Charlie Chaplin’s first short for First National Pictures was released in April 1918, six months after his final film for Mutual. Chaplin in his Tramp character befriends a local mongrel dog called Scraps and together they go about causing mischief and mayhem. Later, Scraps comes to the aid of the Tramp when he gets into trouble with some thugs and helps his master set up a new life for himself and his new lady friend, a bar singer (Edna Purviance).
What was immediately obvious about this opening First National film was its quality. The sets, costume and story are all far superior to pretty much anything seen in a Chaplin film before. The sets especially look as though they may well have been real streets. There is a much more rounded story which incorporates comedy as one aspect rather than relying solely on kicks up the backside or doffing caps to curbs. The film is still funny but this isn’t one of Chaplin’s finest works. What it is though is one of his finest stories to date and overall one of his best short films.
Something else which seems to have improved dramatically since the Mutual films is Chaplin’s acting. Chaplin was always able to act for a laugh and had a cheeky grin and deadpan look to camera which could floor me but here he demonstrates proper acting ability. His nuanced performance seems to mark a turning point in the comic’s career from the knockabout comedies of his early days, towards the multi layered and clever films of his middle and latter years. Edna Purviance also delivers a very sound performance but there are others such as John Rand and Syd Chaplin who provide the gurning and over acting which I’m used to seeing from previous Chaplin shorts.
As far as the story is concerned it was only a matter of time before the Tramp teamed up with a dog. The dog itself delivers a great performance and is part of the story every step of the way. The plot feels more considered and less rushed that in some of Chaplin’s previous films and takes in more locations, scenes and characters than many that had come before. Indeed it is also several minutes longer than his previous efforts at around 33 minutes. The extra time allows for an ending which continues past the traditional walk off into the sunset ending and adds a touching scene in front of a fire.
Although I wouldn’t say the film is amongst Chaplin’s funniest, there were several moments which made me laugh out loud. One of my favourite scenes took place inside the bar where Edna sang. Chaplin was thrown out initially as there was a no dogs allowed policy so what he did to get back in was to stuff his dog down his trademark baggy trousers. With the dog tucked safely away, the Tramp was unaware that the dog’s tail was visible out of a hole in the back of his trousers and was wagging wildly as he walked. The sight of a man walking around with a wagging tail had me in stitches. Another great scene was the one that Chaplin shared with his brother Sydney and featured the star stealing food from behind his brother’s back. My favourite and probably the cleverest scene came later on when Chaplin knocked out John Rand’s thief character and from behind a curtain used his arms in place of Rand’s to try and steal some money. This scene featured some very entertaining actions and got better and better as it went along.
Overall A Dog’s Life is Chaplin’s best start to working with a new company that I’ve come across and although it isn’t up there with some of his later features, is one of his better shorts and packed full of story, well written characters and decent acting.