Likely no surprise to anyone who has previously seen the work of Charlie Chaplin, The Kid, recently released on Criteron blu-ray, is an outstanding and groundbreaking cinematic achievement. One of the only ways to give a film this superb a worthy blu-ray release would be for Criterion to handle it. The combination of care, research, attention, and quality that is presented within the small plastic case is a testament to Criterion recreating the same values that Chaplin brought to his own films when he was making them. It should already be clear that this release is a must-have for anyone fond of silent film, comedy, Chaplin, The Criterion Collection, pathos, or film history, but in case more convincing is needed, let’s take a closer look at The Kid.
The story in the film is quite simple. Charlie Chaplin’s lovable Tramp character happens upon a child abandoned on the street by its mother, who, in a moment of weakness, could see no way to stay whole and care for the child. Five years later, the kid, who has been named “John,” works alongside the Tramp to make some quick dollars just to get by. They live in a hovel and generally are just getting by however they can. The Tramp and John find themselves knee-deep in shenanigans and jiggery-pokery, often running afoul of the law or brutish ne’er-do-wells, but always finding comfort in the familial love they share for one another. Eventually, when a doctor is needed to address an unfortunate ailment in John, it is discovered that the Tramp is not his legal father and hijinks ensue as the father figure tries his best to secure his adopted son and carve out a life together despite living outside of the conventions of society. There is also a crazy dream sequence with flying angels that comes out of nowhere and has little to do with what is going on, but serves as a fun example of the kind of filmmaking one can encounter in a film that is shot when inspiration strikes the director instead of going by a script.
The Kid is remarkable. It blends beats of comedy with strings of tragedy perfectly to keep its audience rapt in attention for its somewhat brief 53 minute running time. The acting is excellent from both Chaplin and Jackie Coogan, who plays John. There are a number of scenes where Coogan’s mimicry of Chaplin’s acting eccentricities rival the star in terms of charm and believability. As this is a silent film, the majority of the acting is done with body movements, facial expressions, and timing. All of these elements are put on display in masterwork-like fashion throughout the entirety of the film. The story, while simple, is shown to the audience in a well-paced manner, never becoming too predictable in order to keep the laughs coming, but always maintaining its relatability so the dramatic effect is never lost. The score, written by Chaplin himself, while sometimes short and repetitive, tends to befit the mood of each scene with the same grace that the actors seem to glide across the screen. Including the previously mentioned angel-permeated dream sequence, each scene is full of clever, inventive, charming Chaplin magic.
Themes of longing, love, and living are swimming around throughout the frames of The Kid. The Tramp longs for some stability; he loves his adopted son; and he is trying his best to stay alive. His dream near the end of the film highlights all of these themes for his character in particular, as it shows a dream version of him experiencing various degrees of longing, loving, and living in just a short sequence. The character of John longs for acceptance; loves his father; and hasn’t yet begun to understand what living means outside of his dependence on the Tramp. The intersection on his longing and his living play with each other just around the climax of the film when he is faced with some circumstances beyond both his control and the influence of his father. Additionally, the character of John’s mother, who is interspersed throughout the film in some of the most touching scenes longs for the child she regrets having abandoned; loves being charitable; and lives to see the day when she can feel whole once again. Though she is not featured in much of the comedic action of the film, the mother character is integral to the film’s heart and lasting feelings (and the story as well, but that should be a given).
For a film shot in 1921 (and then slightly upgraded by Chaplin in 1972), the quality of the video is amazing. Credit is due here to the people at the Criterion Collection who restored and scanned a 35mm print and produced a brand new 4k digital transfer. It is clear and wonderfully free of scratches, darkening, wear, reel-change-marks, and dust. At points, the film is so clear that it appeared to be a new film shot in the style of the 20’s, featuring a very convincing Charlie Chaplin impersonator. Just a flawless transfer.
It is all around exceptional. Get this blu-ray.
Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Clarity/Detail: For a film this old, there is no reason it should look as clear as this release does. It seems to have been restored to a point likely even beyond the quality of a freshly made print when it was released.
Depth: Old silent films tended to have a very stage-show appearance to them, as they were often only slightly removed from vaudeville shows. This film, however, utilizes depth effectively in a number of key scenes, like a rooftop chase, or a brawl in an alleyway. And, when this depth is used, it is captured realistically and wonderfully by this transfer.
Black Levels: There aren’t a lot of scenes involving darkness, but when there are, the blacks are as black as they can be.
Color Reproduction: N/A (black and white film)
Flesh Tones: Hrrm, also N/A? Yeah, N/A
Noise/Artifacts: No noise/artifacting at all. An impeccable job done by Criterion.
(Silent Film; with a crystal-clear, uncompressed monaural score)
- Jackie Coogan (11:04, HD) – An interview from 1980 with the man who played John as a child in the film. He outlines how he got the role, discusses some very interesting on-set stories, and overall professes a great respect for Charlie Chaplin.
- Lita Grey Chaplin (10 min, HD) – A 1993 interview with Charlie Chaplin’s second wife. She played a small role in this film and she talks about that as well as her role in Gold Rush, another Charlie Chaplin film, and her marriage to Chaplin when she was 16.
- Rollie Totheroh (8:14, HD) – An audio-only interview with the cinematographer on the film. This was conducted in 1964. Rollie talks about some interesting behind-the-scenes drama with the editing of The Kid, which had to be done outside of California for fear that Chaplin’s ex-wife would try to claim the film in her divorce case against the actor.
- Mo Rothman (9:42, HD) – A 1998 audio-only interview with the film distributor for The Kid and other Chaplin films. This is full of some very entertaining stories about working with Chaplin and the issues of bringing the star’s films to the screen.
- Jackie Coogan: The First Child Star (19:09, HD) – A newly produced video essay for this blu-ray release that delves into the person behind the character of John. Perticularly interesting in this short essay are the production stills that are shown on the screen and the stories of how Coogan and Chaplin got along so well together.
- A Study in Undercranking (25:09, HD) – Silent-film specialist Ben Model, goes into great detail about the techniques used in this film and other films from the silent era to produce the kind of effect that Chaplin wanted for the look of his features. Basicly, Sharlie Chaplin was a genius and manipulated the camera-to-projector relationship to make movie magic.
- Charlie Chaplin Conducts The Kid (2:04, HD) – Some short footage of an 83 year old Chaplin conducting the score he wrote for the 1972 re-release of the film.
- From the 1921 Version (15 min total, HD) – Three restored scenes from the original 1921 version of the film that had been removed from the 1972 version as well as the original intertitle cards from the first release. These are interesting to see from a historical perspective, but as far as the deleted scenes go, it is understandable why they were removed from the rereleased film.
- “Charlie” on the Ocean (3:42, HD) – A short, silent newsreel that shows some footage of Charlie Chaplin hanging out on his first trip back to Europe after he moved to the US. Pretty short, but kinda fun to see.
- Nice and Friendly (10:53, HD) – A not so-well-restored-but-nonetheless-interesting short film from 1922 starring Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan. This is notable for being filmed at the home of actor Douglas Fairbanks and featuring some great comedic acting from the still very young Coogan.
- Audio Commentary – Recorded specifically for this Criterion release, Charles Maland, a Charlie Chaplin scholar gives some excellent insight on the state of film at the time of the release of The Kid, some of the major differences between the two versions of the film, and more information about Jackie Coogan. There is a great part in here where he is talking about thematic similarities between The Kid and City Lights; totally worth listening to just for that.
- Trailers (9 min, HD) – Three different trailers for the film. One for the United States, one for Germany, and one for The Netherlands. Each created for the 1972 rerelease of the film.
Criterion scored huge with this masterful addition to their already impressive collection of important films. The Kid is brilliant, funny, and thoughtful. Though the feature itself is short, it is surrounded by a multitude of special features that help round out this release into a formidable package. Pretty much everyone should have this. It has fun slapstick, magnificent story-telling, and a playful nature that invites viewers of all ages and walks of life. It doesn’t feel like going out on a limb to call this release a national treasure.