mill and ended a troubling dry spell. A product of a new contract with First National Studio, The Kid began as one of eight promised two-reel shorts, but Chaplin obsessively expanded and reshot it until it had grown to six reels. It was Chaplin's feature film debut as a director, and one of the finest examples of the mix of slapstick and pathos that had already made his Tramp character an icon around the world.
The Kid is now available in an exhaustive two-disc Special Edition, produced in France by Mk2 and distributed in North America by Warner Brothers. The feature can be had as a stand-alone, or as part of the second volume of the The Chaplin Collection, bundled with A Woman of Paris (1923), The Circus (1927), City Lights (1931), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), A King in New York (1957), a half-dozen shorts, and Richard Schickel's feature-length documentary, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin.
Facts of the Case
A rich couple's car is stolen moments after an infant boy is left in the back seat by his mother (Edna Purviance, A Woman of Paris), desperate and abandoned by the baby's father, hoping to give her son a better life. The crooks dump the tyke in an alley on the wrong side of town. Going about his daily business, the Tramp finds the bundle of joy and, unable to locate its mother, takes the child home.
Five years later, the duo have established a business together: the kid (Jackie Coogan, The Addams Family) scurries about town, hurling rocks through shop and apartment windows, and the Tramp follows up with offers to repair said windows…for a nominal fee, of course. Meanwhile, the mother, who has become a star of the stage, unwittingly meets her orphan son on one of her frequent trips to the wrong side of the tracks to provide charity to poor children.
The situation comes to a head when social workers discover the kid isn't the Tramp's son and try to forcibly remove the youngster to an orphan's asylum, leading to a rooftop chase in which the Tramp attempts to rescue the heartbroken boy from the clutches of the authorities.
In the great Chaplin-versus-Keaton debate that's been roiling for decades among cinephiles, I come down firmly on the Chaplin side. Don't get me wrong—Keaton's brilliant, a genius. Chaplin's even better, though, because his greatest moments combine humor and pathos with such sublime perfection that the technical brilliance of his slapstick becomes transparent, the shtick an absolute outflow of character and plot. The Kid is one of the best examples of Chaplin firing on all cylinders. Consider one of its most famous set pieces in which the Tramp and kid find themselves in a complex comic evasion of a beat cop who's discovered their grift. The duo's mischievous delight as they repeatedly foil the mildly menacing officer establishes the rapport between the characters. Their conspiracy to thwart an authority figure is charming. This is a child raised by a childlike man, and their partnership plays throughout the film as a teaming of equals, not a father-and-son relationship. The extended sequence is filled with moments of perfectly timed slapstick, Chaplin's usual physical brilliance, and an astounding performance by six-year-old Jackie Coogan that is in turns natural and broadly comic. More than mere belly laughs, though, the scene leaves us with a warmth and affinity for the characters. This is slapstick at the service of a more complex emotional experience.
Chaplin's seamless blending of comedy and pathos is best exemplified at film's end, when the Tramp sets off across the slum's rooftops in pursuit of the truck hauling the kid away to an orphanage. The casual infliction of hardship on innocents by bureaucrats and authority figures dispassionately carrying out duty is a regular Chaplin motif, and the scene must certainly have sprung from the filmmaker's own biography—he and his older brother Sydney having been sent to an orphanage as young boys after their mother was committed to an asylum. The set piece begins with tightly edited shots of the Tramp's desperate, athletic careening over the sharply angled roofs, tracking the truck on the street below as he goes. Derring-do follows as the Tramp leaps down onto the bed of the truck and has a comically ridiculous tussle with the juvenile officer guarding the kid. But the film's iconic shot comes after the comedy has ended: eyes welling with tears, Tramp and kid clutch one another cheek to cheek, grateful to be reunited. What other master of slapstick has been similarly associated with such a non-comedic iconic film image? The true indication of Chaplin's brilliance is how effectively that shot works on us as viewers. The Tramp and kid are caricatures, after all, yet we feel so strongly for them.
Chaplin has been quoted as saying, "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot." In a way, that statement sums up the technical aspects of his directorial style. Slapstick bits are mostly rendered in static long shots that make room for his elaborate choreography. Characterization is expressed through equally static close-ups, often more poignant than funny. Chaplin's style is less about compositions, though, and more about his relentless perfectionism with regard to the execution of his carefully planned slapstick, and his ability to get exactly the performance he wanted from his actors (whether by positive or negative reinforcement). Jackie Coogan's incredible performance in The Kid owes no small debt to Chaplin playing Svengali. By all accounts, the young Coogan was less an actor than a spot-on mimic, and Chaplin showed him in great detail how each scene was to be performed. The effect is almost that of Chaplin having played both roles. Still, one can't underestimate the nuance in Coogan's performance, that sense of unstudied naturalism that couldn't have been coached. What we see in The Kid is a perfect symbiosis between director and actor, and Jackie Coogan's performance still stands as one of the finest by a child actor as a result.
Even with some isolated artifacts as a result of the film being mastered in Europe's PAL format then converted to NTSC for the North American release, Warner's DVD release of The Kid is easily the best I've ever seen the film look. Contrast is mostly excellent, and detail is sharp considering the age of the source. There's a fair amount of grain, some spots where the film emulsion has fine vertical scratches from top to bottom in the 1.33:1 frame, as well as some missing frames here and there. Despite all that the restoration is superlative—this movie is over 80 years old, after all.
In 1971, Chaplin recut The Kid for re-release, removing three scenes that involved the boy's mother. He also wrote and recorded an orchestral score to accompany the feature (Chaplin composed scores for all of his features beginning with 1931's City Lights, and took the opportunity to score both The Kid and the Gold Rush during theatrical revivals in the 1970s). The version of the film presented on this disc is the 1971 cut, in part because it's Chaplin's final approved version, but also because he didn't write music for the deleted scenes. The 1971 recording of the score accompanies the film and is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 surround or 2.0 mono. The full dynamic range one would expect of a modern recording of an orchestral score isn't there, but the tracks still sound great.
This two-disc Special Edition presents the feature all by itself on Disc One, and all of the extras on Disc Two. Here's a rundown of the supplements:
An introduction to the film, provided by David Robinson, author of Chaplin: His Life and Art, runs just over five minutes and gives a solid encapsulated account of the production as well as some interesting anecdotes. Much of the substance of the introduction is repeated in the other extras, but Robinson's piece is excellent as a quick overview.
Chaplin Today is a continuation of the documentary series produced by Mk2 for these DVD releases. These segments offer detailed background information on the films' productions, and also give a variety of international filmmakers the opportunity to discuss Chaplin's influence on them. In this particular installment of Chaplin Today, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (Under the Olive Trees, A Taste of Cherry) discusses Chaplin's visual expressiveness as well as the lasting impression The Kid has left on him. Kiarostami even shows scenes from his own films that were directly inspired by memorable moments from Chaplin's 1921 classic. The Chaplin Today featurette runs approximately 26 minutes in length.
The three scenes Chaplin deleted for the 1971 theatrical revival are offered on Disc Two, and run a total of six minutes. Each of the scenes involves the kid's unwed mother. In the first, she watches a young bride dissolute at having just married an older man (presumably for money, not love); the second scene shows her dazed by regret and mistaking a stranger's baby for her own; and the third depicts the boy's father—now a successful painter—running into the mother at a soiree. The image quality on this reel is about equal to the feature's, and there is no soundtrack since Chaplin never wrote music for these scenes. It's nice that this footage was preserved, but The Kid is tighter and more focused without these scenes.
How to Make Movies is a 16-minute silent piece dating from 1918. It shows the building of Chaplin's studio and how it operates. The piece is heavy on slapstick and light on educational value, though we do get to see Chaplin's film processing and editing facilities.
My Boy is a 1921 Jackie Coogan feature film that actually runs five minutes longer than The Kid. The elements are in rough shape, the image is low contrast and murky, and there's no musical accompaniment. Co-directed by Victor Heerman (Animal Crackers) and Albert Austin (who didn't have much of a directing career, but had bit parts in Chaplin's The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, and City Lights), the film is a tough slog. Coogan essentially reprises the role that made him famous, only this time he's an immigrant waif orphaned during his sea passage from the Old World. The Tramp is replaced by a salty sea captain, with whom Coogan falls in on Ellis Island. Watching this silent obscurity from beginning to end is no easy task, but it's hard to complain that Mk2 and Warner found it in their good graces to archive it. It certainly makes an interesting counterpoint to the main feature.
Next up is a series of brief, silent archival reels, each in relatively decent shape. There's a little over a minute of footage of Jackie Coogan dancing a jig for an appreciative crowd of visitors to Chaplin's studio, circa 1921. Nice and Friendly is an 11-minute short involving tongue-in-cheek melodrama, made for fun by Chaplin, Coogan, and friends in 1922. Charlie on the Ocean is four minutes of newsreel footage showing Chaplin entertaining steamer passengers on his first trip back to England in 1921, while Jackie Coogan in Paris is a French newsreel account of the child star hosting a screening of The Kid for a group of Paris orphans in 1924. Finally, there is two minutes of footage (with audio) of the 1971 recording of The Kid's score, with Chaplin there to try his hand at conducting the orchestra.
A trailer reel offers a promo for the 1971 re-release (as a double feature with The Idle Class), as well as German and Netherlands re-release spots.
The photo gallery runs likes a featurette and contains 45 stills in all, including shots from The Kid's production, and photos of Chaplin and a young adult Coogan in 1937. There is also a gallery of 20 film posters that chronicle the film's release all over the world in various decades.
Finally, there is an 11-minute trailer for The Chaplin Collection.
The Kid is one of the heavyweight titles from The Chaplin Collection. If you're not going to spring for the box set, it's well worth picking up as an individual title.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by Chaplin Biographer David Robinson
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