A hundred years ago, the country hadn’t yet ended its official involvement with World War I (President Warren G. Harding would wrap things up with the Knox-Porter Resolution that July) and was trying to bounce back after years of pandemic. The Twenties had not yet begun to Roar. Understanding that time—how little has changed in the American consciousness and how much has changed in the ways we represent that consciousness—is hard, but thankfully we can turn to one of the cinematic greats for help. That’s because a hundred years ago, Charlie Chaplin debuted The Kid, his first feature-length film. With a runtime barely eclipsing an hour, the groundbreaking 1921 dramedy helped show the world the sources of Chaplin’s pathos and remains a reminder of the links between inequality and empathy at the forefront of our national identity.
Chaplin had been a certifiable star for years and through countless productions by the time he helmed The Kid. People knew The Tramp. In fact, 1918’s Shoulder Arms was such a draw that people flocked to it in the middle of the Spanish Flu. “We think it a most wonderful appreciation of Shoulder Arms that people should veritably take their lives in their hands to see it,” said theater manager Harold Edel, who was dead of the Spanish Flu before that sentence was published. Sound familiar? People haven’t changed much in a century.
But it was a year after the Flu had passed—and over a year since audiences got a new Chaplin picture—that we were given one of the most representative versions of The Tramp: An honorable underdog, an innovative survivor and a stubbornly funny figure. The Tramp beats a bully (with a brick), raises a child as a single impoverished father (and invents all manner of baby contraptions along the way) and is both hilarious and endearing with his doting gestures. But The Kid is also representative of Chaplin’s upbringing. No stranger to a rags-to-riches or child performance story, it was only natural the multi-hyphenate would cling to such personal themes—and that’s before his own firstborn, Norman, died ten days before production began.
It’s easy to see how Chaplin’s chemistry with the lovable, rock-throwing, cop-fearing ragamuffin Jackie Coogan carries the film through its sappiest moments and silliest gags, even if we might be presuming the connection to Chaplin’s own brief fatherhood. Regardless of its off-screen sources, the relationship is driving home a central point: The Tramp might be a ridiculous clown, but he’s one complicated—even saved—by his natural empathy. He might initially try to saddle a nearby mother with the baby, but when push comes to shove, The Tramp knows he’s going to be responsible for the little guy even if (and perhaps because) he’s one of the “little guys” himself.
A lonely outsider finds meaning through another; a man finds his humanity through caregiving. These elements have become on-screen staples, especially for showcasing faces of masculinity—as noted by Audrey Fox’s great piece explaining the film’s connective tissue with everything from The Mandalorian to News of the World—and they’re still potent here. The Kid and Tramp’s shared kisses and Coogan’s distraught, howling face when threatened with an orphanage drive the point home as visually as possible. And all of this purity is separate from the conventional views of society’s good graces.
This is a film with unabashed affection for the underclass: Hardship fills the pair with ingenuity, but never stamps out their indignation that they should be in the situation in the first place nor the dignity with which they treat their peers. The Tramp gets far more worked up over a doctor’s presumptuous call for welfare officers than the sticky fingers of a fellow flophouse patron. One of The Tramp’s neighbors offers up some philanthropic misdirection when Chaplin is being pursued. There’s still community and loyalty on display here, just separate from traditional institutions. The Tramp and Kid’s scamming, mistrustful relationship to capitalism and its police enforcers still feels utterly relevant, and the film’s intriguingly complex relationship to its illegitimate child and his (now rich) parents is still elegantly understated. The parents go their separate ways, finding critical and financial success in the arts without a newborn to care for. But they’re not shown as evil (even the initially callous painter father shows a bit of regretful depth) and even redemption is on the table.
The love between The Tramp and The Kid is strong enough to break down social barriers. It moves The Kid’s mother past surface-level charity, handing out toys and fruit to kids, and towards an embrace of someone like The Tramp as a peer in the film’s final frames—showcasing The Kid’s hope. Its optimism is reserved for its individuals rather than its systems (even The Tramp’s dream ends with the police gunning him down) and a hundred years later, we’re still chanting “Defund the Police” in the streets.
A century later, after successfully making the transition from blockbuster smash to certified canon classic to public domain must-see, The Kid remains an uncannily distillation of human problems and human virtues. There are still Haves and Have Nots. There’s a massive gap between them and nearly every communal structure we have in place attempts to maintain this stratification. But there are also still the dignified indignants that hold to their own code, fight back in their own small rebellions, and find fulfillment in loving those alongside them. Chaplin became increasingly overt in putting his politics on-screen as he continued making features (we all know The Great Dictator, but watch Monsieur Verdoux or A King in New York), but The Kid has an essential purity to it. Its tragicomic tonal innovation captures life a little closer to reality, even at its emotional extremes and in its silent form, and that reality is still incredibly familiar today—for good and for ill.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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