Friday, July 1, 2016

(A literal) No Audio Audient: The Kid

This is the sixth in my 2016 series No Audio Audient, in which I'm getting better acquainted with silent films.

In the waning hours of June I finally squeezed in my sixth film in this series, Charlie Chaplin's The Kid from 1921. And this one was a truly silent film, without even any music or other sounds to speak of.

The reasons for this are twofold:

1) I watched most of it at work. We're in the midst of school holidays, meaning the call volume is already lower (I work for the department of education), plus there was a technical issue that was affecting most incoming calls. So it seemed like the perfect time to throw on a little The Kid on Youtube, since I wouldn't need to plug in earphones like I would trying to watch almost any other movie. No one can see my screen, and the film is in public domain -- easy peasy. Plus I'd planned my schedule poorly, leaving me in the last 16 hours of June without having watched my No Audio Audient film, and no certain path to watching it last night either. And Lord knows what would happen if I did not get in one of my series movies within the proscribed month.

2) The actual copy I was watching had no sound anyway. I had noted that the particular one I'd chosen said something at the start about a captioning institute or something of that nature, something that exists for the hearing impaired. But I thought nothing more of it because there was no evidence of any additional captions on the copy I was watching. Only when I finished the movie on the tram ride home did I notice its lack of sound. I understand Chaplin actually composed the music to accompany screenings of the movie, but I guess I'll never hear it -- or not until my next viewing, anyway.

And I'm pretty sure there will be a next one. The Kid was great, my second favorite in the series so far (behind Sherlock Jr.). Neither watching it without any music nor watching it in fits and starts as I did occasional work made me love it any less.

It's our first introduction to Chaplin's tramp character, who we meet in the context of him discovering a baby abandoned in an alleyway. The baby got there through a strange set of circumstances, which we've already witnessed ourselves by this point in the movie. His mother had him out of wedlock, and deciding she cannot care for him and bear the scorn of being unwed, she leaves him in a limousine parked outside a mansion, attaching a note to love and care for this orphan. She's hoping a rich family will either give him a great life or at least be responsible enough to determine a good placement for the boy, but what happens instead is that thieves come across the car and sense an opportunity to steal it. Only after they've been driving for some time do they notice there's a baby in the back seat. Just wanting to be rid of the problem, they leave the baby in the alley. Enter our protagonist, minding his own business. After making several attempts to pass the buck himself, the tramp ultimately reads the note and accepts taking the boy under his wing and raising him.

I was struck by the bold way Chaplin introduces us to the tramp, whom he probably did not then know would become a recurring persona. Nonetheless, it's a rather pessimistic view of a supposed protagonist. The tramp tries to pretend he doesn't see the baby, tries to leave him in the already occupied carriage of a nearby mother (thinking he might have fallen out?), tries to return him to the same spot he found him, even tries to leave him in the arms of an old man walking with a cane. Only because of the episodes of slapstick happenstance that Chaplin would become famous for, such as police officers seeing what he's doing it and misconstruing it as abandoning his own child, is he foiled in these attempts. If Chaplin's tramp had had it his way, he would have just wandered off uninvolved, and we never would have met him.

The tramp's initial unwillingness to accept responsibility for the baby sets up a really powerful character arc over the course of the movie. Soon we see him charmed by the baby, rigged up in some makeshift cradle and drinking from the spout of a tin kettle. Five years pass, giving us a young boy (now played by Jackie Coogan, who would break out as a child star from this movie). Even then, though, one senses the tramp's relationship with the kid is more utilitarian than paternalistic -- for example, now he has a partner in crime to pull off his low-level scams, like selling replacement windows to customers after the kid shatters their old windows with a rock. But when child protective services intervenes and tries to take the boy away, we see the powerful affection for the kid that has built up in the tramp. That affection manifests itself in a lovely dream sequence near the end, in which the tramp imagines that he and everyone else has become angels, dancing and flying around his neighborhood. The dream ends in the tramp's death, and the kid caressing his face before disappearing himself. Because it would be misleading to characterize this film as sentimental to this point, the power of this dream sequence really surprises.

It was interesting in Chaplin's first film to see the ways he was already trying to pursue serious themes through his visuals, an unexpected bit of ambition for a man who apparently just wanted to make people laugh. At the very beginning, the misbegotten mother is seen in front of the front doors of a church, having identified the couple she plans to try to leave her son with, who have just gotten married. A circular part of the door is framed around her head, and a light shines on it in such a way to create a halo effect. She's an angel as well -- a theme that ultimately pays off at the end with the tramp's dream sequence.

I was surprised by how frank Chaplin was about the realities of human existence, beyond the fact that no one initially wants to take responsibility for this baby. There's a really interesting scene where the kid's father, who has become a famous painter, crosses paths with his mother, who has gone on to become a famous actress. They are the only two who know the guilt and shame in their past. But instead of the movie trying to create redemption for the father, it just leaves him looking forlorn on a balcony, destined to live with his choice. He never enters the story again.

Chaplin's economy of language also struck me. The story was incredibly easy to follow almost entirely without title cards, and even some of those he did include seemed superfluous. He was such an effective visual storyteller that you get everything instinctively, and even if you don't know the exact dialogue exchanged by two people in a given scene, you know its essence. Which is all you really need to know.

Then of course there are also just a bunch of funny set pieces, like Chaplin's "fight" with the older brother of a boy who picked a fight with the kid. "Fight" is in quotation marks because it involves mostly just a bunch of ducking and weaving on the tramp's part -- the guy is much bigger than Chaplin anyway, but then his shirt is stuffed to give him even greater girth. Each time the older brother misses, his fist has a destructive impact on some part of the set -- a chunk of brick wall knocked out here, a lamp post bent in the middle there.

The Kid doesn't have many or possibly any of the iconic scenes we have come to identify with Chaplin, like eating his shoelaces or the bread roll ballet in The Gold Rush, or getting run through the machine in Modern Times. But on the whole I think I liked it better than either of those films, and it certainly packs more of an emotional punch than they do -- though City Lights could probably take The Kid in that department.

I think we'll stay in 1921 for our July movie, The Shiek, starring Rudolph Valentino. I believe it will be my first Valentino film.

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