Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance. Dir: Charles Chaplin.
The best Charlie Chaplin film ever. Ever. It also happens to be one of the best silent films ever. I really love this film. I had to say all that up front so you know how I feel before I say the following: Contrary to the tagline on the above poster, this is NOT, I repeat, not “Six reels of joy”. It’s more like 4 reels of joy and 2 reels of gut-wrenching anguish. But it’s the good kind of anguish, so it’s okay, especially since the anguish isn’t all lumped together in the approximate 20 minute length of two reels. It’s much more spread out.
Here’s a vague (and possibly confusing) plot synopsis: Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gives birth to a boy, girl loses that boy too. Boy finds boy, boy raises boy, The Man finds boy, boy loses boy, girl finds boy, all is right with the world, etc.
I feel better now that all of that is out of the way. There are a lot of interesting things surrounding the story of the making of this movie. I will get to some of them, but not all of them. But first I want to talk about the performances within the film.
I believe that the image of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character is the most iconic image of the silent era. Almost anyone can look at a photo or painting of him and identify him with some degree of accuracy. For the less familiar, he may be called “Chapman”. If you are one of these people, it’s okay, but now that you know it’s Chaplin you must never call him Chapman again. Promise me? There’s a good boy/girl. The thing about the Tramp is that he is clever and foolish and often antagonized by authorities for just trying to survive or love or both. Often a tragic hero, though his films are mostly comedy, which is not to say that he made more comedy films than tragedy films, I literally mean each film (like this one) is mostly comedy. I will never deny that Chaplin was a genius, but he was definitely not my favorite because of the bittersweet nature of his films. I like chocolate in my peanut butter, but I am not a big fan of tragedy in my comedy, which, to be fair, is a more accurate representation of life, however, I am an escapist with my movies, and I don’t like reality rearing its ugly head. BUT this character was precisely suited to this movie, and he was brilliant.
I think the reason why The Kid works so well for me is because it ends exactly like it should, which is why it’s Chaplin’s best film. Most of them don’t.
Now about Coogan. In this movie he is adorable, precocious, and perfect. And that’s all I can possibly say about his performance here. You can’t get any better than perfect. So I will move on to the more interesting things about him.
Jackie Coogan was the son of a vaudeville performer and so, as was often the case with such people, at the age of 4, he was being brought out on the stage at the end of his father’s act, and would presumably become a regular part of it. This is how Buster Keaton was raised and likely would have been the direction of Coogan’s childhood had Chaplin not discovered him. Coogan’s father, John Coogan, or Jack Coogan, Sr., was primarily what was called a novelty dancer, or eccentric dancer. Basically, he did silly dance moves which people thought were wildly hilarious. If you want to see him in action, please refer to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s two reeler called “Backstage” in which he was billed as “John Coogan….Eccentric Dancer”. He also appeared in The Kid in various uncredited roles, most notably as Satan in a dream sequence.
I have just told you some things which are not horrible about Coogan, Sr. Now let me tell you a couple of things which are horrible. First of all, his dancing wasn’t particularly amusing but people had different ideas about what was funny back then, so whatever, I guess that doesn’t really count. The real first of all, in one of the scenes where little Jackie is crying so hard, Coogan, Sr. had just convinced him that if he didn’t do the scene well enough, he would be sending him to live in a workhouse. I don’t know what that meant exactly to Little Jackie, but Chaplin wasn’t very happy about it. Second of all, he married a horrible woman (Jackie’s mom) and died young. The horrible woman married a horrible man and when Jackie came of age and went to collect his earnings from all of the money he made as a child star, he was broke. His parents had spent all of the money and Jackie didn’t get a dime, apart from room and board, that is. So he sued his parents and laws were enacted about such things. Look up “Coogan’s Law” to learn more about it.
My first exposure to Jackie Coogan was not when he was an adorable child. It was when he was Uncle Fester on the Addam’s Family tv show. Not adorable at all, but lots of fun. In fact, I wasn’t even familiar with Coogan as a child star until after I saw the episode of the Brady Bunch in which he played a guy pretending to be injured in a car accident and suing the Brady’s for every penny they were worth. And I didn’t see these things until years after they were originally aired. Ah, but I digress.
I want to talk just a moment about the movie itself. And I mean the footage and its journey, for I’ve already told you what it’s about. There are a few landmarks regarding it. This was Chaplin’s first feature-length attraction. Just before production started on it, Chaplin’s wife at the moment (whom he accidentally had to marry) had just given birth to a son, and that son died when he was three days old. Still heartbroken, Chaplin went out searching for a child actor and found Jackie. And there were problems getting it finished as well. After filming had wrapped, Chaplin was embroiled in a divorce and reportedly had to smuggle the film reels out of his home in coffee cans for fear his wife would seize it to extract more money from him.
Another interesting fact is the ratio of footage filmed versus footage used. Chaplin was notorious for his perfectionism, shooting a scene over and over and over until it was as he wanted it. The ratio for this film is 53:1. In other words, this movie clocks in at just under 53 minutes, but nearly 53 hours of film was actually shot. This is an actual record in the film industry which The Kid holds.
So watch The Kid. It should be part of your informal film history education. And it’s a really great movie.