The shuttering of the Portage Theater last May left numerous orphans in its wake: Northwest Chicago Film Society, with its weekly schedule of offbeat Hollywood relics; the Massacre and Sci-Fi Spectacular, annual day-long marathons of horror and fantasy fare; and perhaps most importantly, the Silent Film Society of Chicago—whose founder, organist Dennis Wolkowicz (aka Jay Warren), had managed the Portage for owner Eddie Caranza. SFSC decamped to the Des Plaines Theatre last summer for its annual Silent Summer Film Festival, a real loss to Chicagoans. But this Friday the group returns to the city, screening Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) at the handsome Patio Theater, with a live performance of Chaplin’s 1971 score by the Greensboro Symphony Youth Orchestra of North Carolina.
Appropriately enough, The Kid is a tale of an orphaned child, left by his unmarried mother in the back of a car on a residential street in Los Angeles; after two crooks steal the car, the baby winds up in the care of a tramp (Chaplin) in what looks to be an English slum. The disjuncture between the locations and the back-lot sets is a little bizarre, but Chaplin—who wrote, produced, and directed—was working through his own dire past as an impoverished child in London, cast back and forth from his mother, who was mentally ill, to his father, who was a violent drunk, to the workhouse. Two weeks before production began in July 1919, his young wife had given birth to a deformed little boy who died three days later. Chaplin bonded with little Jackie Coogan, the four-year-old actor he had discovered and schooled in the art of pantomime, and the scene in which the Tramp and his charge are separated by the authorities is heartrending. When The Kid was finally released in January 1921, its mixture of surefire gags and raw emotion was unlike anything moviegoers had ever seen, and it became a worldwide hit.
Despite all the sentiment, the movie is still a laugh getter. You couldn’t ask for a better image of low-rent sophistication than the cigarette case the Tramp pulls from his coat during his daily stroll: an empty lozenge tin filled with half-smoked butts. After pulling the baby from the garbage, he sits down on the curb with the child and briefly considers dropping him down a sewer grate. When the baby has grown old enough to be potty trained, the Tramp cuts a hole in the seat of a wicker chair and places it over a bowl. The best-remembered gag, of course, is the father-and-son scam in which the Kid hurls rocks through windows and the Tramp happens along as a repairman to fix them. When a cop spots the two of them walking together and puts it all together, the Tramp gives the Kid a sidelong kick. But nothing could separate Chaplin from this child of his imagination; 50 years later he was still tinkering with The Kid.