The Kid d. Charles Chaplin (1921) The Criterion Collection Spine: #799 Blu-ray Release Date: February 16, 2016 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.
In the first five years of Chaplin’s career he worked for four studios, moving from one lucrative contract to another more lucrative contract almost yearly. We covered Flicker Alley’s excellent set of films Chaplin made under his first contract with Keystone here; Flicker Alley also has great releases of the films from his second home, Essany, which we covered here, and with his third home at Mutual, which we covered here. After he finished his contract with Mutual, Chaplin set off to First National in 1918, under one of the first million dollar deals in cinema history: $1 million for eight films. But it wasn’t just about the money; Chaplin left Mutual because he was also looking for more artistic control, and his contract with First National gave him that by not imposing a release schedule. “It’s quality, not quantity, we are after,” said Sydney Chaplin, his business manager at the time. While there were other issues working with First National (hopefully we’ll get a nice set of all of the First National films some day and can go into that), it was here that Chaplin first ventured into the world of feature films, releasing the “six-reeler” The Kid in 1921. Today, The Criterion Collection is releasing a beautiful new restored and loaded edition of Chaplin’s first feature.
When he moved into feature filmmaking, he continued to build off of what he knew. The Kid features the Tramp, that most famous of characters that Chaplin had invented a few years prior. But Chaplin knew that if he was going to make a feature with the Tramp it could not rely on slapstick humor. He’d really have to shoot for the heart to sustain his longest film to date. The first card we see when the film begins is: “A picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear.”
Indeed, The Kid begins by tugging at the heart strings. We see an impoverished woman being escorted out of a charity hospital with a new-born child. She is not married and has no means to support her new son. Desperate, she places her baby in the cab of a limousine with a note begging whoever owns the car to please take care of the baby. She hopes that in this way, the baby will get a wonderful upbringing that she could not provide.
Things do not go as planned, though. A couple of thieves steal the car and, when they see the child in the back, decide to drop it off in an alleyway. Who should stumble along?
No matter what he does, the Tramp who finds the child cannot get rid of it and takes it as his own. We quickly move a few years into the future and meet the Tramp Junior, played by the soon-to-be-famous Jackie Coogan.
Chaplin relates how he found Coogan:
I was at my wits’ end for an idea. It was a relief to go to the Orpheum for distraction, and in this state of mind I saw an eccentric dancer — nothing extraordinary, but at the finish of his act he brought on his little boy, an infant of four, to take a bow with him. After bowing with his father he suddenly broke into a few amusing steps, then looked knowingly at the audience, waved to them, and ran off. The audience went into an uproar, so that the child was made to come on again, this time doing quite a different dance. It could have been obnoxious in another child. But Jackie Coogan was charming and the audience thoroughly enjoyed it. Whatever he did, the little fellow had an engaging personality.
Coogan was hired that night.
The Kid is not, for me, Chaplin’s best film. Not by a long shot. As his first venture into feature filmmaking, it contains some strange pacing elements, including a long dream sequence at the end in which the Tramp dreams of the streets as if they are heaven only to find them get invaded by devils. That said, the relationship between the Tramp and the Kid is one for the ages. Here is a poor, unassuming, barely able man caring for a child who knows the Tramp loves him and will always fight for him.
The Criterion Edition: I popped in the Blu-ray and was shocked at how beautiful the film looked. This is a tremendous restoration. The disc itself is also loaded with important supplements:
- The film comes with a full-length audio commentary from film historian Charles Maland. Maland covers a lot of ground, including the production history, Jackie Coogan, and Chaplin’s personal life. It’s definitely not too long, as the film itself runs only 53 minutes.
- Interviews: the disc comes with a four archival interviews:
- Jackie Coogan: This 11:04-minute interview was recorded in 1980 by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill for the British television series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film.
- Lita Grey Chaplin: This is a rather saucy 9:59-minute interview from 1993 with one of the young girls in the film. She was twelve when she played the role of the Flirtatious Angel. She went on to become Chaplin’s wife . . . when she was just sixteen and pregnant with their son, Charles Chaplin, Jr.
- Rollie Totheroh: This is a 7:47-minute interview from 1964 with Chaplin’s cinematographer Roland “Rollie” Totheroh. He tells the fascinating story of how he and Chaplin edited The Kid outside of California because they were afraid First National, upset at how long the film was taking, would use Chaplin’s wife, Mildred Harris, to attach the film stock, as the Chaplins were going through an ugly divorce.
- Mo Rothman: This is a 9:41-minute interview from 1998 with Mo Rothman, the film’s distributor for the 1972 re-release. Rothman’s perspective on Chaplin, considering their work together, appears to be quite negative, though he loves the work itself.
- Jackie Coogan: The First Child Star: This is a new, 19:08-minute video essay by Chaplin scholar Lisa Haven.
- A Study in Undercranking: This is a new, 25:09-minute feature in which silent-film specialist Ben Model explores how the speed of the film worked for Chaplin’s gags.
- Charlie Chaplin Conducts The Kid: This is 2:03 minutes of footage showing Chaplin conducting his new score for the film in 1971.
- Deleted Scenes: This is an important feature as the film we get on the disc differs quite a bit from the original 1921 release. Besides Chaplin’s new score, three scenes featuring Coogan’s mother — and emphasizing her unwed status — are deleted. Those are important changes, and it’s nice to get that here if not in the featured version on the disc.
- “Charlie” on the Ocean: This is a 3:59-minute newsreel from 1921 that show Chaplin travelling back to England for the first time since he left in 1914.
- “Nice and Friendly”: This is a 10:52-minute short film made as a wedding present for Lord and Lady Mountbatten at Pickfair, the home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in 1922. Here we get more of Jackie Coogan.
- Other than three trailers for the 1972 re-release, the disc also comes with a fold-out insert featuring an essay by Tom Gunning.