Feature: A Century of American Childcare Revealed in CHF’s Screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid

The Chicago Humanities Festival presented a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s hour-long masterpiece The Kid, at the Music Box Theater on November 5, with whimsical, period intertitles (handwritten, but similar to Kumlien or Goldenbook typefaces) and soulful, live musical accompaniment by guitarist Marc Ribot (the score was also composed by Chaplin).

Accompanying Guitarist Marc Ribot.

The enthusiastic, almost sold-out crowd of adults and kids laughed and audibly awww-ed throughout the sweet story, Chaplin’s first full-length feature as a director. He also wrote, edited, produced and starred in the “6 reels of joy” as The Tramp, the bow-legged, baggy-pantsed, big-shoed and bristle-brush-mustached character that became his nickname, his trademark and his legacy. 

The Kid movie poster

Released in February 1921, the silent, black-and-white dramedy follows the Woman (sympathetic Edna Purviance), a distraught unwed mother who is forced to abandon her baby in a fancy car in hopes of giving him a better life. But car thieves grab that Model T after she walks away. When the criminals hear the baby crying in the back, they abandon the child in a nearby alley. Chaplin’s Tramp stumbles across the swaddled kid, whom he tries to pass off to a mom walking by with a pram. He is rebuffed, and finds a note tucked in the boy’s blankets, saying “please love and care for this orphan child.” 

So he does. The Tramp takes the child home to his rundown, single-room tenement flat, names him John, and commits to raising him. The anguished mother soon attempts to return to the car to reclaim her baby, but faints when she finds the car and its contents have been stolen. Later, we learn that the Woman becomes a successful actor and reappears in the Kid's life. The Tramp and the Kid bond and stay together for a few years, with the Tramp acting as caregiver as the Kid grows. Problems arise and the Tramp and the Kid are separated—but all ends happily.

The Kid intertitle slide.

Released over a hundred years ago, The Kid was the second-highest-grossing film that year. The Library of Congress placed the movie into the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Chaplin himself grew up in abject poverty and in a broken home, and lost his real-life, three-day-old son just weeks before filming began, so the movie reads as autobiographical. It also feels quite topical, what with women being forced to bear children whether they want to or not. 

Jackie Coogan as The Kid and Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp.

The lack of a social safety net is a timeless consideration too, since neither the mother nor the adoptive father have any help from local or federal authorities with child-rearing inevitabilities. In fact, the police only come around to rough up poor people on the regular. The profession is only punitive, rarely supportive. The lesson is that the only remedy for working poor families is to become rich, and quickly, otherwise, you’re on your own for food, healthcare and shelter (and cars, plus car thefts, more issues still topical today). These characters’ lack of proper names illuminate their “everyperson” qualities, causing an undercurrent of “there but for the grace of God, go I.” 

Today, we hear about absentee fathers as well. But Chaplin’s Tramp patriarch shows up and does what’s needed to raise a happy and healthy child. The woman followed her career aspirations and earned her own money, while the man was willing and able to participate in the agony and ecstasy of childcare. Will this be the American story into the next century?

Check out other Chicago Humanities Festival programs this fall, including:

Series of conversations and an after party: The Verge & Bit Bash, how big tech impacts our world, on 11/12.

Forum on Chicago's Public Spaces on 11/29.

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.