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The Kid; And the Notion of Family

August 18, 2012

Since cinemas infancy, Charlie Chaplain has been a crucial element within its roots. Starring first in vaudeville type comedies, Chaplain quickly made himself a mogul within the new medium creating his own production company as well as writing, directing, staring and composing all of his films. His recurring character, The Tramp, has been an iconic image of the silver screen since his first appearance. Over a century has passed and the blundering hobo with a push broom mustache and a heart of gold is still a beloved figure whose quirky stories have transcended time.

The reason Chaplain’s films have longevity is due to Chaplain’s ability to tell powerful stories of the common man using relatable universal themes. If you want to see The Tramp deal with superficiality and the temptation of greed, see him do so in The Gold Rush; to see how The Tramp takes on the difficulties of first love, then watch City Lights. Grappling with fear of the loom and hustle of technology? See how The Tramp handles it in Modern Times; but to see The Tramp take on perhaps his most fitting role, a father, then watch The Kid.

Written and directed, with all the trimmings, by Chaplain, The Kid tells the deeply poignant story of The Woman, who is down and out, seemingly regretting the birth of her newborn child. She decides to leave the child in the back of an expensive car with a note requesting his safety and love, unfortunately the car is stolen by two thugs who ditch the baby in the alley of a poor neighborhood. The Tramp, in all his luck, finds the child and is forced to keep him when he can’t pawn it off on others. The Tramp names the child John and for the next five years raises the boy as his own. What proceeds is some of the most beautiful moments of character interaction I’ve ever seen as the two grow together despite the threat of John being away as an orphan.

Jackie Coogan as “The Kid” was possibly the cutest child to appear in film at that time and he’s phenomenal in his role, also his scenes with Chaplain are simply magnetizing. Although dirt poor, The Tramp comes off as an exceptional father doing what he can to provide for John and teaching the kid the tricks and trade of living on the streets. The Tramp’s teachings are also in being an upstanding citizen in society, despite their low social class. In one of the more humorously endearing scene, John prepares pancakes for their morning breakfast. Using their blanket as a robe and his ragged over-sized shoes as slippers, The Tramp sits at the table to divide the stack of pancakes. Realizing he has one too many he carefully cuts a pancake in half giving John one half so that the two stacks are perfectly even. They bow their hands and mumble a word or two as grace and start to eat. John uses his knife to lap hungrily at syrup he has poured on his plate until the Tramp stops him to point out a very valuable lesson, never eat with the sharp side up, he instead flips the knife over for John to continue lapping with the dull side.

The slapstick and hijinks are heavily lathered on throughout The Kid, but like all of Chaplain’s films, there’s a profound sentiment that’s evident. When John is taken away from The Tramp to live in an orphanage, the editing and acting is at it’s peak, cutting back and forth to show The Tramp being outnumbered yet fighting off cops while John is placed in the truck. The sequence is beautifully constructed showcasing a woefully howling John begging to not be taken away juxtaposed against The Tramp wide-eyed, fighting with determination to get to John. The images unfold without intertitles to explain what is being said, the images alone tug at your heartstrings as their struggle feels personal. It’s almost a proven fact that you will at least tear up during that sequence. It’s science.

The Kid is heartbreaking at points but is overall an uplifting beautiful story to watch. The focus on images is astounding as is the construction of the physical humor and delicate attention to most of the characters. Sure the circumstances in The Kid are perfectly contrived the way films of classic cinema is, but so is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but I don’t see you mentioning that person who may not have even thought to argue that. The conventions don’t matter because the story of The Kid flows with such a great pace, and while it creates an air of pathos it wraps up neatly ending with a cathartic moment that feels like taking a breath of fresh air.

The Kid’s most impressive aspect, however, is how it interrogates the notion of a “conventional family.” The Tramp is poor, a con artist and a certified trouble maker. Instead of throwing a baseball around in the front yard with John, he teaches John how to throw baseballs in the windows of anyone gullible enough to hire The Tramp as he shows up at the right moment selling window’s for half the price. However, The Tramp is a great guardian who watches over and protects John without batting an eye. He boosts the child’s self-esteem and molds John into a kid that is thankful for every meal and bed he sleeps in. The Kid is a great reminder that a family is the people who care for you regardless of what or who you are; a thought we need to remember in a time where a chicken sandwich has becomes an icon to deny others their right to start a family.

SEE IT. And bring a tissue or two.

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