The Kid (1921)

Directed by Charlie Chaplain

Release Date: January 21, 1921

Cast: Charlie Chaplain, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance, Carl Miller

Produced by Charlie Chaplain

Written by Charlie Chaplain

The Kid is a 1921 silent film written by, produced by, and starring Charlie Chaplain. The story demonstrates the love that an orphaned boy (Coogan) was exposed to as he was raised by a poor glazier (a window repairman played by Chaplain) in poverty, versus the affluent home he would have grown up in had he not been abandoned. The interactions of this film contradict the notion that there is a man’s way of doing things and then there is a woman’s way of doing things with no room for overlap. Judith Butler’s Gender Theory “questions the belief that certain gendered behaviors are natural, illustrating the ways that one’s learned performance of gendered behavior (what we commonly associate with femininity and masculinity) is an act of sorts, a performance, one that is imposed upon us by normative heterosexuality.”


Our very first impression of the film is its title. This title itself is ambiguous. The “kid” can be whoever, whatever, and whenever. “Kid” is not determined by sex, age, or gender. In the plot, the “kid” is at first an abandoned baby; he grows up under the name of “John.” This name is the only true indicator that the child is male. John is only five years old. As children, we are typically unsexual and non-judgmental. It is fitting that this character does not portray any overtly masculine or feminine traits. While in the context of this film he is a boy—his gender can be viewed in any light.


At the time of its release, The Kid was a shock to the public. WWI had just brainwashed America to keep women in the house, while their husbands were out protecting the nation. For the most of the rest of the 20th century, this was the norm. However, the Tramp (Chaplain) raises this adopted boy in a loving, motherly way. While he makes a living for himself by thieving around town (with the help of John), he also teaches his son to take excellent care of himself. This is a very non-customary household that the two of them live in. No women reside in their home, so no socially traditional roles exist for either. The Tramp makes sure that his child washes his face, cleans behind his ears, prepares meals, and clears up the table after supper. Both characters play an equally impoprtant role in making money, cleaning the house, and keeping each other afloat. Caring for one another in this way is done out of necessity and out of love.


One of the film’s defining cinematic scenes comes after John is taken away from the Tramp by the government. The Tramp then falls into a deep slumber in which he enters “Dreamland.” In his fantasy, everyone from his real life are angels with wings. The most gripping aspect of this scene is the sudden equality of members. A particular phrase came to mind as I watched this: “Everyone is buried in the same sized coffin.”

Death is the great equalizer.

In this dream-heaven state, the characters have rid themselves of their strife and sins. They play no more gender/sexed roles. It is a return to childhood—to innocence. This film inadvertently negates the forthcoming hundred years of gender and identity inequality. These themes of spiritualism and fantasy show how a brief a moment of peace in the mind can expand into real life. When the Tramp wakes up, he returns to a momentary world of sorrow, until he is reunited with John, who now lives with his biological actress mother. The Tramp moves in with his now wealthy son. Hopefully, this new family will continue to remain equal, and not fall into the classical structure of family dynamics.


Both before and after this film was produced, the expectation of America’s gender culture was very conformist. Men were expected to be breadwinners, and woman as submissive, loving housewives and mothers. This narrow perception has gradually changed. In retrospect, The Kid served as a stepping stone for the future of gender behavior and fluidity. It broke cultural grounds. American culture landscape was changed forever by this “picture [that brought] a smile–and perhaps, a tear” (as the tagline read.)


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