January 30, 2011

The Kid (1921)

If our previous films flew coach, this one came in first-class leather seats.  The print was so clean and crisp it looked three decades newer.  And 5.1 surround?  In a silent film?  Better to simulate a live orchestra, I suppose, so we went with it.  Only the best for renowned actor Charles Chaplin.  Actor/director Charles Chaplin.  Well, actor/director/producer actually.  And writer.  And editor.  And composer, eventually.  Probably would have cranked the camera too, if he could...

Chaplin, in his famous tramp persona, first appears from the far end of an alleyway.  It's a nice introduction for the character's first feature film.  As he trundles closer, he must dodge piles of garbage flying down from the windows.  He doesn't quite seem to be aware of their origin.  They may as well be rock slides or some other natural disaster.  They are clearly a nuisance to him, but he doesn't get terribly angry either.  There is a difference between frustration at the intrusion of an obstacle and passing a moral judgment - the situation isn't "fair" or "unfair," it's just a bother.  Neither does it occur to him to look up at upcoming windows, to predict future obstacles.  That too would require seeing intent in the world, and passing judgement.  The Tramp doesn't do that.  He doesn't seem to rush to organize and categorize all he sees like the rest of us.  He just lets it flow through on his way to the next moment.  It's a strength and a weakness.  Chaplin uses its strengths for tenderness and its weaknesses for comedy.

Safely to the other end of the alley, he spots a bundle by the corner - an abandoned baby boy.  After several unsuccessful attempts to offload the child he takes it in himself, and after five years has managed to raise him up to be a precocious and street-wise Jackie Coogan.  Together they make a close, loving family, and cunning partners in crime.  Life seems good until the past begins to resurface and threatens to split them up.  While most of the movie is played for laughs, there is a powerful undercurrent of desperation to all the farce, because of the stakes.

Overall I enjoyed it quite a lot, though I still prefer City Lights.  This one felt a bit short.  For one thing, it was short - only 50 minutes - but that's not what I mean.  The Boy is ultimately reunited with his mother (The Woman.  Nobody has any names here, which was a refreshing change from trying to remember who Mr. or Mrs. Soandso is), and, more importantly, reunited with the Tramp at the very end.  But what's missing is a proper meeting between the two adults.  Each is the boy's parent in a very real sense, and I can't imagine that either really expected, or desired, the other's existence.  How do they feel about that?  How do they reckon with this new reality?  The movie ends on what it supposes is a very happy conclusion, but I didn't feel enough had been dealt with to feel so at ease.  I suspect what happens next is that the Tramp, in his humility and a realization that he has no way to provide for the boy in a tangible way, bows out of the family.  Which would be very sad indeed.

NEXT WEEK: Special-effects extrrrrravaganza, The Thief of Bagdad.

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