John Sturgis

We have Charlie Chaplin to thank for the blockbuster

We have Charlie Chaplin to thank for the blockbuster
Image: Shutterstock
Text settings

The pandemic has hit the film industry for six - but there’s a precedent to suggest that it can come back stronger. Because that’s what Hollywood did after the devastation of the Spanish Flu a century ago. As that killer virus was still ravaging post-WWI America, a great auteur was at work on a project that would change everything. 

This week sees the centenary of the result - the first ever movie blockbuster. 21 January 1921, was the US release date of Charlie Chaplin's first feature film, The Kid. Never mind the endless present-day stress about if and when anyone will ever get to see the 25th Bond film; it’s small beer compared to the significance of The Kid to the 1920s and their subsequent roaring. It’s almost impossible to conceive now what a global media event this movie was: the then biggest name in cinema spending an almost unheard of $250,000 on a staggeringly ambitious project that became an instant global smash. 

As Peter Ackroyd puts it in his biography Charlie Chaplin (2014): 'It has been said that [The Kid] announced the coming of age of the cinema; film had become a world art form.' I recognise that describing this as a blockbuster and a first may prove doubly contentious with film buffs. You could, you see, argue that DW Griffith got there first with the notorious Birth of A Nation (1915), running to an epic three hours, or with the London-set Broken Blossoms (1919). Feature-length films weren't even invented by Griffith or Chaplin, having been made as early as an Australian stab at The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, since when they had been growing in sophistication, scope and star quality. John Barrymore played Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a year before The Kid, for example. But even though that 79 minutes of celluloid made Barrymore a household name, he didn’t begin it as one. 

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid, 1921 (Image: Shutterstock)

What made The Kid uniquely important was that Chaplin, who not only wrote, directed, produced, and starred in it and, even later, wrote its score, was already a superstar when he shot it. It was the original big vehicle for a big star, but a star who had hitherto only appeared in shorts. The public loved the ‘little tramp’ and wanted more - so Chaplin gave it to them. And once he had made this debut feature, the new, longer form became not just immediately fashionable but soon dominant, a trend that never waned. The other definitional caveat is that applying the term 'blockbuster' to describe films rather than aerial bombardment is an anachronism: it didn't get widely adopted as a cinematic term for another fifty-odd years, when it attached itself to Jaws and subsequent monster hits. But I think in this case one can reasonably apply the term retrospectively: The Kid was a blockbuster avant la lettre.  And this centenary heralds the arrival of a wave of cinematic 100th birthdays that will never end - next year Nosferatu, the year after that The Hunchback of Notre Dame and pretty soon you are looking at a decent if not classic film celebrating its hundredth every month or so in perpetuity. 

By the time a baby born during this latest lockdown reaches 18, they’ll be able to celebrate that landmark with some absolutely staggering hundred-year-old movies, including, assuming it hasn’t been completely banned by then, Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (and doesn’t smash up Capitol Hill), the Olivier version of Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr Chips. Wow. As to The Kid itself, rewatched this week, it stands up remarkably well. Although it’s been out 99 years and counting, I don’t want to publish any spoilers in the hope that if you haven’t seen it, you might be inspired to try it now. But I can say there’s one particularly famous scene - Ackroyd compares it to Dickens - that remains as poignant as anything comparable on film ever since. 

The Kid also has an extraordinary backstory: Chaplin had lost his infant son, Norman, just ten days before production started. This informs the powerful interplay between the ‘little tramp’ and the ‘kid', Jackie Coogan, who would become the world’s first silverscreen child star. Ackroyd again: 'Chaplin after losing one infant, encounters another in his that process is Norman somehow restored to life?' 

The film also taps into Chaplin’s past: the sets are said to have been recreations of his sentimental memories of growing up in poverty in late-Victorian Kennington. And there’s more: their son’s death marked the final collapse of his marriage to first wife Mildred. By the time shooting was complete she had embarked upon bitter divorce proceedings and her lawyers were trying to seize his assets, including the print of The Kid, so Chaplin ordered the film to be hidden in coffee jars and smuggled to Salt Lake City by train, away from the jurisdiction of the California courts, where editing was started in a hotel suite. And he was still editing it 50 years later, re-releasing a proto ‘director’s cut’ version in 1972. 

My favourite bit of backstory brings us back to the present day. Although Jackie was the principal child star involved, the ‘Kid’ character as a baby was played by one Silas Hathaway. The way Chaplin threw him around, it’s remarkable he survived the shoot at all. But he did and, incredibly, Silas is still with us, due to turn 102 this March, the oldest surviving star of any film ever made. The result of all this was an instant but enduring classic.

  Of course silent films are largely neglected these days but I do wish they weren’t. The best of them - Sunrise, The General, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari - are significantly more visually accomplished than most of the first 20 years worth of talkies that followed, their makers sacrificing visual explication for verbal at the expense, for me, of spectacle. For film lovers, this time of year feels instinctively important: we usually get the release of a handful of huge films ahead of the Oscars in February. But this year, they’ve been pushed back to April because of Covid so there's a film-shaped void in our hearts and minds. Why not fill it with Chaplin? 

The Kid is available to rent on Amazon Prime for £1.99