Given the film's title, it's strangely fitting that Charlie Chaplin's The Kid feels like a little brother to its larger, more canonized siblings. Spared the towering masterpiece burden that accompanies a film like Modern Times, it contains none of Chaplin's most iconic and oft-referenced routines, and in the perennial game of voting for the Greatest Films of All Time, it's rarely chosen to represent him (not when The Gold Rush and City Lights are in the running). But it remains one of his very best and funniest films, a worldwide smash in 1921 and irresistible to this day. It is also a pivotal moment in his filmography: clocking in at an hour, it was the longest film to date from a performer known for two-reel shorts, and with the opening title card—"a smile, and perhaps a tear"—it explicitly announced Chaplin's desire for something more than comedy. The Kid is the feature film debut of a man who was already world-famous, and it offers further proof (if any were needed) that the comic was also a true filmmaker.
The basic set-up of The Kid is a familiar one for comedy: a bumbling hero who is highly unsuited for fatherhood has it thrust upon him, grows to love the child, and then must fight to keep him. But this is not to say that The Kid is simply easy sentiment, or devoid of the more serious commentary that would dominate films like Modern Times and The Great Dictator. Chaplin had known poverty and broken homes, and indeed, a current of commentary is there from the film's excellent opening sequence, which shows not only the film's political allegiance, but Chaplin's skill behind the camera as a visual storyteller.
We begin with a title card: "The woman—whose sin was motherhood." We see her, looking lost and forlorn, leaving a Charity Hospital with a baby in arms while a workman and a nurse watch her disappear down the road. The workman says something—of course, we don't hear what—and the nurse nods with a sour, dismissive, almost smirking expression as she locks the hospital's gates. Never one for understatement, Chaplin throws in an insert of Jesus bearing the cross, deflecting any charge of immorality back at the accusers and arguing that the unmarried mother, as much a marginal figure as Chaplin's Tramp, is not only no blasphemer, but carries a sacred burden. (This was the time of the women's suffrage movement, and an era when Margaret Sanger's famous documentary about birth control was widely banned as a threat to public decency.)
We then get a brief scene of the father, a bohemian painter. He stares at a photograph of the woman on his mantle, but distracted by work, he accidentally knocks it into the fire, where it begins to burn. Chaplin could have ended the scene there simply enough, but he doesn't. Instead, the father notices, quickly fishes the photograph out of the fire, lingers over it for a moment, and then puts it back in.
Before any laughs, or even the Tramp's first onscreen appearance, we have established different angles of a complicated situation: the mother's predicament, the father's conflicted decision to shirk any parental responsibility, and the institutionalized coldness to women in her position—all without any dialogue, and in ninety unhurried seconds of screen-time. To see the best silent films—from not only Chaplin, but Lang, Murnau, Griffith, and more—is to see just how much can be done visually, through expression, composition, editing contrasts, and symbolic shorthand.
If I focus here on the drama, it's only because the comedy that follows speaks for itself. By this point, Chaplin had already mastered it. The scene where he first gets stuck with the child is a wonderfully choreographed game of hot potato between the Tramp, a policeman, a woman with a stroller, and another vagrant. The rooftop chase is a highlight. The street brawl is an early precursor to the boxing match in City Lights, and just as funny.
But there is one more scene that demands attention, if only because it's impossible to overlook, and that's the "Dreamland" sequence: a rare moment of pure fantasy, with everyone wearing angel wings and Chaplin trying out the kind of early special effects and editing tricks that would make Georges Méliès happy. It briefly leaves the plot behind and flies off into abstraction, and even at the time, audiences didn't quite know what to make of it. But it's worth it for the moment when Chaplin, shook awake by a cop, still tries briefly to flap his wings to get away. Here, the humor and sadness come from the same moment and the same source. And in the end, a non-traditional family unit will come together and put everything in relief. This is comedy in its most classic sense, and sublime.