The Kid, released in 1921, was Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length film (albeit only lasting about an hour itself). As with his earlier short works, Chaplin wrote, directed, scored, and starred in the silent film. It is, of course, the first full-length film to feature his classic character, the Little Tramp.
The film starts off with Edna Purviance, playing an unwed mother who reluctantly comes to the conclusion that she cannot support her newborn son. Attaching a note to please take care of him, she abandons the child in a fancy car outside a stately manor… and as soon as she turns the corner, a couple of criminals steal the car. Anybody who thinks dark comedy is a recent invention may stand corrected, as there are several hilarious yet awful moments in the whole sequence leading up to the final home of the infant.
It’s a bit hard to be certain who’s more terrified, but I think it’s the one with the gun.
After the child is re-abandoned a few times, he winds up in the care of the Little Tramp, who initially tries to pass the kid off just like everyone else until he finds the note. Upon realizing the kid is truly abandoned, he decides to raise the boy, whom he dubs John, as his own. The film then cuts to five years later, and the kid is now played by Jackie Coogan (who at a much greater age would become known as Uncle Fester of The Addams Family). The child helps out the Tramp in his little scams, and the Tramp makes sure John has all the food and care a growing boy needs. The unwed mother, meanwhile, is now a renowned theatre actress, does charity work and longs for her missing son. You can see where that’s going, of course.
The film plays up the pathos of both parents (natural and adopted) and their desires to take care of the boy. And there’s actually a fair amount of darkness in the film, in its commentary about a society that by and large doesn’t care what’s going on, or which is willing to take the kid away from the only home he’s ever known. But it also keeps things from getting too morose with a lot of light-hearted comedy segments, including a pretty good comic fight scene against a bully’s older brother.
It’s a lot of trouble for a kid who almost wound up in a storm drain.
The one thing I didn’t really like about the film was a complete non-sequitur of a dream sequence near the end. It wasn’t especially interesting, and it had nothing to do with the plot, even symbolically. That aside, The Kid is a classic with good reason. It’s funny, it’s a bit satirical, and it’s got a pretty decent, if simple, dramatic plot.
Being a pretty old film, it’s in the public domain and thus it’s pretty easy to track down a copy if you’re interested. Online, it looks like the best copies are at The Internet Archive and Google Video; unlike some other sites out there, they have decent copies and don’t have distracting watermarks on the video.