“A picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear…”
In his earliest works The Tramp made a name mostly for his antics but here Chaplin shows an innate understanding of pathos which would become his main calling card throughout his illustrious career because it was never just about the jokes. Surely, the Tramp is a gloriously funny character time and time again but that would mean nothing without his tender heart and soul. The qualities that in one sense make him “a tramp” but also allow him to win over the masses because there are very few figures who have ever been so endearing. If anything The Kid shows that The Tramp could also make a sympathetic father.
Edna Purviance is cast as a Hester Prynne type heroine except she gives up her child, an ignominious reminder of her transgressions, only to regret the decision later on. Because she has fortune smile upon her and with her destitution gone all she can think of is the child who she left behind — the child she lost. It leads her to spend many of her waking hours in charity paying visits to the poorest of the town, unwittingly bringing her in contact with the very son she is looking for.
Except he has grown up in the stead of the lowly Tramp who found him discarded by a rubbish pile. Though he’s at a bit of a loss of what to do with a small infant initially, he uses his general ingenuity and natural affections to take on the paternal role. Jackie Coogan is the boy, and the cutest, pluckiest kid you’ve ever seen with a floppy mop of hair often kept in check by an equally floppy cap. And it’s fitting that he would be the most prominent child stars before Shirley Temple or Jackie Cooper and all the rest because his adopted father was the patriarch of Hollywood.
There’s an inherent chemistry that just simply works between Chaplin and Coogan as they sit around their humble flat together eating pancakes or traipsing around town shattering/repairing window panes. Some of the street scenes especially share striking similarities to Chaplin’s Easy Street as he must face off against the town thug and authoritarian policemen while his son battles it out with a pint-sized bully. Both throw wickedly hilarious haymakers.
Strikingly, in this narrative, Chaplin leaves behind the more simplistic themes of his earlier shorts to go for more lofty territory and it pays heavy dividends. There’s also an indisputable spiritual undertone to the film that becomes evident through numerous allusions. First, with the women and making her into a sort of scandalized martyr. Going so far as to intercut her tragedy with an image of Christ carrying his cross up to Golgotha to give his life for all humanity. It’s certainly hyperbole but also an astute piece of storytelling. Because no matter your religious belief, there’s no doubt this parallel casts our heroine in a sympathetic light as well as Chaplin’s rather overt choice of placing her in front of a stain glass window giving her a makeshift halo.
In the film’s waning moments, the heavenly dreamscape of harps, angels, and yes even a few demons fill up the Tramp’s head and give Chaplin yet another creative avenue as his visions take him into a world rife with whimsical antics that signal a change. Whether or not the new heaven and earth are realistic is nominally beside the point because they suggest the joys that are ahead for the Tramp and his adopted child.
Fittingly he’s reunited with his son in the residence of the woman who welcomes them both in.The lost get found, the downtrodden get lifted up, and all can be redeemed. A fluffy conclusion, perhaps, but an enjoyable one nonetheless from one of the seminal masters of storytelling. You can make the argument that there were greater directors than Chaplin but he truly was second to none not only as an actor but in building a universal connection with his audience. A connection that still manages to reach out to us earnestly nearly a century later.