The Kids Stay in the Picture: Choo-Choo! and The Kid, by Aaron Pinkston
Though comedian W.C. Fields famously said “Never work with animals or children,” the cinema is full of wonderful stories told through the eyes of the young. Films with child protagonists span every genre, generation, and film movement. Furthermore, many of cinema’s most integral films deal with children – would the French New Wave have been the same with The 400 Blows, Italian Neo-Realism without Bicycle Thieves, J-horror without Ringu, and so on? In the upcoming weeks, I will survey this interesting subgenre, following the School of the Art Institute and Gene Siskel Film Center film series, “The Child in Cinema.” Over the course of this series, I will (hopefully) cover the many historical and social contexts around why films centered on children have been so integral. This journey starts with The Kid, one of Chaplin’s most complete films featuring one of the first legitimate child stars, and a short film from the “Our Gang” series – two films working in a similar space but with very different sensibilities.
The 114th film featuring the “Our Gang” (later to be more commonly known as “The Little Rascals,” especially to those of my generation who saw the Penelope Spheeris film as a kid), Choo-Choo (1932) sees the group of little troublemakers get tricked into switching places with orphans who are dodging their cross-country train ride. They are put in the care of an adult bachelor who is heavily coded as a homosexual under the veil that he never ever would want children, gross. This sets up a pretty basic plot to drive the man insane through their mischievousness. The train is a convenient location for this, especially with a travelling circus storing their lot of animals aboard.
As for The Kid (1921), it sees Charlie Chaplin’s beloved tramp character come into the life of abandoned orphan Jackie Coogan, who would grow up to become Uncle Fester in The Addams Family television show. Despite living in poverty with nothing to offer a dependent, the tramp raises the kid with love. The Kid one of Chaplin’s only films in which he wasn’t the only star, as it heavily features Coogan, already an adept actor and comedian at the age of seven. They are surprisingly equals, partners in profession (if window installation con men is a profession), and always splitting their food exactly. If it weren’t for the societal contexts driving the second half of the film, you can barely call them father and son. The kid is even often portrayed like an adult as he independently works and cooks and knowingly uses his child innocence to manipulate.
The biggest comparison point between Choo-Choo and The Kid, and assumedly why the two films were shown together, is the look at rough-and-tumble boys. This specific depiction was probably the most popular until post-WWII and the rise of suburban culture. At the time The Kid was released, it wasn’t uncommon for many urban children to work in factories while their rural counterparts were putting long hours into the fields. This mostly changed during the Great Depression, when unemployed and desperate adults were willing to take the same wages for tough jobs1, but it took until 1938 and the Fair Labor Standards Act before major legislation was passed to protect children’s working environment. Both “Our Gang” and John are in this working poor demographic – though “Our Gang” don’t carry jobs in Choo-Choo, maybe they were lost a few years earlier when the market crashed. Both of these films, but especially The Kid, are a mirror to the real-life issues surrounding orphans and the lower classes at the time, using comedy for escapism.
Unlike The Kid, though, we don’t learn much about any of “Our Gang” on an individual basis – this is likely because it was just a cog in a popular series, but it’s important that they are presented as a force of nature. They have a sort of other-worldly presence, coming from nowhere in particular with no discernable life outside of this short film. There is really no indication that they have homes or parents or anything but base interests. Even as the title kid in Chaplin’s film is explicit in ripping people off, he seems saintly compared to the wild bunch in “Our Gang.” The stranger thing about Choo-Choo, however, is that we see nothing of the orphans from the opening after they trick the gang to switch places. While we spend time in the controlled environment on the train, these kids are in the city without any presumed supervision, but we don’t ever consider their well-being. It seems natural for these types of worldly kids of the era to stake it out alone.
Any exploration of children will almost always also be an exploration of parenting. Whereas adults in Choo-Choo are either completely absent or merely punching bags, there are two very important portraits of parenthood in The Kid – Chaplin’s surrogate father and the birth mother (Edna Purviance), whose story offers additional (and largely unbelievable) stakes. The Kid opens with a title card introducing us to the mother with the message that her only sin was motherhood as she is being released into the world from the charity hospital. Without any support, the mother decides it is in her child’s best interest to abandon the boy in the care of a wealthy family. Right off the bat, the film establishes a theme of the failings of institutions, which shows up all over Chaplin’s work – distrust of the police and the lack of compassion from the child care service worker also show up prominently. Though governmental social benefits began to grow support in the 19-teens, the general public sentiment was skeptical of poverty relief in the form of poorhouses.2 In the U.K., unmarried mothers weren’t allowed government aid until the National Assistance Act of 1948.3 So, while leaving your baby in a rich person’s automobile isn’t advisable, there wouldn’t be much aid to help support herself, let alone a newborn baby.
By setting the narrative through the eyes of this poor single mother, Chaplin is able to immediately build sympathy that circles back to the ultimate happy ending. Obviously, the film uses a number of incredible coincidences and contrivances to reunite mother and child, but it works for the greater purpose of the film. Though I think we are supposed to see the tramp as a positive role model father figure, if the familial balance isn’t restored by the end, it’s a much different story. With the mother’s financial and emotional stability, combined with the experience and history with the tramp, the boy now has the semblance of a fully formed family and can live happily ever after. Ultimately, the boy is rewarded for being an innocent child in a difficult situation and the tramp is rewarded for having an unselfish heart.
It makes sense to open this series with The Kid chronologically, but it also works because of its child star. Jackie Coogan is notable for two interlocking reasons: his presence as an early child star in film and for the legislation that takes his name which serves to protect child actors. Coogan, the son of traveling vaudeville performers, had about 20 screen credits before his 16th birthday, The Kid being his first real notable work. He went on to play the most major roles for child actors, including Oliver Twist (1922), Tom Sawyer (1930), and Huckleberry Finn (1931). Unlike many child stars, though, Coogan worked consistently as an adult in both film and television, ultimately leading to his second most important role as Uncle Fester. He was incredibly prosperous as a child star, earning $4 million dollars for his work (that’s roughly $60 million with inflation). In April of 1938, Coogan (then 23) sued his parents for his fortune, which led to the hilarious quote from his mother “Every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents.”4 Directly stemming from this ordeal, the California Child Actor’s Bill, also referred to as the “Coogan Bill,” was passed, safeguarding children from predatory practices in the film industry. Still in place today, the bill set permitted working hours, tutoring requirements, and a mandate that 15% of wages be withheld and deposited into a “Coogan account” specifically for the child.5
Through the eyes of its child protagonist, The Kid allowed Chaplin to make one of his most complete feature films, one that delivers on its opening promise of providing a smile and a tear. It is also appropriate that The Kid not only be a landmark example of child performance and film narratives about children but also have this greater historical significance when it comes to the role of the child in Hollywood – this certainly makes it a perfect launching point for this series.
1History: Child Labor, http://www.history.com/topics/child-labor
2”Historical Background And Development Of Social Security,” Social Security Administration, https://www.ssa.gov/history/briefhistory3.html
3The Independent, “Sin and the single mother: The history of lone parenthood,” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/sin-and-the-single-mother-the-history-of-lone-parenthood-7782370.html
4Life Magazine, “The Strange Case of Jackie Coogan’s $4,000,000,” April 25, 1938, https://books.google.com/books?id=5koEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA3&pg=PA50&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=true
5SAG-AFTRA, “Coogan Law,” http://www.sagaftra.org/content/coogan-law