A Dog’s Life (1918)

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  • directed by Charles Chaplin
  • starring Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Mut
  • The Little Tramp and his dog struggle to survive in the inner city.

A Dog’s Life was Chaplin’s first release for independent distributor First National Films and starred The Tramp alongside Mut the dog, as well as his frequent co-star Edna Purviance. Chaplin’s brother Syd also appears as the lunch wagon owner; it was the first time the brothers appeared together on screen. In this film and in others, Purviance proved to be the perfect accessory to the Chaplin brand and with great physical comedic skills of her own she even stole a scene or two.

Chaplin also found a ton of personality in his canine companion, Mut, whose adorable demeanor was amplified by an equally cute theme in the score. The music in Chaplin’s films is always memorable for me–sentimental, joyful, or chaotic exactly when it needs to be and sometimes even humorous in itself—and A Dog’s Life marked the first time he composed one of his own for a film.

The dog’s existence in the first part of the film mirrors that of the Tramp with both being homeless and victimized, the dog by a pack of bully terriers and his human counterpart by the police, unemployment, and a pair of petty crooks. Their relationship also leads to a sequence that was ripped for Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, in which he desperately needs a belt while dancing and steals a rope that ends up being attached to a lanky, lumbering dog. These shorts are so packed with great stuff and so often overshadowed by his feature-length work that I am surprised there wasn’t a lot more borrowing of material or finding of inspirations from these earlier works than there actually was.

On top of a very nice and sweet tone throughout, hearty laughs were had from many of the gags, including using Scraps’ tail as a spoon to feed him milk, the funny scene of Purviance unattractively winking after being told that’s how you earn free drinks, and the sequence in which Chaplin uses his arms to animate the unconscious crook. In that scene, briefly swiping the crooks mouth for moisture before sifting through bills was a typical Chaplin detail that turned a funny moment into an extremely funny one.

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