When you think about the silent film era, if you think about it at all, there is probably one name, and one name only, that comes to mind: Charlie Chaplin. There were other stars of this early age of cinema before sound. Have you ever heard of Douglas Fairbanks? Lillian Gish? Fatty Arbuckle? I did not make up that last one, by the way, though his real name was Roscoe. He leaned into his rotundness for comedic value. You could get away with such antics in those days. Yet, I am not here to talk about any of them. Instead, I am focusing on one of the most famous actors of all time’s best films, The Kid (1921).
At the time of The Kid’s premier, Charlie Chaplin, who assumes his familiar role of a tramp, was not young enough to be the eponymous character. Instead, it is the offspring of the Woman (Edna Purviance). She emerges from a charity hospital with her baby in her arms, and a look of desperation. She goes around searching for someone who could care for her child because she is in no position to be able to do so. After being turned away from several places, she wanders into a rich neighborhood and spots a fancy car parked outside a luxurious looking house. Thinking that whoever is its owner could give her baby what he needs, she leaves him in the back seat and walks away, devastated. Unfortunately, soon following this abandonment, the vehicle is stolen by a pair of ruffians. It takes them a while to notice there is a baby behind them, and when they do, they leave the wee one in an alley. It is here that it is found by the Tramp. Initially, he wants nothing to do with the infant, but neither does he wish to leave it to its own devices. His first attempt to find a suitable caregiver, a woman with a stroller, is met with rejection. He is accused of attempting to get rid of his own child, not only by this mother, but by the neighborhood policeman (Tom Wilson). Finding a note with the baby that asks for whoever finds him to take care of him convinces the Tramp to take in the baby. For a moment, you are led to believe the Woman, who has a change of heart, is going to find her lost son, but she is unsuccessful. A few years pass, and our title character (Jackie Coogan) is five, living a rough and tumble lifestyle alongside the Tramp. They have a hustle where the Kid goes around breaking windows with rocks, and just as the owner comes out to assess the damage, the Tramp appears with a new pane and tools to put in the replacement. At the same time, the Woman has made a name for herself as a star of the stage, and is now participating in charitable work in the same rundown neighborhood in which the Kid and the Tramp live. You would think it would be a cinch that mother and child would quickly reunite, but the Kid and the Tramp have their own problems to handle. The primary one is the policeman getting wise to what they are doing and putting an end to their racket. The next is a local bully that the Kid fights, and then the Tramp has to contend with his much larger brother (Raymond Lee). After this, the Kid takes ill, and they are visited by a doctor (Jules Hanft). During the course of his ministrations, he determines that the Kid is not the Tramp’s offspring when he sees the Woman’s letter, and therefore should be in the care of the orphanage. Hence, the next day representatives from the orphanage arrive to take away the Kid. The Tramp’s physical resistance draws the attention of the policeman, and the Kid is dragged out and put in a truck. The Tramp manages to give the Policeman the slip and catches up with the vehicle before it can make it to the orphanage, thereby freeing the thankful Kid. Meanwhile, the woman makes another visit to the neighborhood, stopping at the building in which the Kid and the Tramp live. Outside, she meets the doctor, and when she asks about the two occupants, he shows her the letter. Overcome with emotion, she puts an ad in the newspaper offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who brings her the Kid. That evening, with the Kid and the Tramp staying at a dormitory-style boarding house, the attendant (Henry Bergman) notices the Woman’s offer. With the Tramp asleep, the attendant sneaks over to their bed and snatches the Kid, taking him to the police. Once awake, the Tramp finds no kid, and takes off into the night to find him. Despondent, he ends up at the front stoop of his building and falls asleep. There follows a bizarre dream sequence where everyone in the neighborhood are angels, but then devils creep in and ruin everything. I am not sure why this happens, but it is fun, nonetheless. The Tramp is roused by the policeman, and the Tramp thinks he is finally caught. Instead, he is driven to the home of the Woman, and when the door opens the exuberant Kid leaps into his arms. Presumably, they all live happily ever after.
Obviously, The Kid is a throwback. We have become so used to sound that watching a silent one turns off many would be viewers. I encourage you to give this one a chance, if for no other reason than it is sixty-eight minutes long. You can survive just over an hour of strange music (I am not sure what the people who put this out were thinking with their choices) and occasional reading. My recommendation is partly based on my Faith, although it did not get off to the most auspicious of starts. While the Woman frantically searches for someone to care for her child after leaving the charity hospital, one of her stops is outside of what appears to this Catholic to be one of our churches. There is a wedding going on, and the priest does not have time for the desperate mother. This, of course, flies in the face of what the Church does for people in such straits, especially in that era. Luckily, this scene does not last long, and the Woman is compared to Jesus carrying His cross to Calvary. This is a bit dramatic, but it works on an individual level. Later, the Kid is always insisting on praying before bed time and meals, which is endearing to my Christian heart, and no doubt to audiences at that time. Still, I would be remiss if I did not return to the strange dream sequence. I suppose the message is that the working-class neighborhood is heaven and that its denizens are angels. At the same time, I do not know what the devils who enter and ruin everything are meant to represent. Everyone is accounted for among the angels, even the policeman. In any case, they tempt many of the angels, including the Tramp, with sinful thoughts that lead them astray. It is meant to be silly, but it does illustrate how the enemy is constantly trying to lead us away from God’s heavenly kingdom.
As I said, it will not take you long to watch The Kid. If nothing else, doing so will give you something erudite and intellectual to talk about at your next cocktail party, if you go to such things. Why, yes, I am a cinema buff, you might say. In fact, I just watched one Charlie Chaplin’s masterpieces and found it fascinating. You fill in the rest from this start I have provided you. Also, you do not have to pay anything for it on Amazon Prime, though you do have to deal with ads. It is a small price to pay to see a classic.