In 1921, one of the biggest movie stars in the world made his first feature-length picture, a 68-minute, 6-reel epic that traded on his familiar persona and added a new style of dramatic pathos to his beloved slapstick. By that point, Charles Chaplin was already a bona fide auteur, decades before that word would be applied to filmmakers, having written and directed and starred in dozens of short films, mostly starring himself as the famous Little Tramp; two years prior, he co-founded United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. All that is still enough to have secured his place in history, but it was The Kid that kick-started the run of masterpieces that have left him even now one of the most beloved faces in the cinema; not only did it introduce what would become his signature mix of bittersweet comedy, it would also prove on its initial release to be the second-highest grossing film of all time, behind only Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.

The version of The Kid we know today was not the version that audiences flocked to in '21. Fifty years later, the 82-year-old director re-released the film with some twelve minutes cut out and a new score he himself composed, and this is the version I saw. This isn't just a neat fact, it might actually go some way to explain the one of the film's most notable aspects. Even by the standards of silent films, even by the standards of the particular efficient director Chaplin, The Kid is a lean little picture, wasting not a single frame in telling its story as quickly as possible. Pages of exposition are glossed over in a single image, such as early on when a man (Carl Miller, top-billed with one scene; surely an artifact of the '71 recut) accidentally drops a photo of a woman (Edna Purviance) into the fire; he quickly pulls it out, but it's too singed already to recognise it. With a shrug, he tosses it back in to finish burning. The whole matter by which the woman ends up alone with their child is thus reduced to a quick, memorable image, moving the story along without mucking about in expository blather. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the film are marked by such economy, a noble act of discipline for a film that ended up having the highest shooting ratio of Chaplin's career.

A concise visual narrative is all well and good - very well and good, really; The Kid is an excellent example too of Chaplin's noted ability to tell stories with the minimum possible number of title cards, a paucity only matched (and then, rarely) by fellow comic legend Buster Keaton - but it wouldn't grant a film "classic" status all of 87 years later. What makes The Kid not just a fine piece of craftsmanship but an arresting movie is its simple and deeply moving story, in which the woman leaves her baby on a doorstep in the poor part of the city, where he is found by a tramp (Chaplin, naturally), whose nervousness leads him to try and pawn the infant off wherever he can, only to find that Murphy's law drives the baby back to him time and again. Five years later, we find that he has done his best to raise the kid (Jackie Coogan), though this means some unavoidable amount of thieving and malnutrition. The authorities find out, and begin the grinding machinations that will separate the tramp from the kid, at about the same time that the long-lost mother, now a successful actress, returns to that poor side of town to do charity works in the community. If you can't see where that's going, you're obviously no fan of silent melodrama.

Invention isn't the point, anyway. The point is to see Chaplin's trademark brand of slapstick meld almost seamlessly into what was at the time an unexpected foray into gooey sentimentality. The tramp doesn't just use the kid as a prop; he has come to think of himself as the little one's father, and the threat of separation causes him an anguish that remains piercing so very many years later. In the years to come, Chaplin would make the most of this combo of earnest syrup and broad vaudevillian comedy, only rarely drifting too far into the stick side of things; his apparently effortless control of the fusion was evident from the first. The Kid is never so sweet that the comedy suffers, and never so funny that the drama comes off as shallow. And with its short running time, it doesn't have the luxury of wallowing too long in melodrama, but moves through the beats of the story with commendable speed.

Only once does the film go off the rails, and it's nothing to do with the melodramatic contrivances of the story. Near the end, afraid he's lost the boy forever, the tramp falls asleep on his front stoop and dreams of his courtyard recast as heaven, with all his neighbors, and the local cops, and the various people we've met in the film placed as angels and devils. For some eight minutes, a weird little pantomime plays out in which the tramp and the kid are the centerpieces of a fable about good and evil. It serves virtually no narrative purpose; I can only assume that in those days when films weren't broken into acts but reels, this was an attempt to boost the film's running time with a sort of metaphoric pre-epilogue, or maybe just make something that could stand alone if the film was a bust. As it stands, it's a tremendous drag on a rather short film by today's standards; it's more than an eighth of the whole thing, and that's far too long for a film to make an aimless detour. By comparison, imagine if a lumbering thing like Peter Jackson's The Return of the King ended with a long-winded half-hour segment that did nothing but explode the running time. Audiences would run riotous in the streets.

The parts of the film that do work, however, work extremely well, almost solely due to the work of two people. Chaplin, the Renaissance man on both sides of the camera, is no surprise, either as actor or filmmaker, of course. But Jackie Coogan, a ripe six years old when the film was shot, is an amazing find. This was not his debut, but it was the film that made him Hollywood's first child star (and later a fixture of dreary B-picture fantasies and comedies, leading to one of the more memorably nasty skewerings in the history of Mystery Science Theater 3000). He deserved it; whether it was the child's skill or the director's, the relationship between the tramp and the kid is brought out most fully by the Coogan's performance, an uncannily precise mimicry of Chaplin's physical bearing. We never doubt that both man and boy think of themselves as father and son, because Coogan looks like a pint-size version of the tramp. It's cuter than hell, no doubt, and extremely funny, and the emotional backbone of the film.

The Kid holds up very well; not that Chaplin needs any defenders at this point (if any silent filmmaker has his place in the popular imagination sealed up tight, it's Charlie Chaplin). It's not one of his finest works, as either an actor or a director, but it might well be the feature where his cute brand of melodrama was at its sweetest, most effective and least intrusive. We've all no doubt seen this story done many times in many forms, but I can hardly think of a better illustration of the fact that a familiar story is still best when it's done by a master. This tiny tale of one man and a baby is just about the most moving film about a father and son that I have ever seen.