The Kid (1921), the first feature film directed by Charles Chaplin, is considered as the first ‘Dramedy’, since the two genres were ever blended on a film. The storyline of the film is fairly simple. It is the story of a kid, left by his helpless unwed mother in a limousine, stolen by two car thieves along with the car and left by them in an alley. The Little Tramp found him and raises him as his own son. Five years later the child has grown to sturdy boyhood and helps the Tramp to break glass windows by tossing rocks, while the tramp shows up immediately and offers to repair them for a fee. In the meantime, the mother has risen to great heights as an opera singer and does charity work and visits the children of the slums with the hope of relocating her son. One day she discovers the note with the truth about the Kid and reports it to the authorities who come to take him away from Charlie. But Charlie steals him back and takes him to a flophouse. The proprietor reads of a reward for the Kid and takes him to Edna, while the tramp was asleep. Charlie wakes to find the boy gone. He frantically searches him throughout the night and finally falls exhausted on his own doorstep. He falls asleep on his doorstep and awakens to find himself being shaken by a big policeman. The policeman takes him by the collar, and bundles him unceremoniously into a waiting automobile. The car draws up at a large mansion. His escort alights, grips him by the arm, leads him to the door and rings the bell. The door opens and Jackie and his newly found mother drag Charlie in to stay with them.
The Kid was Chaplin’s first six-reel feature. In a sense, it was created from a personal tragedy. He married a seventeen-year-old actress, Mildred Harris in haste in October, 1918, and unfortunately, the couple was mismatched. Chaplin’s boredom and frustration resulted in an acute creative block. On July 7, 1919 Mildred gave birth to a boy, Norman Spencer, whom Mildred nicknamed “Little Mouse.” Unfortunately, Norman was born with an intestinal deformity and lived for only three days. Chaplin evidently suffered acute trauma from this loss. But curiously, only ten days after his own child was buried, Chaplin started to take auditions of babies in his studio for his next project.
By chance, he visited a music hall where a skilled dancer was performing. At the close of his performance, the dancer brought on his four-year-old son – a beautiful, sparkling little boy called Jackie Cogan. Jackie was a performer by birth and could superbly imitate any action or expression. Chaplin had found his co-star in him. In Jackie Coogan, he found his ideal Co actor. Perhaps, Jackie Coogan was born to be “the kid.”
Within no time, Jackie Coogan, at the tender age of seven, became a celebrity overnight, honoured by princes, presidents and the Pope himself when he embarked on a European tour. He was a massive success as The Kid. He was the symbol of all the orphaned children left in the wake of WWI. In 1924 he helped raise over a million dollars for Near East Relief, and had a special audience with the Pope. Sadly, after his father’s death, his mother and stepfather took control of the fortune he had earned as a child star. Jackie filed suit for the money that he had made. However, under California law at the time, he had no rights to the money he made as a child and instead of his claim for $4 million, he was awarded only $126,000 in 1939. Later, as a result of the public furore, the California Legislature passed the Child Actors Bill, known as the Coogan Act, which would set up a trust fund for any child actor and protect his earnings.
During World War II, Jackie Coogan served in the army and returned to Hollywood after the war. Unable to restart his career, he worked in B-movies, later in life Coogan would play Uncle Fester in the Addams Family.
Apart from Jackie Coogan, there is another kid in the Kid. She is the twelve-year-old girl named Lillita McMurray, who appeared briefly in the film as Sin, a flirtatious angel, at the last leg of the film. After the frantic search for the lost kid, when exhausted Charlie falls asleep on his doorsteps, he dreams that he is in a veritable fairyland with plenty of everything to eat and drink, His former friends and enemies are also there, everybody has wings and play harps and other celestial instruments. Jackie is there and he takes Charlie by the hand. Charlie finds that he also has wings, strong white wings and he finds he can fly. But, unfortunately, Sin, that “flirtatious angel, “creeps in and Charlie becomes involved in a fight with his old enemy. He tries to escape, to fly away – but he is ruthlessly shot down and down and down, and awakens to find himself being shaken by a big policeman.
The role of the flirtatious angel was played by twelve years old Lillita McMurray, also known as Lita Grey. Some opined that the dream sequence in the film was added unnecessarily and shoehorned later. On a later date, Lita Grey also claimed that the dream sequence had not come surprisingly early in the filmmaking process, it was created just for her.
Lita Grey first met Chaplin when she was very young, while at a restaurant with her mother. Charlie and the crew were on a lunch break when Lita’s mother spotted Chaplin and introduced themselves. She was introduced to Chaplin for the second time by Charles Riesner in 1920, during the making of ‘The Kid’. Charles Riesner, Chaplin’s assistant director, was one of McMurray’s neighbors. As a result of these meetings, Lita played Edna’s maid in ‘The Idle Class’, along with her mother in the same film. She also played the role of the flirtatious angel in ‘The Kid’. She caught Chaplin’s eye once again in 1924, during the preparation of ‘The Gold Rush’. At that time, Chaplin was searching for a new leading lady to replace Edna Purviance. As he carefully saw Lita again, he felt that she would be the ideal choice for the dance hall girl in his next film. Lillita McMurray signed with Chaplin in March of 1924 and given her new stage name Lita Grey. She also filmed several scenes in ‘The Gold Rush’ and even traveled with the cast to Truckee, California, for location shooting. During the trip, Charlie’s interest in Lita was ignited. They had an affair and she was impregnated by the then-thirty-five-year-old Chaplin. As he could have been imprisoned for having sexual relations with a minor, Chaplin had no other way, but to marry the 16-year-old Lita. They married on 26th November, 1924, in secret, in Empalme, Mexico, to avoid scandal, and thus Chaplin trapped himself into a second marriage. Unfortunately, the conjugal life of Charles and Lita was doomed to fail from the inception. There were few common interests between the two and finally they were divorced on 25 August, 1927, after a long and nasty court battle.