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The Kid: The Chaplin Collection

MK2 / Warner Home Video

Starring Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance

Written, directed, and produced by Charles Chaplin

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

Unless your heart is as stony as a biblical execution, I challenge you to watch unmoved as Charlie Chaplin's heroic vagabond rescues five-year-old Jackie Coogan from being hauled away to the "orphan asylum." At this point in The Kid, Chaplin's musical score tugs any heartstrings not yet plucked by the look on the Kid's face as he pleads for release, or on the Tramp's as he victoriously embraces the foundling child. Say what you will about Chaplin's deployment of pathos (you can almost see him pulling the pin with his teeth and lobbing it into our laps), this scene in "a picture with a smile and perhaps a tear" is one of those glorious movie moments that demonstrates what the medium can do when the right emotionally haunted, increasingly self-absorbed, control-freak genius is calling the shots.

By 1919, after five years providing some six dozen short comedies, including numerous lasting classics, for the Keystone, Essanay, Mutual, and First National studios, Charles Chaplin was in a position to increase the scope of his filmmaking. Just 30 years old, he had his own studio and was the most famous entertainer on the planet. His Tramp had become the world's most recognizable motion picture character since his debut appearance in 1914. While still in his eight-picture contract with First National, the comedian founded United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith. The first job of the new company was distributing the opening salvo of Chaplin's burgeoning independence, The Kid, which he delivered to First National near the end of 1920.

The Kid was Chaplin's first feature-length work as director/actor, and his first ever as producer. At six reels, or just under an hour, The Kid presented a warm and funny expansion of his comic storytelling skills, as well as the sentimentality and autobiographical elements that had been more and more noticeable in his shorter work. It premiered at Carnegie Hall on January 21, 1921, a year and a half after Chaplin began working on it. His employers at First National had fretted over the hefty pay increase Chaplin demanded and received, and over his slow, capricious work pace that included a seemingly endless chain of retakes — he shot 53 times more footage than what ended up onscreen — but they needn't have worried: The Kid opened to critical raves and was an immediate box-office hit. Although it would be four years before his next feature-length comedy, The Gold Rush, The Kid kicked off a new and important phase in Chaplin's career.

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The Kid was a watershed production for Chaplin both professionally and personally. As the documentary featurette within this DVD points out, the movie came after a prolonged period of waning inspiration, during which Chaplin's rushed and difficult first marriage to Mildred Harris resulted in his first child, a malformed boy that died in 1919 after only three days. The marriage quickly ended, but the tragedy of their baby seems to have snapped Chaplin out of his inspirational block. Just days after the funeral he was casting the role of a small child in a project that would become The Kid. In the film, the Tramp finds and cares for a child (Coogan, whom Chaplin discovered on a Los Angeles vaudeville stage) abandoned in a limousine by his unwed and destitute mother (Edna Purviance). Obliged to keep him, the surrogate father teaches the youngster about life on the streets. But after their five years of becoming a family, the boy's mother, now a successful opera star, searches for her son in order to reclaim him.

The Kid demonstrates new fixations within Chaplin's work. It shows us a writer and director growing more introspective and reflective. It displays a humanism that seemed to well up from memories of his own hard upbringing in the London slums, as if he was determined to revisit and revise the poverty and unhappiness of his childhood by giving it the happy endings he could guarantee only in art. "The Kid was undoubtedly a beginning in 'literature' for Charlie," said culture critic Gilbert Seldes. If so, it was literature of a deeply Dickensian sort.

We can spot seeds of this preoccupation as far back as some of his Mutual shorts (The Kid could be either a prequel or sequel to 1916's "Easy Street", including a nearly identical street set). The Kid, though, is the line of demarcation for most Chaplinologists. Here's where he stepped forward as the most personal of popular filmmakers, an attribute that will lead to his greatest triumphs, such as City Lights and Modern Times. However, because the weight of his history seemed to anchor him to an increasingly distant past, he allowed it to halt his progress as a practitioner of a rapidly evolving medium, leading eventually to his most artless, backward-looking, and narcissistic excesses (Limelight, A King in New York).

The Kid marks the beginning of Chaplin's peak years as a director of funny, substantive feature-length comedies still treasured among the best films to ever come out of Hollywood. And from The Kid forward, separating Chaplin's filmmaking from his personal life — his ego, his personal and political crises, the private hagiography that drove him to fetishize his self-image in celluloid throughout his career — is like cleaving the dairy from cheese.

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Whether or not Jackie Coogan's utterly charming ragamuffin is Chaplin's idealization of his own lost childhood, the tyke's captivating co-starring role plants his feet as the model for all subsequent child stars. It's no hyperbole to say that Coogan delivers one of the all-time great performances by an actor not yet old enough to read a screenplay. An expressive and natural mimic, he was the ideal Chaplin actor, able to serve up every emotional and physical nuance the exacting director demanded of him. He's not only the cutest li'l scrapper until Finding Nemo's titular sea urchin, he's a full-fledged actor with a range and presence that he was never again able to capture on film. Coogan's career ended on a sort-of uptick as Uncle Fester on TV's The Addams Family.

Coogan is darling, alright, and during this production and others Chaplin doted on him as if the boy was his own. But Chaplin also treated him as a professional and a co-star. He shared the screen with Coogan to a degree that we don't see again until 15 years later with Paulette Goddard in Modern Times, and she had the advantage of being his intimate companion at the time.

Before The Kid, Chaplin's work at First National had produced films that were longer and less frantic than the two-reelers that built his career. In 1918 he'd found artistic and commercial success in a three-reeler, A Dog's Life, and a four-reeler, Shoulder Arms, which are ranked among his best shorts. (Both are compiled in The Chaplin Revue.) As a comedy of greater structure and deeper storytelling, The Kid was a logical next step in this more ambitious work. Unlike the later episodic Gold Rush or Modern Times, The Kid holds onto the shape and "feel" of his best earlier short films. Its events unfold with such visual precision and economy that intertitle cards are few and far between. Don't be surprised to find yourself forgetting that you're watching a "silent" movie at all. There are comic moments as masterfully slapsticky as anything in his one- and two-reelers, clever gags and bits honed from Chaplin's lifetime as a stage and screen comedian. He was also among the first filmmakers to grasp that a movie camera could convey a powerful intimacy that was impossible with music-hall audiences, so The Kid also contains funny business that's as subtle and delicate as a snowflake. It's a film that requires multiple viewings just to catch everything packed into its frames.

At the same time, though, we see him freighting his melodrama with the weepy soulfulness that the public ate up but the critics often decried, with some reason, as vulgar or heavy-handed. Specifically, the far too literal images of Edna Purviance's woman "whose only sin was motherhood" as a halo-endowed Christ-figure strike us as embarrassing. Some Chaplin scholars have wondered if they're outright Oedipal. (In 1971, while also composing the film's orchestral score, Chaplin wisely cut three brief sequences that only wring soppy symbolism from Purviance's canonized Mother. The sequences are viewable here separately as a supplemental extra.)

But the film's faults are minor, and even they contribute to our understanding of Chaplin the man over Chaplin the filmmaker. The Kid endures as one of his most winning and accessible comedies. Beautifully reflecting his growing maturity as a filmmaker as well as his ardor for the work, The Kid stands as a splendid introduction to Chaplin's movies. Making it available to new audiences who (is it possible?) have never before seen a Chaplin film is justification enough for putting The Kid on DVD. Better yet, now we finally get The Kid in a nearly pixel-perfect, extras-rich release after prior editions of often dubious quality. It's enough to make you want to hug a child.

The MK2/Warner Home Video Chaplin Collection DVDs

In 2001, the rights to many of Chaplin's films became available. Several companies vied to license them. The Chaplin estate chose the Parisian company MK2, which holds the rights to the films for 12 years.

With distribution through Warner Home Video, in 2003 MK2 began releasing The Chaplin Collection, two boxed sets containing definitive, authorized editions of Chaplin's feature-length films. Each film receives an exhaustive, features-rich DVD presentation. All have been digitally restored and remastered from Chaplin estate vault elements. Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection includes The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Limelight. Volume 2 brings us The Kid, The Circus, City Lights, Monsieur Verdoux, A King in New York / A Woman of Paris, and The Chaplin Revue. Plus, exclusive to the Volume 2 boxed set is Richard Schickel's acclaimed documentary tribute, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, a highlight of 2003's Cannes Film Festival.

These discs feature, among their many extras, never-before-seen footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses, exclusive family home movie footage, and specially made documentaries in which Chaplin biographer David Robinson as well as world-famous film-makers discuss the films and their personal, professional, or cultural impact.

Starting in the 1940s, Chaplin went back to several of his earlier films and tinkered with them, snipping bits here, changing footage there, and adding his own musical scores for reissue prints. Under the authority of the Chaplin estate, MK2's The Chaplin Collection delivers the films in their final state, "as Chaplin intended."

How's the picture and sound quality?

Presented at a natural-looking film speed, The Kid clocks in at fifty minutes, seventeen seconds. From start to finish the restored imagery looks splendid. The black-and-white graytones aren't overly contrasty or at all washed out. Some faint hairline scratches and a few skips caused by missing frames offer a print that's not as polished as MK2's exquisite Modern Times, but it's the finest edition of The Kid you're ever likely to see.

The audio comes in two options remastered in Dolby Digital — the original monaural (DD 2.0) and a new 5.1 remix. Each offers Chaplin's 1971 score in a track that's strong and clear and free of hiss or wear. The 5.1 option keeps itself mostly in the front, with the satellite speakers providing just enough support without directional tricks.

Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

Disc Two: Special features

Introduction (5:21) — Biographer David Robinson (Chaplin: His Life and Art) illustrates the elements in Chaplin's past, such as his own forced time in an institution for destitute children, that resonate in The Kid. Also here are the marital turmoils Chaplin endured before and during The Kid's production, and the impact of sudden international celebrity on young Coogan, whose career mismanagement led to the creation of the California Child Actor's Bill, sometimes known as the Coogan Act, which protects child stars from exploitation at the hands of their own family.

Chaplin Today - The Kid (26:09) — This documentary by Alain Bergala provides fuller background to The Kid's influences and development. Then we visit Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, whose love for the film has influenced his own work. Chaplin's universality is underscored by shots of modern Iranians standing near a wall mural of the Tramp and imitating the character's distinctive walk, and a young Iranian boy, about five years old, who offers his exegesis of The Kid like a film-school student.

Scenes deleted in 1971 — Here are the three unsubtle sequences that Chaplin trimmed out to lighten the film's load of melodrama. The first two are just over a minute long, the third is almost three minutes. Each clip includes enough used footage on either end to give it context within the final cut.

How to Make Movies (1918) (15:49) — This unreleased silent docu-comedy shows the time-lapsed construction of Chaplin Studios at La Brea Avenue and Sunset Blvd. (now Jim Henson Studios), as well as staged rehearsals with actors, makeup tests, and so on. Highlights include shots of wide open fields where today stands modern Los Angeles, and a golf routine with Chaplin in his Tramp costume working with supporting player Albert Austin and Chaplin's "heavy" from the Mutual Days, Eric Campbell. Chaplin had hoped that First National would accept How to Make Movies toward his eight-film contract. The studio would have none of that. How to Make Movies remained unedited and unfinished until film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill assembled it, using Chaplin's old cutting instructions, for the 1982 London Film Festival. (This footage also appears on MK2's DVD of The Chaplin Revue.)

My Boy (54:55) — This print (from the Blackhawk Collection) preserves an overripe melodrama from 1921 that starred Jackie Coogan in a role close to that of The Kid. Coogan is cute as a button, but the film is a forgettable knockoff. The print is unrestored and in poor shape.


TrailersThe Kid's 1971 U.S. reissue (coupled with the short, The Idle Class); a German reissue (date unknown, but a title card quotes a 1974 review); and an odd one in Dutch for the "Nederlandse première" (it shows no film footage, and the text with its canned generic musical score may remind cineastes of the subtitled opening credits in Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

Photo Gallery (3:03) — A video montage of frames from the film, unused footage, and PR shots.

Film Posters (3:03) — Twenty posters for The Kid from various countries and decades.

The Chaplin Collection (10:38) — A video montage of scenes from films in the Volume 2 series.

—Mark Bourne

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