A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.
Chaplin had already made his reputation with a series of short film, but this was his first feature film and the story of a baby abandoned on the street and taken in by Chaplin’s Tramp has touched hearts for almost a century now. It is, however, a patchy affair in many ways. Chaplin is stretching to make the feature length running time. There’s a subplot with a tertiary character that takes up a good ten minutes or so and has nothing to do with the rest of the story and there’s a lengthy dream sequence where Chaplin dreams he’s in Heaven that kind of grinds the film to a halt, just when it should be building to the climax. The original release, the one I saw, is a solid sixty-eight minutes. When Chaplin re-edited the film for a rerelease in the seventies, he cut nearly fifteen minutes out of the movie, reducing it to fifty-three minutes; I’m going to take this as vindication. But the film certainly has a lot of effective material. There’s a great comedic section involving Chaplin and the kid selling window glass and some pathos later, of course, as the state tries to take the boy away from Chaplin. Chaplin is good as always, but young Jackie Coogan really steals the show as the titular character. He’s around five at this point and you can genuinely already tell he’s bound for a long career in show business. He’s a natural entertainer with a surprisingly effective comedic timing. This isn’t the masterpiece many see it as; Chaplin is still finding his way as a writer-director of feature length films. This doesn’t have either the humor or, frankly, the pathos of some of his later work, like City Lights, Modern Times or The Gold Rush. Still, it’s worth a watch; I haven’t seen Chaplin’s edited version, so I can’t say which version is better, but my instincts tell me the shorter one is the one to see, as this one has some dead patches. 3 stars.
tl;dr – Chaplin’s feature debut has some great comedy and pathos & boasts a great child performance from Coogan, but it’s got more than a bit of filler and needs some serious editing. 3 stars.