It has been more than a year since Chaplin released his last film. First National Films agreed that Chaplin could set his own schedule for films, but this was getting a bit carried away. They had spent a million dollars on their star, but this isn't the way they would be getting their money back. They knew he was working on a project, but it was simply taking too long. So they approach Chaplin, and demanded that he produce something, quickly. He showed them some of the film he had put together up to that point. And then he had the execs meet his young co-star, Jackie Coogan. Mollified, they gave Chaplin what time he need. From their perspective, they were rewarded, for The Kid grossed the second highest amount of any film that year.
And we are still rewarded today. Here we have a film that captures everything that Chaplin had been trying to do, almost from the beginning of his career, and it is all wrapped up here. It isn't primarily a comedy, but a compelling drama with some comic elements. We don't see the Tramp for the first five minutes of the feature, which is shocking for a star vehicle of the time. Instead we are given the story of a woman (Edna Purviance) who is desperate from her poverty to surrender her infant son to a wealthy family. But just after she deposits her son in the family's car, the car is stolen, and the ruffians leave the child on the side of the road, where he is found by the Tramp, who raises him as his own son.
The plot is touching and melodramatic, but the secret of the film is the chemistry between Chaplin and Coogan. Coogan's actions resemble the Tramp's, but doesn't exactly imitate it. At times, we look at Coogan and we really see a small version of Chaplin-- the charm, the smooth action, the precise hand movements. But Coogan as something that Chaplin never had-- he is adorable, and he can emote believably. This is a great Tramp movie, not because the Tramp is so wonderful, but because it really is a shared performance. For years, every Tramp film had the Tramp in every scene, and it is rare to find a single cell without him. Here, we have long stretches of the film without the Tramp ever appearing. And we appreciate him all the more for his absence, for he shares his screen time with other fantastic performers.
This is possibly Chaplin's most personal film. He grew up with mean social workers controlling his early life in London. Just before production, Chaplin lost his firstborn son, probably the inspiration of the film. This project was so important, and Chaplin gave it his all. We can see it in the quality of the production, the excellent writing and the fact that he shared with Coogan many of the big laughs of the film. This, plus City Lights, are the perfect combination of pathos and comedy, and they changed the definition of the superior comedy forever.