If the 12 Mutual-Chaplin Specials of 1916–1917 served as Chaplin’s early comedic laboratory, the best of the films he created for the First National Exhibitors’ Circuit reveal a filmmaker growing into his full artistic power. The First Nationals contain some of Chaplin’s best constructed and most loved films. Chaplin’s screen character becomes gentler, the supporting roles are less caricatured and more textured, and the plots and settings are more realistic. Charlie is just as graceful as he was in the Mutuals, but far less frenetic. Most important, Charlie develops his artistic soul during this period, particularly with The Kid. The films may evoke less continuous laughter than the Mutuals, but Chaplin courageously eschewed easy laughs to allow greater development of character and plot in his bold strides toward cinematic maturity.
Chaplin’s fifth film for First National, The Kid, is one of his finest achievements and remains universally beloved by critics and audiences alike. The film is a perfect blend of comedy and drama and is arguably Chaplin’s most personal and autobiographical work. Many of the settings and the themes in the film come right out of Chaplin’s own impoverished London childhood. However, it was the combination of two events, one tragic (the death of his infant son) and one joyful (his chance meeting with Jackie Coogan), that led Chaplin to shape the tale of the abandoned child and the lonely Tramp.
The loss of the three-day-old Norman Spencer undoubtedly had a great effect on Chaplin, and the emotional pain appears to have triggered his creativity, as he began auditioning child actors at the Chaplin Studios ten days after his son’s death. It was during this period that Chaplin encountered a four-year-old child performer named Jackie Coogan at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, where his father had just performed an eccentric dance act. Chaplin spent more than an hour talking to Jackie in the lobby of the Alexandria Hotel, but the idea of using Jackie in a film did not occur to him. After he heard that Roscoe Arbuckle had just signed Coogan, Chaplin agonized over his missed opportunity. Later, he discovered that Arbuckle had signed Jack Coogan—the boy’s father.
Chaplin soon engaged the young Coogan at $75 a week and began work on The Kid, which had the working title The Waif. Chaplin later remembered: “All children in some form or another have genius; the trick is to bring it out in them. With Jackie it was easy. There were a few basic rules to learn in pantomime and Jackie very soon mastered them. He could apply emotion to the action and action to the emotion, and could repeat it time and time again without losing the effect of spontaneity.”
As early as 1915, Chaplin had attempted interweaving feature-length comedy with dramatic sequences in the proposed film Life, but Essanay forced him to discard that project. The Kid afforded Chaplin the opportunity to test his hypothesis that such an effort would be artistically and commercially viable. The Kid was Chaplin’s first feature-length production (Tillie’s Punctured Romance, a 1914 Keystone feature, was not directed or produced by him), an ambitious project that spanned six reels, more than an hour of screen time.
In the process of making The Kid, Chaplin integrated slapstick comedy with dramatic sequences for the first time in a feature film comedy—a pattern he followed and developed for the rest of his career. In My Autobiography, Chaplin wrote: “There had been satire, farce, realism, naturalism, melodrama and fantasy, but raw slapstick and sentiment, the premise of The Kid, was something of an innovation.”
Chaplin began filming on July 31, 1919 (filming ended on July 30, 1920 and all post-production work finished on December 29, 1920), Chaplin spent $500,000 and devoted 18 months to The Kid, which was shot at and around his Hollywood studio as well as on locations in Los Angeles, Universal City, Pasadena, Eagle Rock, and Occidental College. Whether the artistic desire to film a retelling of his own childhood struck Chaplin the moment he signed Jackie Coogan, or whether his path to inspiration followed a more subtle evolution, Chaplin soon found himself filming his own youth.
The angel dream sequence has been criticized as incongruous with the rest of the film. Chaplin recalled being disappointed when British author and playwright James M. Barrie, the king of whimsy, told him the sequence was entirely unnecessary, to which Chaplin frankly responded that Barrie’s own play, A Kiss for Cinderella, had influenced him.
To play the flirting angel, Chaplin cast 12-year-old Lillita MacMurray, whom the director hired again (and gave her the professional moniker Lita Grey) as the leading lady for The Gold Rush when she was 15. Early in the production of The Gold Rush, she dropped out of the film to wed Chaplin in a marriage that brought him more unhappiness than his previous marriage to Mildred Harris.
The scene in which Jackie is taken away from Charlie is undoubtedly the most celebrated sequence in The Kid. Charlie and Jackie wage a heroic struggle (including Jackie wielding a hammer as if it were a mallet) against the orphanage officials who easily vanquish them. Jackie is forced into the back of a truck and begins to plead to be returned to his father. A careful viewer can read his quivering lips begging, “I want my Daddy!” and “Oh, please!” as he clasps his hands in prayer and looks to heaven for divine intervention. It is a powerful, raw performance, which has lost none of its emotion with time. The officials soon drive Jackie away, another unfortunate stray plucked from the dirty streets. Chased by a police officer, Charlie performs an innovative and desperate race to the rescue as he trips across the rooftops in his frantic attempt to free Jackie from the authorities. The climax of the scene, second only in emotional impact to the final moments of City Lights (1931), finds the Tramp fiercely beating back the officials and reclaiming his child. As the Tramp kisses the trembling boy on the lips, tears of joy, relief, and exhaustion stream down both their faces. It is a high point in cinema history.
As the filming of The Kid progressed, Chaplin quickly developed a close friendship with Jackie Coogan that assumed paternal overtones. In many ways, young Jackie had replaced the child Chaplin had just lost. Pairing the Tramp with a child also gave Chaplin an opportunity to extend the childlike innocence of his own character. As Chaplin explained 50 years later, Coogan was the perfect actor for Chaplin because “[h]e was so malleable.”
The late Victorian setting of The Kid clearly reflects the London of Chaplin’s youth, particularly the attic room at 3 Pownall Terrace where Chaplin had lived. In My Life in Pictures, Chaplin wrote of the garret the Tramp and the Kid shared: “A set means so much to me. I think myself into a thing and whatever comes out has been influenced a great deal by environment. This room was based to a large extent on the places in Lambeth and Kennington where Sydney and I had lived with our mother when we were children. Perhaps that’s why the film had some truth.”
When production of The Kid was completed, Chaplin—like his character in the film—was forced to flee California with the negative of The Kid in an effort to thwart Mildred Harris’s legal attempts to attach the film in her divorce settlement. In the early morning hours of August 1920, Chaplin asked cameramen Rollie Totheroh and Jack Wilson to pack the 400,000 feet of uncut negative. Totheroh later recalled that the negative, mounted on 200 foot rolls, was packed in coffee tins that were crated. The 12 crates traveled with Totheroh, Wilson, and Chaplin by train to Salt Lake City, Utah, where California community property laws did not apply. They improvised an editing room in a hotel room and made a rough cut of the film, reducing 400,000 feet to 5,300 feet, and previewed it to a Salt Lake City audience to great enthusiasm.
Confident that the film was his finest work to date, he asked for better terms from First National. The company feigned indifference and offered to pay him as if it were three two-reelers. Chaplin then spirited the film to New York and rented a vacant studio in Bayonne, New Jersey, to complete the editing and laboratory work. Throughout the transcontinental adventure, Chaplin traveled incognito for fear he might be served a subpoena from Mildred’s lawyers. After an acrimonious dispute, Chaplin asked for and eventually received from First National an advance of $1,500,000 and 50 percent of the net profits after the company recouped the advance. Chaplin recalled in his autobiography that by this time First National’s “ruthless attitude had so embittered me that it impeded the progress of my work.”
The Kid had its world premiere on January 21, 1921, at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in a benefit for the Children’s Fund of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. It is the one Chaplin film for which all the reviews were ecstatic. Chaplin later recalled, “The reviews of my pictures have always been mixed. The one everybody praised was The Kid—and then they went too far, talked about Shakespeare. Well, it wasn’t that!” Perhaps not Shakespeare, but comparisons to Dickens were appropriate. The New Statesman declared Chaplin “is in The Kid a man of Dickensian genius.”
In 1971, Chaplin removed scenes from The Kid he thought might appear too sentimental to modern audiences and composed and recorded a musical score for the film’s theatrical reissue. It had its debut at the Film Society of Lincoln Center gala tribute to Chaplin, which took place on April 4, 1972, at New York City’s Philharmonic Hall, and the 82-year-old himself was in attendance. It was also in 1972 that Chaplin and Jackie Coogan met for the last time in Beverly Hills, at the Governor’s Ball, following Chaplin’s receiving an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Two conflicting stories circulate about the reunion. One version is that Chaplin greeted Coogan warmly, and as the brief meeting ended, Chaplin emphatically told Coogan’s wife, “You must never forget that your husband is a genius.” The other account, told by Carol Matthau, wife of actor Walter Matthau and close friend of Oona Chaplin, is that Chaplin first feigned not to recognize Coogan and later expressed concern to Oona that Coogan might ask for residuals. If true, it was a bittersweet ending to a remarkable friendship.
The Kid remains an important contribution to the art of film, not only because of Chaplin’s innovative use of dramatic sequences in a feature-length comedy, but also because of the revelations The Kid provides about its creator. Undoubtedly, when Chaplin penned the preface to The Kid, “A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear,” he had his own artistic credo, and life, in mind.
© 2014 Jeffrey Vance
Presented at The Little Tramp at 100 event in 2014 with live music by Timothy Brock conducting the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra