Charlie Chaplin was already an international star when he decided to break out of the short-film format and make his first full-length feature. 'The Kid' doesn’t merely show Chaplin at a turning point, when he proved that he was a serious film director—it remains an expressive masterwork of silent cinema. In it, he stars as his lovable Tramp character, this time raising an orphan (a remarkable young Jackie Coogan) he has rescued from the streets. Chaplin and Coogan make a miraculous pair in this nimble marriage of sentiment and slapstick, a film that is, as its opening title card states, "a picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear."
"A picture with a smile -- and perhaps, a tear."
Is anything ever really just funny? Or just sad? Can a film ever really just be a comedy or a drama? Mirroring the up and down complexity of emotions in real life, storytelling on screen rarely ever fits into just one genre -- and Charlie Chaplin's 1921 silent film masterpiece, 'The Kid,' is a prime example of this multifaceted approach. Effortlessly shifting from humor to pathos, the movie blends laughter and tears so naturally that one forgets that there's supposed to be a difference at all.
Starring Chaplin's iconic "Tramp" character, the story sees the hapless man with a mustache unwittingly stumble upon an abandoned baby boy (played as a kid by Jackie Coogan). After some comical attempts to get rid of the orphan, the Tramp decides to keep the child and raise him as his own. But as a few years pass, the police catch wind of this illegal adoption and try to snatch the kid away. Unwilling to part with his son, the determined (and rather nimble) father leaps into action, figuratively and literally.
"Please love and care for this orphan child." That's all it takes. Just those simple words. Though he initially tries to pass the abandoned baby off, after seeing that message written on a note, Chaplin's loveable Tramp can't help but rise to action -- shouldering on unexpected fatherhood and forever endearing him to the audience. Of course, his attempts at parenting are not without their comical struggles, and early portions of the film focus on classic physical comedy and silent-era visual gags, allowing Chaplin and his talented young co-star to show off their peerless skills and limitless charm.
Memorable bits involve the struggling pair's humorous attempts to break windows and repair them, a slapstick street brawl, and a pancake breakfast fit for kings. Throughout all of the silly shenanigans, Chaplin demonstrates his uncanny knack for comedic timing and inventive staging, designing several deceptively simple gags that slowly escalate. Blocking, editing, and undercranking become especially paramount to the comedy's success, using fast-motion to subtly heighten movements. A climactic dream sequence is also a highlight (even if it is slightly disconnected from the main narrative), offering an amusing detour to heaven filled with a flying, flirting Tramp and some troublesome devils.
But while these comedic stretches feature plenty of entertaining scenes, what makes 'The Kid' so special and important among Chaplin's evolving filmography, is its use of bittersweet drama in conjunction with the humor -- a mixture that would go on to inform several of the director's subsequent masterpieces as well. Emotional moments are peppered throughout the runtime, and just as he does with his comedic gags, Chaplin uses framing and editing to heighten their power -- including a notable shot that ends in a sorrowful collapsing iris as the kid's mother walks away from her son without realizing that it's the baby she once gave away. This intermittent use of pathos eventually comes to a head in a genuinely harrowing sequence that sees the kid being hauled away from the Tramp by the police.
It's in this heartbreaking scene that Chaplin really flexes his dramatic muscles, both behind and in front of the camera. Two particularly gut-wrenching shots -- one of the crying child being carted away and one of the devastated Tramp struggling with the cops -- reveal all of the pain in the characters' faces, saying all that needs to be said without a single word while becoming two of the most affecting images ever captured on screen. A subsequent rooftop escape from the cops also proves to be notable. In earlier Chaplin flicks a similar chase with the police could have easily been played for laughs (actually, such a scene exists earlier in this very film), but here the frenzied pursuit is an emotional ordeal, following Chaplin as he desperately leaps and battles his way back to his son.
Whether fighting or falling, Chaplin imbues the timeless role with all of the trademark charm and wit he's known for. But while the famous star is as engaging as always, it's really six-year-old Jackie Coogan who steals the show. Heralded as one of the best child-actor performances of all time, as the kid, Coogan effortlessly sells each lighthearted and distressing beat. Likewise, his natural charisma proves to be on par with Chaplin's, and the pair come across as equal co-stars -- which is no easy feat when you're acting opposite of such an icon.
Serving as Chaplin's feature film directorial debut, 'The Kid' marks an important stepping stone in the legendary filmmaker's evolution as an artist. Using all of the unique elements of silent moviemaking to their fullest (with very limited use of intertitles), the picture remains a powerful example of visual storytelling full of deceptively simple gags and powerful drama -- all conveyed through images alone. Indelible images marked by an adorable kid in an oversized hat, and a lovable vagrant with a silly mustache.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'The Kid' in their standard clear case with spine number 799. The BD-50 Region A disc comes packaged with a pamphlet featuring an essay by film scholar Tom Gunning.
The movie is provided with a black and white 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Taken from a 4K restoration sourced from a 35mm first generation element (with about 370 feet of decayed portions taken from a first generation fine grain), the image is simply breathtaking.
The restored print looks fantastic, with some portions, especially early on, almost appearing pristine. Seriously, several of the film's initial scenes are so clean, sharp, and naturally filmic in appearance that it genuinely looks like the reel was printed yesterday. Some sequences do waver in appearance, however, with signs of damage and a few comparatively blurry and soft shots here and there. But by and large, clarity is exceptional with beautifully rendered fine textures, making it easy to spot individual leaves on trees and even makeup on the actors' faces. A rich layer of grain is retained as well, preserving a cinematic look that avoids the overzealous noise reduction associated with lesser restoration efforts. The grayscale is also well balanced with bright whites and deep blacks.
It's not quite perfect, but this is an absolutely beautiful restoration. Though there are still understandable signs of wear here and there -- with occasional scratches, lines, stability fluctuations, and specks -- considering the movie's age, the transfer is truly impressive.
The film is presented with an LPCM mono mix. Being a silent film, the movie's audio purely relies on Chaplin's stirring original score.
The music comes through with wonderful fidelity and presence, transitioning from cheery, comical passages that heighten the comedy, to more dramatic cues -- including the movie's heartbreaking central theme which complements the emotions on screen perfectly. Beyond the score, there isn't really much to report, though the track does actually include some brief sound effects when windows are broken. No age-related issues are present.
Music can be essential to any silent film, and Chaplin's score manages to be memorable and emotional without overpowering his images. Technically sound, this is a strong mono music track.
Criterion has put together a fantastic collection of special features, including a commentary and several featurettes. All of the supplements are presented in 1080p or 1080i with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio.
Charlie Chaplin's 'The Kid' is a lasting masterpiece of silent cinema. With its influential mixture of comedy and drama, the film remains a funny and emotional experience. Marked by a striking 4K restoration, the transfer here is exceptional. Likewise, Chaplin's stirring score comes through beautifully. Criterion has provided some very worthwhile supplements as well, including a commentary and interviews. This release is highly recommended for all viewers, and the disc is an absolute must own for fans of classic movies and silent film.