The Tramp, who may have been a gentleman once (or just wishes he had been) is always teaching us that we can't control our fate. He reduces wealth to a tragic icon: the Tramp smokes like anyone else, but he knows that in the end we’re all just smoking each other’s butts. Chaplin uses sentiment to come out on top in his universe (as opposed to Buster Keaton, who opposes the world by running through it and never seems to have any). No one – not the mother, the beggars, the burglars, the police – feels his compassion for the baby that stars in The Kid. And even if they do (like the mother, who regrets giving her child away), they think that compassion has less value than money. They refuse to take responsibility for their feelings. The Tramp always does, and that’s what makes him the only kind of gentleman that matters.
When I think of the Tramp at whatever he calls home in whatever film he’s in, I always imagine him in the apartment he has in The Kid, rigging up a baby hammock out of sheets slung above a chamber pot, beneath a hanging teapot capped with a rubber nipple. His funniest gags are always tiny curiosities that seem improvised. My favorites here are when he counts his pancakes like a banker counting bills and when he slips the hole in his bedsheets over his head and discovers that he owns a poncho.
He makes wealth both desirable and silly. The Tramp holds no hope of becoming a wealthy man but here he treats poverty like his treatment of it makes him rich enough. Perhaps this is why the Tramp is at his purest in The Kid: it's one of the few times he isn't pursuing wealth. Raising the baby into little Jack Coogan in baggie pants and a sooty blinder, the Tramp experiences no misfortune: the movie doesn't obsess over them going hungry or wanting for meat and drink and means of warmth. They run a modest father-son business (the Kid breaks windows and Chaplin waltzes by with new glass to offer his services) and they expend so much effort to do so they might as well be legitimate. They’re always shown eating, washing behind their ears, or running at a delirious pace from the towering copper (remember that Chaplin is no more than 5’5”).
The fact that the Tramp is always portrayed as mastering his existence does not mean that he is content. He often consciously seeks love in his movies, perhaps hoping that it will initiate his transformation back into a man about town. And even if it doesn’t work out (or if we don’t know that it will), the Tramp is always changed by love. In The Gold Rush, love made him a dashing knight and profiteer; in City Lights it succeeded in the deepest ambition the Tramp could ever have, by finally turning him into a gentleman in the eyes of someone who can’t see anything wrong with that. A similar change happens in The Kid and it happens through love. What makes it special is that since the love is for the Kid, the transformation is into a father.
In silent comedy, fathers are obstacles. You navigate them by running fast enough, ducking at the right second, stealing their daughters, and perhaps shaking hands at the end from mutual exhaustion, if not respect. To turn the Tramp into a dad is against type for the whole medium, not just for the character: comedy and responsibility don’t mix when you’re supposed to laugh at all the destructive antics and forget the taste of them as soon as you leave the theater.
Giving the Tramp responsibility reins the era into Chaplin’s headspace. His funny banalities seem more appropriate set against the obligations of a dad than against the exploits of a bumbling prospector. I recall that in The Gold Rush I had trouble feeling the heart in mundane things, the cabaret of normalcy that is so purposefully Chaplin’s art, until late in the film when he’s imagining his dinner party with women who will never show up, entertaining them with a floorshow of dinner rolls and eyebrows. With no moment as great as this, The Kid instead diffuses the feeling of that situation over its entire modest runtime (68 minutes or 53 depending on which you see). Where pure slapstick can sometimes become the common antics of this medium, there is no moment in The Kid that could be played by anyone but Chaplin. If it is not his best film, it is his most direct.
His scenes with Coogan are the film’s most sparkling, a rarity in Chaplin’s work. He rarely plays against anyone else in his movies, more frequently opting for himself, alone in a world of props, with people passing in and out only when absolutely necessary, like they’re props too. But it seems so obvious now that it occurs to me that the Tramp’s best comedic sparring partner would be a child, since he himself is such a child in a man’s body. I can never, ever, keep myself from crying when the orphanage steals the Kid, as Coogan bawls for the love of the Tramp, little hands pleading to be noticed, to be pulling daddy’s tatty lapel and bristling his loving moustaches, to be once again okay in a scary world. I’m sniffling as I write it.
Anyone could have saddled themselves with a kid and made a mockery of it. The relationship could have been tormented and mutually abusive and who knows – 1921 might have found that even funnier. I can imagine the Kid pranking the Tramp. I can imagine a spanking scene. The Tramp walks by the baby (in the trash, after burglars left it there, after they stole the lush station wagon that the mother thought would lead her poor baby to a better home). He picks it up and hopes to deposit it in a baby carriage like that’s where all those things belong. The cop keeps catching him putting the baby down in different places until the Tramp has no choice but to carry the thing home with him. Here is the film’s first great sentiment: the Tramp on the doorstep of his apartment building, whose face changes all of a sudden looking at the thing that turns into a Kid. And later, he holds the Kid’s hand as they’re being separated by society and the Tramp looks right at the camera as if to say, “You understand why this is wrong, don't you?” He becomes helpless through caring, where other clowns might have just become exhausted through a lack of it.
The dream sequence near the end intrigues me because I do not understand it. Everyone in the Tramp’s ghetto becomes an angel. The Tramp is vamped by a young (very young) girl and shot dead on his doorstep. The image of Charlie defaced as much by religiosity as by bullet wounds, laying crumpled up in his own feathers on his doorstep, is a provocative one. But the idea communicated by the image – that the Tramp’s purity cannot survive the atrocities of our world – is not a common theme for Chaplin, whose persona usually comes out on top, even in The Kid. The sequence halts the tension in the film’s final act, coming at the height of our worry and extending to mere seconds before the ending. I doubt it was intended as just a fanciful distraction, I’m sure it means something, but it does not carry the symbolic weight of the dream sequences in Cecil B. DeMille films (such as the re-casting of the players into a royal Babylonian court in Male and Female, painted in such a way that the allegory recolors the relationships that come before and after it). In Chaplin’s case, I only like the details, like the little dog that wafts in with tiny wings on its obvious harness, just in time to kiss the ground with its nose before lifting back out of frame. I love Chaplin’s reaction to seeing it, like he wasn’t the one who put those wings on it.
I suppose that the dream sequence was born out of Chaplin’s desire to create memories, to make sure that even if he makes normal things hilarious, that he would not be remembered only for his use of the mundane. The film states, “Charity – to some a duty, to others a joy.” So it is with filmmaking. In The Kid, we’re seeing the Little Fellow (this is what Chaplin called the Tramp) before the man who played him started losing the power to make his own life funny. We are seeing someone who loves film, who believes it can be sentimental and not merely silly. Nothing is mere about The Kid. It has such power over me that though the Tramp’s films are not on any continuum of logic, in his quieter moments in all of his films after this one, I can’t help but see a daddy.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
|The Tramp||Charlie Chaplin|
|The Child ("John")||Jackie Coogan|
|The Woman||Edna Purviance|
|The Man||Carl Miller|
|The Policeman||Tom Wilson|
|The Angel||Lita Grey|
|Night shelter keeper||Henry Bergman|