Monday, February 19, 2007

Introducing Kids to Charlie Chaplin

There is something very captivating about the films of Charlie Chaplin that had me fascinated as a little kid. It wasn’t that they were uproariously funny, although I did come for the slapstick. It wasn’t that they had simple themes, which were easy to understand when I was a 10 year old. It wasn’t to check out how Raj Kapoor had copied Chaplin’s nuances in Awara, although I found that amusing to watch.

More than any of these there was a deep rooted lesson on capitalism and how fragile life could be for people who didn’t have resources. Long after the laughter faded, the lessons on how to laugh even when surrounded by adversity lingered on.

Chaplin’s carefully crafted recurring character of the tramp was perfect to depict those gritty times after World War I. His character survived indifference from the white collars and cut-throat finality from the blue collars. Somehow using his instincts, he managed to eke a triumph of some sorts in his movies. All this was very captivating when you are an impressionable boy growing up. Although films like
Modern Times, The Great Dictator, City Lights or any of Chaplin’s magnificent short films were my favorites, when it was time to introduce his comedic genius to my children, I chose to show them The Kid.

The Kid was released in 1921 and like all Chaplin films is in Black & White and is a silent film. Meta information about the scenes is provided in captions spliced between scenes. Sometimes some heavy handed imagery is used to substitute for words.

In the movie, a mother (Edna Purviance) all but forgotten by the father of her child (Carl Miller) deliberates a life of hardship for her and her newly born child. In a moment of desperation, she leaves the child in a car outside a wealthy looking estate assuming that the child will be looked after by the owners and cared for in style. The car is stolen by two hoodlums, who upon discovering the baby in the car, leave it in a dumpster and drive off with the vehicle. Having had a change of heart, the mother can no longer get in touch with her abandoned child.

Enter Charlie Chaplin taking a luxurious walk across the neighborhood dressed in his least torn clothes, carefully selecting a smoke from among best preserved cigarette butts found on the street and doing his best to avoid trash being disposed off from above. He finds the baby and through a set of comical circumstances is forced to take him home. (These circumstances later inspired similar sequences in the late Indian comedian Mehmood’s tour-de-force Kunwara Baap). Soon the tramp comes to love the child, improvising his care along the way. A full five years later, the kid (Jack Coogan) helps out his surrogate Dad with chores and his business as a window repairman.

In the meantime, the mother has met with success of her own in theater is now a wealthy woman. Alas if she could only have her son back. Haunted by memories of what she did, she now traipses around poor neighborhoods distributing toys to kids. She even stumbles on her own son in this manner, not realizing it of course.

This Manmohan Desai setup gets resolved neatly in the end with the rather naïve simplicity that was typical of movies from the silent era.

Both my sons enjoyed The Kid, but I had to keep up a running commentary for them to answer their questions. Having grown up in the era of plenty, there were some things they just didn’t understand. A sample: why would anyone leave their kid in a car? What is that box the kid had to put a coin in so Chaplin could cook? And why is the kid breaking all those windows in the neighborhood and then Chaplin fixing them? There is quite a bit of emotional ground you have to cover with them. And more importantly, you have to explain how people sometimes bend the rules in order to make ends meet.

Clearly the sequences where the kid is being separated from Chaplin teased out my sons’ abandonment issues. There was much wide-eyed dismay and the overly theatrical acting from Coogan, which squeezes the last bit of juice out of that tragic lemon, added to their agony.

But I felt the movie was a rewarding experience for them. They got past the neatly packaged lessons in Disney movies and were able to explore more complicated themes. They got a great laugh while they were at it because no one did physical comedy better than Chaplin. And they got a nicely packaged happy ending. Most importantly, they are on their way to loving Chaplin as much as I do.

1 comment:

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