A behemoth even at the baby-faced age of 31, Charles Chaplin released his first feature film in 1921 to uproarious public applause, effectively constructing (and with Chaplin, an auteur before auteurism, it was undoubtedly him constructing it) the second highest grossing film of all time by that point. Having already ushered in a flurry of short films that established his plucky Tramp character and co-founded a production company (United Artists) with the other American name-brands of nascent Hollywood (Griffith, Fairbanks, Pickford), he took to his new company not only as a factory for increasing his self-worth but as his paintbrush. Affording him near authoritarian control of his films (funded by his company after all), he would write, direct, star, and answer to no one but himself.
A promenade through the limits of physical comedy and human companionship, his first feature isn’t his greatest, but at the time of its release, it may have been the greatest American film ever made. The existential question mark of togetherness, that famous sense of separation so intermingled with the longing for companionship experienced by Chaplin’s Tramp character in all his films, is inscribed in disarmingly straightforward, efficient terms in The Kid. Including before the Tramp even appears, such as in an introduction where love is obliterated, questioned, and then resigned to happenstance when Carl Miller resolves a picture of Edna Purviance to a fate of fire, grabs it again, and finds his actions have already disrupted the representational value of the picture. Second chances are threatened before the Tramp, a man who never seems to have had a first go at life, even appears.
Except he does create life all around him, exhibiting an emotional jubilance that is disturbed and mended anew when the child of the woman in the picture is thrown on the Tramp’s doorstep. Five years later, he is the impromptu father of the boy played by Jackie Coogan, performing an eerie mimicry of Chaplin’s personal ticks suggesting – through pure physicality – the implicit bond between parent and child. Until Purviance reenters the film – now as a famous actress in a moment that is prefigured by her initial appearance in a picture – Chaplin’s film is, as most of his films were, a tableau of life itself. Although honestly, tableaux doesn’t suggest the unfettered liveliness of a production that inlays a more primitive version of the existential crisis of modernity evidenced in City Lights and Modern Times, with the melodrama undergirded by the fragility of human connection tested and teased through the elegance of the visual distance between man and child in the frame.
Where The Kid is at its sharpest, however, is as a study in the mechanics of human invention. Early moments – the Tramp fashioning a makeshift cradle for the baby out of the materials of his impoverishment – invoke Chaplin’s career-long fascination with materiality and humanity’s ability to best the mental demarcations of the world through sheer imagination. Capitalist contraptions and definitions of value are interrupted as Chaplin fashions the modern world into both a rampart that limits us and an oyster of reconfigurable vessels for the imagination; one sees Tati smiling at Chaplin’s willingness to reconfigure public and private space and to play a sort of bedeviled inquisitor whose outsider status affords him the freedom to redraw the objects around him and imbue them with new, unforeseen purpose.
Late on, the film gifts the city itself with this improvised malleability, Chaplin using the city rooftops to best the government whose only outlet for overcoming poverty is to steal children from the impoverished in hopes that an old generation of the poor will die out without a new one to replace them. Chaplin proposes, instead, an overhaul of not only physical space but the human form, deconstructing the threshold of the physical self by turning it into a weapon for bodily rebellion against the status quo. Rather than taking something from us, Chaplin suggests that we dedicate our lives to the mental flexibility to create newness out of what already exists. For him, the ingenuity and improvisation of the poor is an apex of human capability and thought rather than something to be mocked or denied.