Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid has much to teach us 100 years on

Published: Thursday 4th February 2021

A century after its release on 6th February 1921, Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length feature film The Kid has lost none of its freshness and relevance, and has much to teach us about love, parenting and what it means to care for a child

As we mark the centenary of the release of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid with an online event to consider the film’s portrayal of a child in care, Coram CEO Dr Carol Homden’s blog reflects on its enduring significance.

This week Coram, the original Foundling Hospital founded by Thomas Coram in 1739, launched its Story of Care, a four-year project going back 300 years, charting the evolution of how vulnerable children have been seen and cared for by society.

The themes of The Kid go right to the heart of what it means to care for a child, which is why the film has its place in our story alongside Henry Fielding’s novel The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, written in 1749, the work of Charles Dickens who petitioned for children’s admission in 19th century London, and to the present day with Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather stories inspired by the experience of children in The Foundling Hospital.

The Kid was produced just after the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic which had devastated families and left a generation of children orphaned or bereaved. For all of the trademark Chaplin slapstick - and you will laugh – the pain is never far away, and acknowledged by the director in his preface, “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.”

Heartbreaking opening scene

It created a star of its young lead, Jackie Coogan, and propelled Chaplin to a new level of recognition for his art of direction and storytelling. Over just 52 minutes long, it tells the tale of how Chaplin’s Tramp finds the baby abandoned in a heartbreaking opening scene by a mother deserted by the baby’s father and without the means to look after him. After fruitless efforts to ‘lose’ the child, the Tramp begins to care for and eventually love the child, with tears and laughter in almost equal measure.

The Kid is recognised as Chaplin’s most personal work. Production began just days after the death of his own infant baby son Norman Spencer Chaplin, and the film is centred in a world of poverty into which Chaplin was born in 1889. After separation from his father, Chaplin’s mother faced financial and health problems, resulting in his admission to Lambeth Workhouse aged 7, the first of his spells in institutions for poor children.

In the film, the eponymous Kid finds a happy ending when his mother, no longer destitute and now a successful performer, returns to find him, but this outcome was in reality as improbable as Chaplin’s own extraordinary journey from the workhouse to global fame.

Coram’s historical records which are now starting to be digitised to illuminate the Story of Care show clearly that – whilst there were such instances - it was rare indeed for mother and child to be reunited.

The Kid’s first caption – “The woman whose sin was motherhood” – captures the prevailing sentiment around mothers who gave birth out of wedlock and the judgements they faced - a stigma which shaped children’s futures in this country until well into the 20th century.

Poignant echo

The mother writes a letter appealing for whoever finds the child to “Please love and care for this orphan child” – a poignant echo of the moving letters the mothers leaving their babies at the Foundling Hospital wrote to explain why they could not care for their child with one saying “Go gentle babe and may all your life be happiness and love”.

The primary carer for The Kid then becomes the Tramp, in a completely informal and unsanctioned arrangement. It is interesting also that The Kid was ahead of its time in having a man as the primary care giver long before laws and society in the UK evolved to enable same sex couples or single parents to adopt or act as foster carers.

The Tramp has only a flimsy roof over his head, but he cares for the infant he has found, and fights to keep the child he has come to love when the authorities come to call when the child is sick. The scene of the distraught Kid being removed from the place he called home is a poignant and salutary reminder of the ongoing need to make decisions affecting children with full regard to all considerations, the most important question being where the child will be safe and benefit from love and attachment.

The Kid was released nearly two hundred years after our founder Thomas Coram was driven by the sight of dead and dying children on the streets of London to create his charity, then known as the Foundling Hospital, the more caring alternative to a workhouse or the streets which were as bleak and dangerous as ever.

The evolution in how we see and care for the most vulnerable children from Coram’s time, to Chaplin’s lifetime and on to the present day, is our story. The admission of children to Coram’s Foundling Hospital care ended in the 1950s reflecting the change in social attitudes following the second world war and development of statutory services.

And today Coram continues to provide pioneering support in fostering and adoption, championing the voice of children and young people in and leaving care and fighting for children’s rights - in the spirit of The Kid - so children can gain the love and security they need to thrive.

The film is as fresh and relevant as it was a century ago and rightfully has its place the continuing Story of Care.

Online discussion 

Join Dr Carol Homden, group Chief Executive of Coram, Kate Guyonvarch from The Chaplin Office in Paris, and British Film Institute expert Bryony Dixon for a Coram event Charlie Chaplin and the Story of Care on Thursday 4th February 2021.

Click here for ticket details, which cost £5 and concessions available.