A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1921 – The Kid

We talked about Charlie Chaplin already, but we talked about the importance of the Tramp as a character, and his place in silent film history. And, to a lesser extent, we talked about two-reel comedy shorts, which are a very famous section of film history, especially during the years we talked about them.

This, however, is a different animal. This is Charlie Chaplin doing features. And I will be talking specifically about this film, and specifically how Chaplin managed to infuse comedy with drama, and tell a story that makes an audience laugh and cry at the same time. The man was truly a master at eliciting emotion.

Look at the sequence in this movie where they come to take the kid away, and the Tramp runs across the rooftops to get him back. It’s so heartbreaking. The whole thing. Chaplin really manages to turn the movie on a dime. He gets you invested in the characters through comedy, and then makes things dramatic on you. And it works. You don’t turn on the film at all. Instead, you’re really invested in what happens to the characters. And that’s a really great skill to have that not many people can do correctly. There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy, and Chaplin really manages to know exactly how and when to walk that line.

And one of the key reasons Chaplin is able to successfully walk that line is because of the film score. And that’s one of those things that not enough people fully utilize. So often, the score is an afterthought (especially today), just there for transitions and to underscore the action. Whereas Chaplin really put the score front and center, allowing it to crescendo loudly and really drive forward the emotion of the dramatic moments. And he wrote it himself! That’s true talent, composing your own score so you can squeeze as much emotion as you can throughout your film. And never getting an insincere amount of emotion, either.

The film is truly important for cinema history because it’s really the first example of auteurist filmmaking. I know some people might say Birth of a Nation is that, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s close, but I think when you really want to see a director’s stamp on a film, this is the first time that’s happened. This entire film was made by Charlie Chaplin. He was involved in every single aspect of filmmaking, and every choice made (and even the performances of the other actors, to an extent, since he was known for having his actors mimic him for parts) was distinctly his. And you can tell the film was extremely personal to him, given his childhood, being taken away from his mother and put in an orphanage, to the death of his infant son just before filming began. You can tell this was a personal project for him, and it shows.

So that’s what I’m really trying to get forward here. The Kid, in and of itself, is probably the film that best defines 1921. Chaplin is the biggest star in the world, he makes perhaps his crowning achievement, and the film seamlessly blends comedy and drama in such a way that’s really difficult to do. And it’s really the first instance (to me, anyway) of a film that truly stands out as an example of an auteur, which is important, given that film is less than 30 years old at this point. So the fact that someone really made an artistic statement (and a personal one) rather than something meant purely to entertain, that’s a big deal.

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