An unwed woman (Purviance) leaves a charity hospital carrying her newborn son. An artist (Miller), the apparent father, is shown with the woman's photograph. When it falls into the fireplace, he first picks it up, then throws it back in to burn up.
The woman decides to abandon+ her child in the back seat of an expensive automobile with a handwritten note imploring the finder to care for and love the baby. However, the car is stolen. When the two thieves discover the child, they leave him on the street. A tramp+ (Chaplin) finds the baby. Unwilling at first to take on the responsibility, he eventually softens and names the boy John.
Five years pass, and the child (Coogan) becomes the Tramp's partner in minor crime, throwing stones to break windows that the Tramp, working as a glazier+, can then repair. Meanwhile, the woman becomes a wealthy star. She does charity work among the poor to fill the void of her missing child. By chance, mother and child cross paths, but do not recognize each other.
When the boy becomes sick, a doctor comes to see him. He discovers that the Tramp is not the boy's father. The Tramp shows him the note left by the mother, but the doctor merely takes it and notifies the authorities. Two men come to take the boy to an orphanage, but after a fight and a chase, the Tramp regains his boy. When the woman comes back to see how the boy is doing, the doctor tells her what has happened, then shows her the note, which she recognizes.
Now fugitives, the Tramp and the boy spend the night in a flophouse+, but the manager (Bergman), having read of the $1000 reward offered for the child, takes him to the police station to be united with his ecstatic mother. When the Tramp wakes up, he searches frantically for the missing boy, then returns to doze beside the now-locked doorway to their humble home. In his sleep, he enters "Dreamland," with angels in residence and devilish interlopers. He is awakened by a policeman, who places the Tramp in a car and rides with him to a house. When the door opens, the woman and John emerge, reuniting the elated adoptive father and son. The policeman, happy for the family, shakes the Tramp's hand and leaves, before the woman welcomes the Tramp into her home.
''The Kid'' is notable for combining comedy and drama. As the opening title says: "A picture with a smile-and perhaps, a tear." The most famous and enduring sequence in the film is the Tramp's desperate rooftop pursuit of the agents from the orphanage who had taken the child, and their emotional reunion.
The film made Coogan, then a vaudeville+ performer, into the first major child star of the movies. Many of the Chaplin biographers have attributed the relationship portrayed in the film to have resulted from the death of Chaplin's firstborn infant son just before production began. The portrayal of poverty+ and the cruelty of welfare workers are also directly reminiscent of Chaplin's own childhood in London+. Several of the street scenes were filmed on Los Angeles's famed Olvera Street+, almost 10 years before it was converted into a Mexican-themed tourist attraction.
After production was completed in 1920, the film was caught up in the divorce+ actions of Chaplin's first wife Mildred Harris+, who sought to attach Chaplin's assets. Chaplin and his associates smuggled the raw negative to Salt Lake City, Utah+ (reportedly packed in coffee cans) and edited the film in a room at the Hotel Utah+. Before releasing the film Chaplin negotiated for and received an enhanced financial deal for the film with his distributor, First National Corporation, based on the success of the final film. Chaplin edited and reissued the film in 1971, and he composed a new musical score+.
Lita Grey+, who portrays an angel in the film, was Chaplin's second wife from 1924 to 1927. Chaplin and co-star Coogan met for the last time in 1972, during Chaplin's brief return to America+ for an Honorary Academy Award+.
Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance+ writes, of the legacy of Chaplin's ''The Kid'': "''The Kid'' remains an important contribution to the art of film, not only because of Chaplin’s innovative use of dramatic sequences within a feature-length comedy, but also because of the revelations The Kid provides about its creator. Undoubtedly, when Chaplin penned the preface to ''The Kid'', “A picture with a smile--and perhaps, a tear,” he had his own artistic credo—and life—in mind."
In December 2011, ''The Kid'' was chosen to be preserved in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. The Registry said that the film is "an artful melding of touching drama, social commentary and inventive comedy" and praised Chaplin's ability to "sustain his artistry beyond the length of his usual short subjects and could deftly elicit a variety of emotions from his audiences by skillfully blending slapstick and pathos."