Fiona had never seen THE KID — I have been slowly trying to raise her appreciation of Chaplin, a decades-long project that reached its apogee with A DOG’S LIFE, which she found delightful. She also got quite a bit of pleasure out of MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR. Oh, and the monkeys in THE CIRCUS had her on the floor begging for mercy, tears rolling down her face, sideways (because she was on the floor). She’ll always be a Keaton girl, which is fine, but I think you’re missing out on something if you don’t check out Chaplin.
THE KID seemed like a good bet because Chaplin is bolstered by a strong co-star. Fiona liked the dog in A DOG’S LIFE and Edna Purviance even gets to be funny in that one. And Fiona likes Paulette Goddard on principle. So I was staking everything on Jackie Coogan and on Chaplin’s chemistry with him. It worked!
Things didn’t start too great, as the intertitle “A picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear,” provoked the response “Oh fuck off,” which Chaplin had neglected to list in his catalogue of responses. If he had written “a smile — and perhaps a tear — or possibly an Oh Fuck Off” he would have been bang on the money.
But once Charlie gets landed with an unwanted baby, her attitude changed. Chaplin can be brutally UNsentimental, which only Walter Kerr in his majestic The Silent Clowns really acknowledges. Here, the comedy comes from the defenseless baby becoming a threat. Like Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, or Tex Avery’s Droopy, you can’t get rid of it. When Chaplin opens a drain and briefly looks thoughtful, Fiona practically screamed in shock and then laughed in relief. “No, I can’t really do THAT,” Chaplin seems to think at us, as he closes the drain again, baby still in his arms.
The baby then scene-changes into Jackie Coogan, and we’re pretty much home free. The little blighter is adorable and hilarious — Chaplin has schooled him in every move, you think, until you see his astonishing crying scene, which comes straight from the heart and can’t be faked or produced by imitation.
Chaplin (and his gag-writers) manages the action of scenes marvelously, developing situations into crises and finding unexpected ways to solve them. A lot of the comedy follows the baby problem pattern, turning a helpless and appealing infant into a deadly threat. The kid gets in a fight and a bulbous pugilist turns out to be the opponents brother. He’s going to pummel Charlie if his brother loses the fight. Charlie is now trying to sabotage his adopted son’s efforts. Or when Charlie, a door-to-door glazier, feels the watchful eye of a policeman on him — now the kid, suspected of throwing stones, becomes an incriminating item. Charlie must deny the association, gently kicking Jackie away with his foot. A father rejecting his son, writes Kerr, is monstrous. But here, because of the crafting of the situation, it’s hilarious. The kid is oblivious, uncomprehending, so we’re not tempted to emote at the wrong point. The man in trouble is the father.
Chaplin still wasn’t so good at developing the whole arc of a story, and this remained his biggest difficulty. Starting out with more of a plan might have helped him, but then you look at the talkies… This leads him to the heavenly dream sequence, a heavy slice of whimsy — pointless, unfunny and positioned to paste over the fact that the plot is going to resolve itself happily without the protagonist doing anything. It’s exactly like the massive ballet in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, only that’s entertaining in its own right. Chaplin’s paradise is more boring than Dante’s, and seems longer. “What has this got to do with anything?” asked Fiona.
But sooner than you think, the ending comes, and the film seems sort of perfect again. The good bits are sublime. The one bad bit disappears from memory like… like a dream upon awaking.
Criterion’s Blu-ray makes the film look like it was shot yesterday. Uncanny. My images come from the earlier DVD.