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Like Snow White in her Disneyland forest. Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid is a tale whose underlying archetype has attracted audiences of all ages: the abandoned child found in the wilderness. But unlike his more privileged mythological predecessors, who at least had the good fortune to be deposited in lush, natural surroundings, Chaplin’s castoff child is discovered among the shabby detritus of modern society. A garbage-strewn alley in the dirty Red Light District in Los Angeles’ Chinatown of the 1920s serves as the shooting location, re-creating a mean street from Chaplin’s feral boyhood in the slums of South London.

Ambling down the alley, taking his daily constitutional while swiftly ducking the flying garbage swiftly ducking the flying garbage pushed by householders from the building windows above, the Little Tramp appears. With too gentle manners, he slips off his gloves before selecting a cigarette butt from his smoking case, an old sardine can, Just as he is about to surrender himself to the joys of his first smoke of the day, his tranquility is shattered by the squalling infant who has been abandoned on the garbage heap. Plaintively demanding to be heard by someone anyone.

Taking one glance at that miserable child, streetwise Charlie instinctively looks up as if to quiz both the refuse-throwing householders and the heavens above as to just exactly where this baby has come from. But before he can even begin to explore that question, a rapid-fire series of comic interactions with a neighborhood cop firmly establishes Charlie’s embarrassment of mistaken paternal identity: like it or not, once he demonstrates his better nature by resisting his impulse to toss the unwanted baby down the nearest sewer, the kid is his for life. What follows is a series of wandering father-son adventures for this castoff life from the Industrial Revolution in this comedy that Chaplin introduces in his opening title card as “a picture with a smile—perhaps a tear.”

Perhaps! As the lights go up, audience reveals that there hasn’t been a dry eye in the house. But what is so startling about Chaplin’s comedy of fathering a lost baby is the fact that be first conceived and immediately began to shoot this film barely two weeks after the death of his own three-day-old, firstborn infant son. Having turned his personal pain to such a creative purpose, he gets us to break bread with him and take communion with his grief and loss.

By chancing upon a universal form—the myth of the lost child— to express his own loss, Chaplin succeeds in inviting the whole gang in , European intellectuals, London tradesmen, and all the “kids” of the world can and do receive Charlie’s pantomime tale with empathy.

But to say that grief-stricken Chaplin accidentally stumbled on the lost kid myth happens to suggest an effect of the Little Tramp’s nimblest pratfalls. If ballet is in Charlie’s bones, the sorrowful nostalgia of bittersweet loss already was in Chaplin’s soul—long before his loss over his firstborn child. Periodically left to care for himself by his own alcoholic father and psychotic mother, Charlie already knew what being an abandoned kid was all about—living on the streets, dodging the cops and orphanage authorities, scavenging to survive.

While losing his son undoubtedly reawakened those old boyhood memories. Their artistic treatment took place with Charlie’s heart, not his head, And the idea probably succeeds because it is largely unconscious rather than self-conscious autobiography.

A few days after his personal tragedy, tough-minded Charlie, the professional actor who had clawed his way out of the slums, zipped up his pain and got on with it. Taking the slapstick route, he quarried for bits and shticks, not archetypes and myths. Father and son—practically encounter each other by chance at one of life’s crossroads, so Charlie’s fatherless kid and Chaplin the childless father accidentally meet in a London lane. Unlike their ancient predecessors, whose hearts are filled with mistrust and hate, Charlie Chaplin and the lost child are filled with yearning and affection. And so their tale is a bittersweet ballad of love and hate.





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