Saturday, 9 May 2015
1921: The Kid
Simple plot - A poor and unmarried young mother abandons her baby in a car outside a mansion. Soon she regrets it and goes back but the car has been stolen and the baby dumped in an alleyway, where Charlie finds it. He brings the boy up in his own little attic room in the slum, where the story picks up five years later. The two are poor but happy, scraping a living with a window-repair scam (the kid breaks them then runs off, then Charlie, with glazier's gear, fortuitously passes by.) All's well till the kid gets sick and the doctor learns he's an orphan then the authorities come round to take him to the orphanage.
At this point we get one of the great scenes of silent cinema. The kid, an amazing five-year-old Jackie Coogan, is dragged off kicking and screaming by the welfare officer and his driver and dumped in the back of their truck, while Charlie, pure terror on his face at losing the kid, is held back by the neighbourhood policeman. He breaks free and runs over the rooftops in pursuit of the truck, leaps into the back as it passes, fights off the welfare officer and rescues the kid.
Jackie Coogan is Chaplin's great discovery in this film -an amazing performance from a five-year-old. There's not the slightest false note in his cries and pleas as he begs the welfare officer not to take him away. It may be silent but you can hear it anyway. Unsurprisingly this was the second biggest grossing film of 1921 (after "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", with Rudolph Valentino).
Chaplin had seen Jackie in a vaudeville act with his father, and was so impressed he became preoccupied with thinking up ideas for a film to use him in. A week later he'd heard the boy had been signed up by Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, and was kicking himself for not doing it first, until he found out Arbuckle had signed Jack Coogan, the father, not Jackie.
Chaplin had trouble coaxing the emotions out of Jackie for this scene though. Jack was on the set and told Chaplin, "Leave it to me, I'll make him cry". He went off with Jackie and came back with him two minutes later, suitably distressed. They shot the scene, and Chaplin, concerned, asked Jack how he did it- he hadn't hurt him-? "No, nothing like that", said Jack. "I just told him if he didn't perform we'd REALLY take him to the orphanage."
Reassuringly, Chaplin goes on to say that Jackie told him afterwards " I knew Daddy was only fooling".
It's an episodic film, like most silent comedies up to this time - a string of set pieces in search of a plot - but it works, and like much of Chaplin has a timeless, universal quality. This will be as funny and heartrending in a thousand years as it is today.
When Jackie Coogan reached 18, he found that his mother had somehow managed to spend all the 68 million dollars he'd earned up to that time. Legislation was subsequently brought in to stop that sort of thing happening.
Incidentally, here's Jackie at the other end of his career: