The following is my entry in The “No, YOU’RE Crying!” Blogathon, being hosted by Debra at the blog Moon in Gemini from May 12-14, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to some shamelessly tearjerking movies!
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Nowadays, it’s nothing for a laugh-along sitcom to trumpet a “Very Special Episode” in which things are suddenly going to get semi-serious for a half-hour. But before Charlie Chaplin made The Kid, he was heralded by naysayers who knew perfectly well you couldn’t mix comedy and drama in the same movie. Nearly a century later, the original template still holds up magnificently.
This “comedy with a smile and, perhaps, a tear” begins with an unwed mother (Edna Purviance) “whose only sin was motherhood.” (Chaplin’s intertitles here are unusually editorializing – more on that in a moment.) Guiltily, she abandons her newborn baby in the backseat of a limousine that is soon stolen. When the car’s hijackers discover the baby in the back, they ditch the baby in an alley (mercifully so – one of the hijackers is ready and willing to shoot the child).
Enter the Tramp on his morning stroll. He happens upon the baby, and as soon as he tries to abandon the infant, all manner of circumstances cause him to be stuck with the child as though he was flypaper. And yet, for a man who fancies himself a loner, once the Tramp accepts the inevitable, he’s surprisingly adaptable to this new addition to his life.
Five years later, and the babe (Jackie Coogan) has grown into the spitting image of his foster father. The duo run a “business” of sorts, which I won’t detail here because it would be a “spoiler” and because it’s so beautifully detailed within the movie.
Later, Jackie has another great scene where he and the Tramp must deal with a neighborhood bully and his older brother. The conflict leaves Jackie ill, and when a doctor visits Jackie in his rundown home, he decides the law must intervene with (as a title tells us) “the proper care” – heartless officials who want to take Jackie away to an orphanage. Of the scene where Jackie is nearly separated from the Tramp, Coogan said years later, “If you are going to portray yourself as being hysterical, you better get yourself hysterical or, brother, it’s as phony as a three-dollar bill.” Unlike so many stagey child actors before and since, phoniness in the one emotion that never occurs in Coogan’s performance. Whatever the scene calls for, he’s there. And this particular, openly cathartic scene proves that Chaplin knew the bedrock rule of parenthood: You don’t screw around with someone’s kid.
If the movie has any weak link, it’s probably its finale. Finally separated from the kid when a flophouse manager finds there’s been a reward offered for his return, the Tramp searches the city for the kid all night, returning forlornly to his own doorstep and falling asleep. There follows a cute but superfluous dream sequence in which the Tramp and Jackie are reunited in Heaven but still must deal with day-to-day hassles. The sequence has a few laughs, but like the “It was only a dream” endings done to death by Chaplin and his peers, it’s rather turned into a cliché from overuse. (There’s also an interesting moment where a devil appears over the shoulder of a young female angel as she stares at the Tramp and tells her to “Vamp him.” Years later, when her name was changed to Lita Grey and she became the second Mrs. Charles Chaplin, she seemed to have done just that.)
And finally, the happy ending. A policeman rounds up the Tramp and takes him to the mansion of the kid’s mother. She is now a world-famous star and has been reunited with her child, and she happily welcomes the Tramp into her home as the film fades out. It’s a nice thought, except where would it go from there? The woman would no doubt be grateful for all that the Tramp has done, but where/how would he fit into her world? And being the Tramp, who never wants to fit in anywhere, how long before he would get restless and want to abandon the whole idyll? The later ambiguity of City Lights is far more satisfying precisely because it doesn’t strain to put a final exclamation point on the whole matter.
That said, The Kid is still a marvelous tearjerker in the best sense. Perhaps because the story involves not just the Tramp, whom we feel can fend on his own well enough, but an innocent child, the lower-class world inhabited by the Tramp seems even more bare-boned than usual. (In the shot where the flophouse manager is reading the newspaper ad for the kid’s reward, we even see a fly crawling across the newspaper. Eeew!) Maybe that’s why Chaplin went for the quick wrap-up with its sanitary setting.