Further proof that Chaplin had a gift that has evaded most of modern cinema. How can a film 50 minutes long be so, simply, “good.” This is “good” in the moral, Dostoyevskian sense. That being the case, it’s no surprise at all that The Kid was Kurosawa’s favorite Chaplin film. Look to Kurosawa’s ideal film, in some sense (in terms of his own ideals), Red Beard, and you essentially see The Kid worked out by repetition in three different acts. The caretaker, the father figure, or as Keiko McDonald has it in her helpful essay, “Images of Son and Superhero.” Chaplin in The Kid reached for a moral goodness not unlike that in City Lights that transcends melodrama while coming up shy of transcendence itself. Part of the genius of Chaplin, of course, was that he only reached for what he could grasp firmly, but he had a remarkable reach.
The Kid is sort of the archetype of so many film dramas that followed, many of them atrocious. Think of I Am Sam, a similar story that descends ever quickly into the judicial and political realm (as things tend to do when Sean Penn is involved), to say nothing of its shameless appeal to the irrational in all of us. The Kid is simple and beautiful and it simply works, without trying to expand its feasibility beyond the cinematic screen. It holds powerful ramifications beyond the theater, to be sure, as all good cinema does. Chaplin withheld the boundary-blurring until The Great Dictator in 1940, at a time when so much was at stake that Chaplin had to speak up (literally, for a change). Of course in that film, Chaplin appeals to the rational and the human rather than to the merely emotional and sentimental like I Am Sam.
But enough of that film. It’s hard to discuss The Kid on account of its simplicity and perfection. It’s not so much “formulaic” as it is the formula itself. The multi-balance of humor, narrative, drama, realism, and fantasy make it just right. Speaking of fantasy, the dream sequence in this film must have inspired Fellini. And little gags like the following do more than simply trigger laughter. The rather morbid humor it expresses is countered in the film’s second half with its powerful counterpart, the sort of thing that’s at least ineffable if not also sublime.