A Dog’s Life (1918)
“In his First Million Dollar Picture”
Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Dave Anderson
Synopsis: The Little Tramp and his dog companion struggle to survive in the inner city.
A Dog’s Life, Charlie Chaplin’s first movie for First National after moving away from Mutual, sees The Little Tramp teaming up with a lovable little dog called Scraps, who is described in the titles as ‘a thoroughbred mongrel.’ His teaming with Scraps was a precursor for his first feature, The Kid, in 1921, but while Chaplin ladled on the pathos in this lively short, he had not yet fully developed that cloying sentimental streak which diminished so many of his later full-length classics.
A Dog’s Life inevitably draws parallels between the plight of the stray dog, an unloved outsider facing the random cruelty of strangers — a pack of ravenous street dogs in this case, who take exception to Scraps’ straying onto their patch — and that of the Tramp, a much more streetwise drifter who nevertheless must steal and fight to survive. It’s a bleak world for a comedy movie, a slum world populated by bullies, grifters, dance hall girls, petty thieves, and tough cops only too willing to use their truncheons when they feel it necessary. And yet Chaplin finds sweetness and innocence in the midst of all that grime in the form of Edna Purviance, a hopeless dance hall girl whose attempt at an alluring wink has the Tramp believing she has something in her eye.
Robbed of the opportunity to work by the bully boy tactics of his fellow unemployed, the Tramp must resort to theft in order to survive and, ultimately, it’s upon stolen money that he builds his vision of paradise — a home with The Girl and The Dog. It’s something he would never have gotten away with in the days of the Production Code, but back in 1918 robbing the robbers was seen as a perfectly legitimate act for the film’s hero to commit, even if the robbers did originally steal the money from a wealthy drunk.
Chaplin wrote and directed as usual, and the production quality is higher than that of his Mutual movies. The gags are mostly very funny, perfectly timed in terms of both action and length, although the action is a little episodic to begin with. At least the sweet nature of the Tramp is now complete, with no misdeed carried out for a reason other than survival in a cold world that doesn’t care about those who can’t look out for themselves. It would have been reasonable to expect that The Tramp and Scraps might have co-starred in future shorts, but the legend goes that Scraps grew so attached to Chaplin that when the actor departed for a war bonds tour after completing A Dog’s Life the dog missed him so much he refused to eat and pined away.
(Reviewed 31st August 2014)