Released 6 February 1921 (with the grand première 21 January), The Kid was Charlie Chaplin’s début feature. He’d been making longer and longer films for awhile (such as the 46-minute Shoulder Arms  and the 34-minute A Dog’s Life ), but this was his first proper, official feature-length film. It originally ran 68 minutes, but was later cut to 53 minutes upon a 1971 re-release. It was the next-highest-grossing film of 1921, behind only Rudy Valentino’s incredible starring début, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Chaplin never did anything half-assed. He always went all the way with his films, and tried his very best to stay true to his artistic vision even when his ideas weren’t so well-received initially. Chaplin put his all into casting, writing, directing, acting, and editing. A lot of folks in modern-day Hollywood could learn a lot from his incredible work ethic.
The film opens with the intertitle, “A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.” It’s very reminiscent of the final line in Lon Chaney, Sr.’s first and only talkie, The Unholy Three (1930): “That’s all there is to life, a little laugh, a little tear.” Chaplin was an absolute master at seamlessly blending joy and sadness, knowing how to make his audience laugh as well as cry, and when each emotion was called for. Some modern-day folks dislike his so-called pathos and accuse it of being emotionally manipulative, but I’ve never seen Chaplin’s art in that way at all.
Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s leading lady from 1915–23, plays an unwed mother who’s gone to a charity hospital to have her baby. The father is shown throwing her picture into a fireplace. The unnamed mother then leaves her baby in the backseat of a fancy car, with a note begging the hoped-for benefactor to love and care for the child. After this, she attempts suicide.
I love how vintage films depict past cultural and social realities and norms, which are often very foreign to modern audience and remind us things used to be much different. This wasn’t exactly an era when it was considered normal and common to deliberately plan an out of wedlock pregnancy and have like 3-4 kids with a boyfriend or girlfriend, getting married years later as almost an afterthought. I’m glad the stigma against out of wedlock pregnancy is no longer so cruel and strong, and that the baby snatch era is over, but at the same time, I really do feel as though the pendulum has swung WAY too far in the other direction.
The car gets stolen, and the robbers are very startled to discover a baby in the backseat. They abandon him in a rubbish bin, and he’s found by the Tramp. At first, the Tramp tries to get rid of the baby too, but then he comes around and decides to keep it. He names the baby John, which was still the #1 male name in that era and the obvious default name for a boy. Now that the name John has fallen to #26, it seems like a breath of fresh air instead of dull and thoughtless.
Meanwhile, the mother has decided she wants to keep the baby after all, and goes back to reclaim him. She faints when she discovers he’s disappeared.
We then jump five years ahead, by which time the Tramp and his adopted son (adorable little Jackie Coogan, one of the first child film stars) are incredibly bonded. They have a respectable home together, even if they don’t have enough money to even qualify as working-class (the class I’m proud to be a part of). To earn money, they go around breaking windows and installing replacements.
Jackie’s mother, meanwhile, has become an opera star, with much more money than she had before, and does a lot of charity work in the hopes of finding her birth child. Of course, mother and birth son cross paths, without realising the other’s identity.
Little Jackie becomes sick, and being the era when everyone still took disease seriously instead of giggling it off as no big deal and thinking they knew better than the entire scientific community because of Google U, YouTube, and mommy blogs, the birth mother brings a doctor over. She still doesn’t suspect their blood relation.
The doctor discovers the Tramp isn’t the boy’s birth father, and isn’t persuaded by the note the Tramp shows him, the note left by the birth mother all those years ago. The doctor contacts authorities, and Jackie is hauled away in one of the most memorable scenes of the film. I won’t spoil anything that happens after this.
This is a really sweet, moving, charming film, and really shows the power of the love which is created between an adoptive parent and his child. I’ve never thought kindly of birth parents who decide, years later, to reverse an adoption they agreed to and take a child from the only parents s/he’s ever known.