Charlie Chaplin: Parenting 101

Who's your daddy?

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan are livin’ the American dream.

You knew this day would come.

You knew, deep down, that one day we would try to sell you on a silent film.

The movie we’re thinking of is The Kid, the 1921 comedy-drama that helped make Charlie Chaplin a superstar. Yes, this is a silent film, an old silent film, without talking or explosions or colour. But hear us out.

Chaplin is the famous mustachioed tramp, with his crazy spun-out hair and floppy feet. He chances upon an abandoned baby boy whom he takes home and decides to raise as his own.

The boy is Jackie Coogan, the most adorable thing you’ve seen on film. He has sweet soulful eyes and a serious expression, and when the authorities take him away from Chaplin, he tears your heart in two.

That apprehension scene is possibly one of the most celebrated in classic film. Here is Coogan, in his large, natty sweater and grimy over-sized trousers, standing in the back of a truck with arms outstretched, tears streaking his cheeks, pleading to go back to his father. (Oh dear – we need a tissue.)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The movie opens with a despondent young woman (Edna Purviance), who has just given birth to a baby boy. She has been abandoned by a cold-hearted man, who has left her poor and alone. She feels she has no choice but to give up her son in the hopes that someone else can give the poor lil’ guy a real shot in life.

Fast-forward five years. Purviance is now a rich and famous actress, but she also loves to do charity work in the slums where Chaplin lives. (We are not sure what social workers today would think of her charity efforts – e.g. holding a baby for 23 seconds before handing it back to its mother – but it is evident she truly loves these woe-begotten children. Plus, she has a fabulous beaded handbag that looks really smart with every outfit.)

Then she discovers that one of the slum children is her long-lost son. She offers a reward of $1,000 for his return, which is a lot of money to every single character in this film. This is where things start to get a little frantic.

Forget that there is no sound, except an exquisitely restored musical score by Timothy Brock. The Kid is gorgeously filmed with clever special effects. (Yes, special effects! In 1921! We couldn’t believe it either!)

Now, this movie is only 60 minutes long and when it’s finished you can’t believe it’s over so soon. We’re serious! The plight of the abandoned young mother and Chaplin’s endearing character suck you in at the beginning; the chemistry between Chaplin and Coogan entertain for the duration. When film concludes, you’ll say, “What? Over already?”

If you have an hour and want to see why Charlie Chaplin became a legend, watch The Kid. It will change the way you think about silent movies.

The Kid: starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan Edna Purviance. Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin. Associated First National Pictures, B&W, 1921, 60 mins.

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12 comments

  1. I might be the only person who went into this post not needing to be sold on the idea of silent movies. :) But then, silent cinema is one of my two biggest passions as a person and writer. I’ve written extensively on the subject for a decade, so it’s always nice to see someone else carrying the same torch (however briefly).

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      1. I actually think that they are ALL underrated/overlooked, as most people have not even heard of the top-tier classics let alone any others. My list would be really, really long. I’ll spare you that but, as a starting point, I would suggest getting a copy of Movies of the 20s edited by Jurgen Muller. It is a Taschen imprint and it is stellar. It offers in-depth analysis of each year’s best, most interesting or unusual films, has stunning photographs and-this is key-features output from Germany, UK, Russia, France and the US.

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  2. I love Chaplin. If you haven’t yet seen The Circus or the Gold Rush, you are in for a treat. I have never laughed so hard as I did seeing Chaplin on the high wire with monkeys in The Circus. And of course, City Lights is wonderfully touching. He was a great artist.

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    1. Chaplin truly is the best. There is a great story about him at a dinner party, discussing films with another director. The director says he’s shooting a scene where a fat lady trips after stepping on a banana peel on the sidewalk. He tells Chaplin that routine has been done to death; how could he do it differently? Chaplin tells him to show the lady walking, cut to the banana peel, back to the lady walking, back to the banana peel. Then cut to a wide shot where the lady steps OVER the banana peel, only to fall into an open manhole. Brilliant!

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  3. Is it the run time that made you chose this? Far better Chaplin films to use to try to indoctrinate non-silent lovers! Still, it does pull on your heart strings.

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  4. Pingback: Happy Monday!
  5. “City Lights” is probably the most easily accessible of Chaplin’s silents (and “Modern Times”) – but “The Kid” has so many great things going for it. No matter which Chaplin you watch, once you are captivated by his charm, you’ll want to see more – and then it’s on to Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Greta Garbo, Valentino, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks – well, you get the idea – it’s an obsession!

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    1. I adore “The Kid”… When I see it, I think about Chaplin losing his baby son and drawing upon that experience to make this movie. You’re so right about all the wonderful silent films from which to choose, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of them in the future.

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  6. Ruth, bit by bit I’ve actually been dipping my toes into silent films — and not just this year’s Oscar-winner THE ARTIST! :-) Seriously, I’ve recently watched and enjoyed SUNRISE and THE HANDS OF ORLAC, and thanks to your witty yet poignant post about Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID, I’m interested in delving deeper! (Though I’m still amazed that the cute little tyke in THE KID grew up to be THE ADDAMS FAMILY’s Uncle Fester! :-))

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