How do you define a breakthrough film when nearly everything that the talent behind it did was a breakthrough? This much is certain; by 1920, there was no bigger star in the world than Charlie Chaplin. The “Little Tramp” persona that he’d perfected in short films made him an internationally beloved figure. Already the highest paid person in movies with an unusual (for the time) amount of control over his pictures, Chaplin had 68 films under his belt by the time that The Kid was released. Premiering on January 21, 1921, the movie marked Chaplin’s full-length directorial debut. An instant hit and undeniable classic, the film made a star out of titular child actor Jackie Coogan and revealed that Chaplin had even more potential as an artist.
Born in England in 1889, Chaplin grew up in extreme poverty. As a child, he was consigned to workhouses, and his mother was committed when he was 14. Chaplin clawed his way up by becoming a popular stage comedian. He came to America at 19 with the Fred Karno theatre company. Keystone Studios spotted his talent and had him on-screen by 1914. In his second short for Keystone, he unveiled the familiar Little Tramp guise with his oversized pants, too-tight jacket, and iconic hat and moustache combo. Before the spring of 1914 was out, he’d proven capable of writing, directing, and starring in his own shorts.
For several years, Chaplin moved from studio to studio, looking for the best pay and the best creative arrangements. He did 36 films at Keystone, 15 for Essanay, and 12 for Mutual. By 1918, he started his own production company, First National (a year later he would also co-found United Artists). Chaplin did five films at First National as he worked his way up to The Kid. For the first time, Chaplin would take the director’s chair on a full-length feature; he also produced and wrote it (and would later compose a score for sound re-release).
Though the story of Chaplin’s Little Tramp taking care of a baby who grows into his con sidekick was already formulated, the film gained added pathos when Chaplin’s own newborn son died just a few days before filming began. It can be debated whether or not that shifted the movie’s emotional impact, but it can’t be argued that Chaplin blended equal parts humor and emotion in the finished product. The movie became an instant hit.
Jackie Coogan played the title role of “The Kid” and was launched into fame. For most of the rest of his life (aside from serving in the Army Air Forces in World War II as a glider pilot), Coogan acted on stage, screen, radio, and television. You likely knew him best as Uncle Fester from The Addams Family television series. Coogan’s childhood career became something of a cautionary tale when it turned out that his mother and stepfather had spent most of the money he amassed as a child actor without his knowledge; Coogan sued, and the case later triggered the passage of the California Child Actor’s Bill (aka the Coogan Act) that puts protections in place for the earnings of child actors. During this hard period, Coogan asked Chaplin for some help, and Chaplin immediately gave his former co-star $1,000.
The Kid proved that Chaplin was an artist beyond just comedy. He would soon enter a run of classics like The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator, all of which have been added to the National Film Registry for preservation as being culturally significant. 1940’s The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first actual sound film, his most financially successful film, and possibly his most praised; the final monologue has been called the greatest speech in film history by many critics and scholars.
In the 1950s, Chaplin would leave America for Europe. It was all a sordid business, involving paternity tests, his fourth marriage, accusations of un-American activities from J. Edgar Hoover, and more. The Saturday Evening Post even did a three-story series on it in 1958. When Chaplin went to Europe for work, the government pulled his re-entry visa. The upshot was that Chaplin and his fourth wife, Oona, whom he had married in 1943, left the States for almost two decades (he and Oona remained married for the rest of his life and she bore eight of his eleven children). He kept busy during that time, re-editing his old films and scoring them for sound re-release.
Chaplin finally returned to America in 1972 when the Academy gave him an honorary award. He decided to accept. During the Oscar ceremony, Chaplin was given a 12-minute standing ovation. Over the next few years, he worked on his autobiography and received a Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. He passed away in 1977 at the age of 88.
The story of Chaplin echoes the story of The Kid itself. He knew the struggle of being poor, and his life blended plenty of comedy with incredibly dramatic moments. The movie is also a testament to Chaplin’s vision, showing that he could be a superlative creative presence on nearly every element of a film. It’s also a reminder of how far motion pictures have come in such a relatively short period of time. The Kid is 100 years old, but its impact and influence will continue to be timeless.
Featured image: (Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain)
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