The Kid Review

We begin with a woman (Edna Purviance) leaving a charity hospital with her own newborn baby boy in her arms. Unable to cope with the responsibility of motherhood and with no support from the boy's father, she abandons the baby in a limousine, asking whoever finds the child to look after him. The car is stolen and the baby left in a back alley, where he is found by a tramp (Charles Chaplin) who looks after him. Five years later, the child (Jackie Coogan) is a business partner, helping to smash windows so that the tramp can step in as a glazier. However, the authorities are trying to take the child into care. Meanwhile, his mother, now a stage star, posts a reward for the rediscovery of her son...

Following the twelve short films he made for Mutual in 1917/18, Charles Chaplin signed a contract with First National and continued to make short films. The Kid was going to be one such, original title The Waif, but the project grew. Production took just over a year, from 21 July 1919 to 30 July 1920. Released on 6 February 1921, it became Chaplin's first feature, though that depends on your definition of "feature" as it is just under an hour long. Chaplin took a two-week break in the middle of shooting to make a short, A Day's Pleasure, to assuage the demand for a new Chaplin film.

The opening intertitle says "A picture with a smile – and perhaps a tear" and while Chaplin's taste for pathos often crossed the line into mawkishness, it is kept in check here. There's no doubt that The Kid cut very close to home for Chaplin, who at the age of seven was removed from home and placed in a home for destitute children. The scene where the Kid is forcibly separated from the Tramp is heartrending. The Kid came about from a period of turmoil in Chaplin's life. His relationship with Edna Purviance had come to an end, though she continued to act in his films. He had begun an affair with Mildred Harris (who had acted in Intolerance amongst others) and had married her in 1918 when she believed she was pregnant, though this turned out to be a false alarm. She was sixteen, he twenty-nine. The marriage proved to be disastrous. Harris did become pregnant but the child, a boy, died at three days old, an event which may well have galvanised Chaplin into making The Kid. By the time the film went into production, Chaplin and Harris had separated and her lawyers were filing for divorce. The film had to be edited in secret due to fears about Harris's lawyers seizing it among Chaplin's assets. As well as Edna Purviance, another significant woman in Chaplin's life appears in The Kid: Lita Grey, under her real name of Lillita MacMurray and all of twelve at the time, appears in the dream sequence as a flirtatious angel. She and Chaplin were to marry in 1924, when she was sixteen and he thirty-five. (If that seems a little disturbing nowadays, also note that it's alleged that Grey and Chaplin's relationship and marriage was an inspiration to Vladimir Nabokov when writing Lolita.)

Jackie Coogan wasn't quite five when shooting started and became a child star as a result of this film. His career declined, as many child stars' do, in his early teens, but he continued to act as an adult, receiving latter-day fame as Uncle Fester in the original television series of The Addams Family. Chaplin discovered him dancing on stage. It's clear that he had considerable fondness for the young boy, perhaps as a surrogate for the son he had just lost. While Chaplin had regular actors in his films – Purviance being a frequent leading lady and the by-now-late Eric Campbell a regular literal heavy – he was still the only star of his films. (He had tried to make Purviance one in A Woman of Paris which he didn't appear in himself other than in a cameo, but the film was a flop.) But with Coogan he found a genuine co-star and the effect of the film, which remains one of Chaplin's best-loved and a pivotal work in his career, is as much due to him as it is to Chaplin's by-now-famous persona of the Tramp.


The Disc

Artificial Eye have released The Kid as part of a series of eleven Chaplin releases, on Blu-ray and DVD. It was the former which was received for review.

The first Chaplin releases on DVD in the UK were two boxsets released by Warner Home Video, licensed from MK2, in 2003. Park Circus released the film on Blu-ray and DVD in 2010, but I do not have a copy of those editions to hand. Artificial Eye's Chaplin releases are also licensed from MK2; they carries over several extras from the Warners DVD but not all of them, so completists may wish to hold on to their earlier editions. In the case of The Kid the major non-holdover is a later Coogan film, My Boy from 1921 (which on the DVD is in a rough state), but also missing are the short newsreel "Charlie on the Ocean" (which is on the BFI Mutual Films box set – see my review linked to above), two minutes of footage of Jackie Coogan in Paris and a stills and poster gallery.

The version of The Kid on this disc (and on the Warners DVD) is the 1971 reissue, in the wake of Chaplin's "triumphant return to the United States" as per the trailer elsewhere on the disc, which was paired with the short The Idle Class to make the package up to conventional feature-length. The reissue of The Kid has a synchronised soundtrack. This comprises a score by Chaplin (which has its own copyright date in the opening credits) and some sound effects, such as smashing windows when the Kid throws stones through them. This version (which runs 52:43 on this Blu-ray) is slightly shortened from the 1921 original. The deleted scenes, exploring Edna Purviance's character's feelings about motherhood, appear elsewhere on this disc.

The Blu-ray transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.33:1 and the results of a restoration are clear to see. In 1921, most feature film production was on orthochromatic black and white stock, which was insensitive to certain frequencies of light. This resulted in a distinctive look which you can easily see in films made in the teens, closer to black and white with a more limited greyscale, though this could be overcome by the use of makeup and lighting. Around the time of the making of The Kid, panchromatic stock, sensitive to all frequencies and thus giving a wider greyscale, was beginning to be used especially for exterior scenes. However, it was more expensive and did not take over from orthochromatic entirely until later in the decade. I don't have available details of which stocks Chaplin's regular DP Roland Totheroh used in which scenes, but there is quite a wide greyscale in this transfer, especially in the numerous exterior scenes. You can pick out fine details of the bricks in the slum walls, for example.

The soundtrack is the 1971 one, mostly music with some sound effects. It is presented in LPCM 2.0, which plays in mono via your centre speaker. There are no issues with it.

As mentioned above, most of the extras have been brought forward from the previous DVD releases. This begins with an introduction by film critic David Robinson, who was also Chaplin's biographer (5:23). This begins oddly with Robinson in three-quarter profile from behind, with his notes and the microphone visible. However, for the rest of this we have Robinson's voiceover over film extracts and stills, as he ably sets the film in the context of Chaplin's career.

That context is given in more detail in Chaplin Today – The Kid (26:13), a featurette made for the previous DVD release. It is in two parts, first an overview of the film's making and the events in Chaplin's life at the time. The second part takes us to Tehran and a celebrity fan of the film, Abbas Kiarostami, who talks about his admiration for it, in particular the simplicity of its staging. He shows the film to the now-adult child star of his debut film, Blood and Alley from 1970, who brings along his own son, who has not seen the film before. Also in this part of the featurette is a short vox-pop section wherein young Iranian men and women talk about the film in front of a large mural of Chaplin.

As mentioned above, scenes deleted from the original version for the reissue are presented here, though called "outtakes" on the menu. They are mute and run 5:50.

How to Make Movies (15:55) is a short film from 1918, made for First National, in which Chaplin takes us behind the scenes of his films at his studio, from set design and building to filming to editing. "Jackie Coogan at the Chaplin Studios" (1:23) is a short mute piece of newsreel, which finishes with Coogan performing a short dance. Coogan also appears in "Nice and Friendly" (10:50), an impromptu home movie shot in the garden of Chaplin's house and featuring his famous guests, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Lady Edwina Mountbatten...and Jackie Coogan. This is also presented mute and parts of the sprocket holes are visible in the transfer. Further documentary footage dates from 1971 – colour 16mm this time – as we see Chaplin and his orchestra recording the score for the reissue version (1:57).

"Extracts from the Films in the Chaplin Collection" (10:44) is a series of extracts from all the films Artificial Eye will be releasing: the features in chronological order, ending with scenes from the five shorts making up The Chaplin Revue.

"Trailers" (8:05) is one item, but is made up of three trailers, all from 1971. The first is the American trailer, very soft and blurry, covering not just The Kid but its support short The Idle Class as well. The second trailer has a German voiceover, but still calls the film The Kid instead of Das Kind, say. The third trailer is particularly odd. Presented in a ratio of 2:1, its contains no footage from the film, just text in Dutch making a selling point of the fact that the film is not in SuperScope (hence that aspect ratio) and is in fact in black and white and silent.

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