Release Date(s)1921/1972 (February 16, 2016)
Studio(s)First National Pictures (Criterion – Spine #799)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
By the time Charlie Chaplin directed and starred in his first full-length feature The Kid in 1921, he had already established himself as a bona fide star, one with very few equals. His time spent making shorts at Keystone Studios, Essanay Studios, and the Mutual Film Corporation had slowly prepared him for his latter work, beginning at First National, and later with United Artists. The Kid would also help to showcase his strengths as not just a comedian, but also as a dramatic actor as well. The overwhelming success of the film is summed up perfectly with the film’s opening titles: “A picture with a smile -- and perhaps, a tear.”
The Kid continued the adventures of the down-on-his-luck but plucky Tramp character. This time around, The Tramp befriends a parentless youngster, taking him in and adopting him off the streets. The young boy grows older as the two form a very strong connection with one another while also trying to get themselves through poverty. As their bond strengthens, their existence is threatened by the authorities after a doctor pays a visit to them and attempts to get the young boy taken away and put into an orphanage.
Charlie Chaplin’s films are generally entertaining, but The Kid is one of his works that seems to be firing on all cylinders. His own personal sensibilities seem to bleed through, more so than usual, giving the film an enormous heart. Combining that with the elements of poverty and work issues, many have come to the conclusion that the film is Chaplin’s most autobiographical. Chaplin also formed a life-long friendship with his young co-star, Jackie Coogan, who came from vaudeville and was one of the first child actors billed as a major star. He would go on to other movie and television roles later in life, but his bond with Chaplin onscreen is undeniable, and it’s what makes the film work. Chaplin’s strong relationship with him was (likely) partly due to the fact that Chaplin’s own child had died, making Coogan sort of a proxy son in a way. During their days off, Chaplin would even take him to local amusement parks for fun.
The Kid was also one of the Chaplin’s riskier endeavors. His meticulousness lead him to shoot the film for nearly six months, a far greater amount of time than normally would have been necessary, especially for a comedy. It was also one of the first times that he so blatantly mixed comedy and drama, a formula that became the norm for other films to follow. Chaplin was also going through a heated divorce during shooting, hiding out in a hotel whilst editing the movie to avoid his ex-wife who was demanding certain properties from him.
Although Chaplin would soon go on to make more heavily socially and politically conscious films through United Artists, The Kid was a strong outing, one that even continues to be relevant amongst new generations of film fans. All of the comedy is there in spades, of course, but the touching story of a man who is forced to raise a child against sometimes overwhelming circumstances, continues to keep audiences riveted to this day.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Kid features a transfer taken from a 4K restoration of the 1972 version of the film from two separate 35mm elements. Unfortunately, the 1921 version was unable to be licensed from the Chaplin estate, likely for aesthetic reasons. The transfer is extremely organic with a vast amount of fine detail and, surprisingly, well-resolved grain. There’s plenty of delineation between blacks, whites, and grays, with appropriate levels of brightness and contrast. Although every attempt was made to clean the images up as best as possible, nothing has been done to tamper with the film’s organic qualities, leaving some minor film artifacts behind. And despite some shakiness from time to time, the images are also quite stable. For a film of this vintage, it’s shocking that it looks as good as it does, and in this case, it excels. For the soundtrack, there is a single English mono LPCM presentation. The score is quite strong and clear, and there aren’t any major defects left behind at all. For what it is, it’s a nearly flawless presentation. No subtitle options are offered, for obvious reasons.
The supplemental material is extensive and well-worth watching as well. All of it begins with an audio commentary with Charlie Chaplin scholar Charles Maland; separate interviews with actors Jackie Coogan and Lita Grey Chaplin, cinematographer Rollie Totheroh, and friend to Chaplin Mo Rothman; Jackie Coogan: The First Child Star, a video essay by Chaplin scholar Lisa Haven; A Study in Undercranking, an essay by silent film specialist Ben Model; Charlie Chaplin Conducts The Kid, which is footage of a very old Chaplin conducting the score for the 1972 version; a set of scenes that were deleted, as well as titles that were reconstructed from the 1921 version; Charlie on the Ocean newsreel footage; the Nice and Friendly short; the US, German, and Dutch theatrical trailers; and a fold-out paper insert with an essay on the film by film scholar Tom Gunning.
In complete honesty, I think I look forward to Criterion’s releases of Charlie Chaplin’s films more than any of their other releases, and The Kid is no exception. It’s a knock-out. Besides the film itself, the transfer and the extras are both top of the line. If you’re a film fan or a Chaplin fan, this one’s a must-own. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons