Time passes and we get old. Usually we only notice with specific triggers. A few weeks ago I watched a silent film, as I am occasionally wont to do. They are an underrated style of film that most audiences simply do not engage with like their more recent equivalents. It was only while pausing to check a detail on the Internet that I noticed: this film was released in 1921. At some point this year – today, in fact – this short comedy feature turns 100 years old. Apparently now I am someone that watches century-old movies.
The film is The Kid, a comedy written, directed, edited, produced, and musically composed by its immensely talented star Charlie Chaplin. It was Chaplin’s first feature film, after years of making comedy shorts. When released, it was 68 minutes long. Sadly time, and a truncated re-release in 1972, now leaves it at only 53 minutes. Even shorn of 15 minutes, the film stands up. More than that: the film absolutely excels.
A single mother leaves her baby in the back seat of a car outside of a luxurious mansion, hoping the car’s owner with care for her child. Instead the car is stolen, the car thieves panic and abandon the baby in an alley, and a wandering tramp (Chaplin) finds the baby instead. A few years later the tramp and the child (Jackie Coogan) are living together as father and son while undertaking a series of scams and petty crimes.
It is amazing how famous Charlie Chaplin remains in world culture a century on, and it is amazing how few people today actually make the effort to see his films. In terms of American silent comedy he is at the absolute top of his league, arguably rivalled only by the athletic clowning of Buster Keaton. While comedy always dates, the purely physical comedy employed during the silent era actually preserve Chaplin’s work better than much younger comedy films and styles. The Kid stands up so well, and is worth tracking down and watching by absolutely any moviegoer today. It’s a truly remarkable work.
Chaplin also does something absolutely remarkable in The Kid. While it remains as packed with gags and jokes as his earlier shorts, he also incorporates a dramatic narrative than runs along in parallel. When the city authorities discover the tramp and the kid are living together, there is an immediate effort to separate them and send the kid to an orphanage. Neither wishes to be separated, and much anguish is caused when the police come to take the kid away. At the same time the single mother – now a rich and successful actor – discovers the kid is her abandoned baby, and desperately races to find him.
This had never been done before. The Kid is essentially the first feature film ever made to combine comedy and drama into a single narrative. It allows the film to trascend its comedic origins and become something genuinely enduring. The characters work so much better, and gain so much more depth, than earlier works. Chaplin’s famous tramp was always popular, but here he became three-dimensional.
Co-lead Jackie Coogan is a tremendous juvenile talent, making his film debut and absolutely nailing the comic timing and personality of his character. He continued acting beyond childhood and made a lifelong career of it – today’s viewers probably recognise him better as Uncle Fester in popular 1960s comedy The Addams Family.
There are always critics out there instructing their readers to watch classic Hollywood features because of their significance or historical relevance. With The Kid you should honestly watch it because it’s an incredibly funny and warm comedy. Even at 100 year old, this film works.