A Dog's Life

This is one of Charlie Chaplin’s finest films, undertaken at the beginning of his contract with the First National Company. As usual with early Chaplin, the story is simplicity itself, or maybe more a juxtaposition of situations than a story. Comic bits flesh out each simple set-up: a street person wakes up in the cold, dodges the local constabulary, finds a canine friend, gets something to eat, enters a dance hall looking for some fun and company, causes chaos, gets a girl, gets out and makes his own way. Observers have sometimes made mistakes in this regard, but the bare or basicness that you hear in the synopsis is not really cause for complaint or criticism. With Chaplin, at least at this stage, it’s not the materials, but what he does with them, that deserves attention and celebration. Wonderfully aided by his longtime collaborators (Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, and in a particularly charming turn, Edna Purviance), he accomplishes virtuosic variations with these basic situations. Chaplin’s social concerns are present here, and it will be interesting for rising citizens to read between the lines for the hard realities referred to. (When is a dance hall more than just a dance hall?) But mostly, A Dog’s Life is just really funny. Watch for Charlie’s deft, gender ambiguous (cf. Bugs Bunny) cop-dodging at the beginning, the must-be-seen-to-be-believed lunch stand mouth-stuffing sequence (that’s Chaplin’s half-brother Sidney playing the patient proprietor), a customarily excellent street chase, a great comic dance, a delightful, affectionnate parody of Victorian sentimentality (Edna’s musical performance), some hilarious knockabout larceny and a whole bunch of other miscellaneous business. The conclusion of the film, where Charlie and Edna escape to form their own idyllic union, is quite sweet and wildly implausible. Optimism and pessimism, present in equal parts, grapple quite interestingly here. As with any good family media experience, in A Dog’s Life there’s fun to be had and a lesson to be learned. Film buffs and Chaplin fans have long treasured this film. The rest of us may not have heard of it, though after you see it you’ll be left wondering why. That’s the thing: there’s always more to the great artists than the usually cited one or two titles. Your effort is enjoined, and will yield great returns.

So, since we’re on the subject of digging in and doing research, here’s a hint about some other Chaplin films and books you might want to check out. (This obviously applies to more than just movies. Whether it’s gardening, Scottish history or the Edmonton Oilers, all the rich things get richer when you really get down to studying them.) The films are grouped according to the company for which they were produced, and selected partly according to their availability in properly restored and remastered versions. (As a general rule, you want to avoid the inexpensive/horrible compilations of the early films. In this case, the corporations generally do it up right: Fox, Image, and most recently and comprehensively, Warner.)

Keystone: The Rounders, Mabel’s Married Life, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (all 1914)

Essanay: His New Job, In the Park, The Tramp, Work, The Bank, Police, Burlesque on Carmen (all 1915)

Mutual: One A.M., The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen (all 1916); The Rink, Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant, The Adventurer (all 1917)

First National: Shoulder Arms (1918), The Kid (1921), The Idle Class (1921), Pay Day (1922), The Pilgrim (1923)

United Artists: A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957)

Dean Duncan

Books

Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography
Dale, Allen. Comedy is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies
Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
Gruner, Charles R. The Game of Humor: A Comprehensive Theory of Why We Laugh
Kamin, Dan. Charlie Chaplin’s One-Man Show
Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns
Lahue, Kalton. Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films
Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind
Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art
Sennett, Mack. King of Comedy

(Thanks to David Shepard for book suggestions.)

Film Info

Title: A Dog’s Life (1918)
Country of Origin: US
Running Time: 40 min
Language: English
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Sound Mix: Mono (Westrex Recording System), Silent
Color: B/W
Certification: Argentina: Atp
Releasing Company: First National Pictures Inc. [us], Image Entertainment Inc. [us] (USA) (DVD)
Producer: Charles Chaplin
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Cinematographer: Roland Totheroh
Designer: Charles D. Hall
Editor:
Composer: Charles Chaplin
Genre: Short / Comedy