Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Kid - Chaplin, Coogan, Fun

I’ve been watching a lot of silent movie comedy lately, having recorded a number of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin flicks off Turner Classic Movies, the most indispensable channel on any television package. My interest in these goes back to childhood, when I read every book I could find in the library on the subjects of popular culture. Back then, of course, there was no cable TV, no home video, and for the most part, no opportunity to actually see the antics being described so lovingly.

I must have seen a couple dozen pictures of little Jackie Coogan sitting on the front stoop of his apartment as “The Kid.” All I knew about it was that Chaplin’s Tramp adopts this orphan child and that the movie is generally considered to be Exhibit A (or maybe B, after the scene in “The Gold Rush” when he cooks the shoe) in charges of Chaplin’s sentimentality crimes.

I’ve just finished watching it, though, and while “The Kid” is sappy as all get out, I just can’t hold it against anybody concerned. That’s because of three things.

First, Coogan is absolutely adorable, possibly the most completely charming and natural child actor ever in the history of cinema. I have absolutely no interest in ever having a child of my own, but if I had one like him, at least I’d have some smiles and laughs now and again. His ability in this movie to be captivated by whatever diversion life gives him is pure and lovely. And, it’s also fun to see him full of deviltry, helping Chaplin by breaking windows with rocks so that the Tramp can come along to repair them for money.

Secondly, Chaplin is the kind of thing you just can’t help loving, like chocolate, puppy dogs, and baseball. He moves so perfectly on film, with those little shoulder shrugs, the comic walk, and the exaggerated arm movements. He’s funny, no question about it, though he holds the levity down to serve the sentimentality in this film. It doesn’t matter. Every time he turns on a dime to go in the other direction from a police patrolman, I laugh.

Thirdly, Chaplin is a twisted genius, and he was never afraid to just throw things in to a movie because an idea occurred to him. For example, with one reel left at the end, and nothing to do but reunite the kid and the Tramp, he gives us a dream sequence that was never mentioned in any of the summaries I read back in the day.

The Kid and Chaplin are angels, wandering around in a crowd of winged, white robed folks dancing, playing lyres, and generally enjoying themselves. But, this isn’t Heaven, because devils pop in and out to provide temptation. Chaplin encounters a lovely young woman angel, whose husband/boyfriend has left her alone for a few minutes. They seem to like each other, so the devil comes along and urges her to “vamp” him.

A word on vamping, a convention of silent movies and apparently a major fear of early 20th century American men. It’s not as though this fear is gone, as most recently it has been resurgent in Texas, where legislators have suddenly realized the horrible fate which awaits men exposed to the sexually inviting gyrations of high school cheerleaders. Yes, vamping is the expression of female desire aimed at a man for one purpose, to corrupt him by luring him into lust outside of procreative intention. Without this effort on the part of women, heterosexual men would never think for a second of sex.

So, the female angel starts playing coy, and Chaplin can’t resist. The flirtation continues, and eventually they are beginning to touch each other. That’s when her beau comes in, and he simply smiles and watches as the Tramp and his conqueror kiss. It takes another appearance by a devil to make the husband jealous. He starts a fight with Chaplin, and winds up shooting him dead.

Theologically, I don’t know what’s going on here. We’re in a realm of angels subject to temptation and capable of being killed, not to mention killing. Naturally, young Coogan discovers the body and bawls his eyes out.

Don’t worry, though, because it’s after this that Chaplin wakes up, and gets escorted back to the arms of his young charge, who is also reunited with the mother who gave him up after his birth. Interestingly enough, though beginning from unwed motherhood, she has managed to become a big theatrical star and a major giver of charity to poor children. Presumably, she will make life better for both Chaplin and the child, as she does live in a mansion. And, remember, it’s eight whole years before the stock market crash and everybody becomes miserable again.

“The Kid” is a tearjerker, but it’s a tearjerker with so much humanity, and so much heart, that you can easily gulp your way right past the parts where your emotions are being too tightly manipulated. Instead, just enjoy the interaction between a genius, and a precocious six-year-old kid. And, while you’re at it, enjoy the fact that this very same little boy would one day be Uncle Fester on “The Addams Family” TV show.


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