28 August, 2012

Review: The Kid by Charles Chaplin

Unlike most silent films, The Kid is intact. Chaplin restored and personally scored it. It absolutely benefits from this care.

The Kid was a phenomenon, with far reaching implications not only for the industry but for the lives of those involved. Silent films have a lot in common with category romance. In silent films the characters were often unnamed. The audience knew there would be The Boy and The Girl, a name for either was beside the point. The Boy is almost always of a different economic status than The Girl. True Love was at first sight, with the plot hinging on misunderstanding, class conflict, and external forces. The audience expected The Boy and The Girl to overcome all of this on their path to happiness. This deceptively simple framework offered limitless variations. Chaplin's first full length film was The Kid. He had appeared in six reels for other directors but here he had full creative control as actor, producer and director. Everything hinged on this one. I think it's his finest film. While emotional, it's not as manipulative as City Lights. It has statements about class, but they are subtle.

The Kid subverts many conventions of the orphan story. In The Kid Edna Purviance was given a very feminist role. She does not suffer spiritually from her out of wedlock child. She is presented as a respected, talented, admirable woman. The Girl is not brought down by her out of wedlock child. Instead she thrives in life, becoming wealthy and famous. Given a chance to reunite with her child she eagerly takes it. Through the entire film The Kid is presented as a person, not an object. His wishes and capabilities are given as much weight as The Tramp and The Girl. Set aside is The Boy. By his failure to support The Girl he becomes a footnote to her life and his son's. If this were a Harlequin romance, The Girl would be The Boy and The Tramp would be a friend or sister of The Girl who steps up to mother the orphan in her place. It is odd to consider a 1921 film more modern than many 2012 books. I often wonder how the angel sequence played to contemporary audiences. Occurring in the final seven minutes of the film it seems out of place to modern eyes. Did contemporary audiences expect The Tramp to quietly die in the doorway? It's also difficult to put aside the knowledge that the flirtatious angel is 12. (Several scholars have effectively argued Lita Grey's real life relationship with Chaplin inspired Nabakov to write Lolita.) The absolute star of the film is Jackie Coogan. His story is heartbreaking. In fiction, The Kid was abandoned only to find himself continually beloved. In life, Jackie Coogan was at the mercy of those who exploited him. Even during the film he made (as the co star) half the salary of his bit player father and realized none of it.

Silent films are invaluable resources for anyone interested in the history of their time. Aside from showing off different norms of attire they portray what would be acceptable realities to a contemporary viewer. Slanted for humor or effect, they still contain truth. The pay to sleep homeless shelter, The Girl passing out toys and apples to children in the slums. America fell in love with The Kid because Jackie Coogan was heartbreaking and his reality plausible to them. They wanted The Tramp to have his happy ending and they wanted The Girl to get her son back. When I watch The Kid, I do too.

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