Wednesday 18 April 2007

The Kid (1921) Charles Chaplin

'A picture with a smile - and perhaps a tear', it says at the beginning, and it isn't kidding. Edna Purviance, Chaplin's muse of the period, leaves the charity hospital with her newborn baby. She's just 'the mother' and sure enough, there's a father too but he isn't anywhere where he can do any good. So she leaves the baby in an expensive car, hoping that he'll at least go to a good home, but the car belongs to a couple of hoods with very twenties faces and they dump the kid the moment they discover him. Enter the little tramp, out on his morning promenade, and circumstance stands in the way of his every effort to lose the new burden.

This is 1921 and Chaplin's genius is in full flow. The opening credits list just how much this is a Chaplin creation, as writer, producer, director, composer, lead actor, you name it, and this time out he reached perfection with all of them. That's not to say that it's a one man show, as Baby Hathaway (a girl) does her best to steal the few scenes she has, and when we skip a few years on and Baby Hathaway becomes the seven year old Jack Coogan (later to become Jackie Coogan of Uncle Fester fame), he does so.

Simply put, Coogan gives one of the best performances ever seen on film by a child actor, mostly by being a perfect mimic and imitating everything that Chaplin did. Given that almost everyone else in Hollywood was desperately trying to do the same thing and failing, it serves to highlight just how great the achievement was. Chaplin, for his part, seems willing to give young Jack the opportunity to do his stuff, whether it's baking pancakes, fighting a bigger kid or especially backing up Charlie in his schemes to make money breaking windows and then fixing them.

Five years in, Edna Purviance has become a huge star of some description, and without her own son is busy doing charity work among whatever kids she can find. As you can imagine there are some heartrending scenes with mother and son sharing the screen without any knowledge of who they're sharing it with. When the kid falls ill and a doctor discovers that Charlie isn't the real father, in come the officials from the local ophan asylum to take him away, leading to more heartrending scenes as Jackie Coogan pulls on every tearjerking nerve in the book.

I honestly don't know how many moments of sheer genius there are in this film, but I lost count and I can't see a single flaw. The 1971 version is only fifty minutes long, yet it has everything: comedy, action, fights, chases, loss, discovery, reward and every single emotion there is. There's even a dream sequence complete with flying dog. I'm looking forward to The Gold Rush, which I haven't seen in years, but with that possible exception this is undoubtedly Chaplin's masterpiece and very possibly the best silent comedy of them all.

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