A Dog’s Life (1918)
I’ve been a bit remiss in not moving ahead with Charlie Chaplin’s career since he left Mutual in 1917 and started with First National. In this movie, he abandons many of the violent slapstick formulae of his years with Keystone, and focuses almost entirely on the sympathy and pathos of his “Little Tramp” character.
We meet the Tramp sleeping in an abandoned lot. When a hotdog vendor puts down his pot near a hole in the fence, Charlie reaches through to steal a hotdog. However, a cop observes this and even though Charlie returns his stolen goods, the cop rousts him out of his sleeping place. Charlie evades the cop by rolling under the fence several times, until another cop comes along and he runs away. Throughout all this, there are periodic insert shots of a cute dog with a patch over its left eye, sleeping in an alley. Charlie goes to an employment office where they are looking for men to work in a brewery. Even though he was there first, the other unemployed men manage to bully and outrun Charlie in getting the work tickets, and he spends the time running from window to window for nothing.
Now he meets the little dog and rescues it from a gang of other dogs. They give chase, and Charlie leads them to a delicatessen where they go wild trying to eat all of the meats. Charlie still has one dog attached to his trousers, and he swings it round and round, much like his opponent in “The Champion.” Eventually escaping, her and the little dog hang around a lunch counter run by his brother, Sydney Chaplin. They steal food from under his watchful eye until a cop shows up. Charlie escapes by running just at the moment the food vendor is about to clobber him with a sausage, making him hit the cop instead.
Now Charlie goes to “The Green Lantern,” a fairly rough-looking bar with free entry and 5 cent beer. The bouncer tells him he can’t come in with a dog, so he sticks the dog down his trousers. The dog’s tail sticks out one of the many holes, getting Charlie quite a few odd looks. Edna Purviance appears on stage and sings a number that makes everyone weep except for Charlie. The bartender even puts stolen money back in the till. After the song, her boss tells her to “smile and wink” at the customers so they will buy her drinks. She tries it out on Charlie, who thinks she has something in her eye. Eventually, he gets the message, and they dance. Edna is a terrible dancer, who jerks up and down and hits Charlie in the face. The dog, who is now out of his pants on a string, causes more confusion, which gets worse when Charlie steps in some discarded chewing gum and one foot stays stuck in place. When the dance is over, Charlie is thrown out because he can’t afford a nickel to buy Edna a beer. When another man tries to pick Edna up, she refuses, which gets her fired and she collapses, weeping at a table in the rear.
Meanwhile, a couple of thieves (Albert Austin and Bud Jamison), rob a rich drunk of his wallet, and they bury it in the abandoned lot from the beginning of the film. Charlie brings the dog back here to sleep, but the dog wants to dig a hole, causing Charlie to find the wallet. He goes back to the Green Lantern, where he is almost thrown out again, until he flourishes the wallet. Edna’s face lights up when she sees him, but he has also attracted the attention of the thieves, who sap him and take the wallet back. The bartender, finding him broke once again, throws him and the dog out. This time Edna comes too, and watches the dog while Charlie puts an elaborate plan together to retrieve the stolen money. He conks one thief with a mallet, then animates him from behind, tricking the other thief into putting his share of the money into Charlie’s hand. Then, he conks the other one with a bottle and takes the rest, setting up a situation so that the thieves will fight one another for the money. This almost works, except the bartender catches him leaving, and once again the thieves see where the wallet is and go after him.
Charlie runs into the street, but the thieves have guns and shoot at him. He takes refuge in the food cart from before, and he and Sydney dodge a hail of bullets. The little dog runs over and manages to grab the wallet while the thieves are beating them up and then the two police show up and break things up so Charlie can escape. An epilogue shows what Charlie has done with the money: He and Edna live on a farm with the dog and all of her puppies.
It’s possible Charlie went a little too far towards making the Tramp “nice” in this story, losing some of his rebellious spirit in order to be more sympathetic. He is stopped several times from committing crimes by police officers, most notably when he gets ready to throw a brick into the Green Lantern in retaliation for getting thrown out. It’s almost as if he’s apologizing for past violence. Still, the character works because he’s a little man who manages to get the best of the bullies and authorities in his world. In this case, he does it somewhat less violently, although he still conks people on the head and incites a doggy riot at the delicatessen. I thought it was interesting that the Tramp’s dream-come-true was the hard work of being a small farmer – in previous incarnations, he often seemed allergic to this kind of work. I suspect this was also a play to make him more sympathetic to working class audiences.
What really stands out to me in this movie, though, is how far Charlie has come as a film maker, especially in terms of his use of space. Gone are the stationary camera set-ups defining stages or “rooms” that interact with one another. Charlie’s opening scene in the abandoned lot shows how the camera is now allowed to define a space very differently, while still giving Charlie room to perform his acrobatics and evade an adversary through rapid editing. The Green Lantern is also much more freely defined, with the dance sequence once again showing a great use of a large, busy space more cinematically than theatrically. That makes this movie feel substantially more “modern” than movies Chaplin directed only three years earlier. The storyline, although somewhat wide-ranging and full of gags, is also more coherent and directed: Boy meets dog. Boy meets girl. Boy meets money. Boy loses money. Dog gets money. Boy and girl are happy together. Compare this to the two-reel “split stories” that Arbuckle and Keaton were putting out at the time (which are nonetheless hilarious). Chaplin managed all this with only five intertitles.
Charlie Chaplin had reached new heights in his career at this time, getting a one million dollar contract for eight films for First National, with a much freer schedule for completion. He built his own studio to make them in, and this was the first one to come out of that arrangement. I don’t know how well it did at the box office, but it has been a critical success for over one hundred years, being seen by critics as a major achievement, and even called “cinema’s first total work of art.” Apparently, a little bit of treacle isn’t too much to prevent appreciation for the Little Tramp.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Camera: Roland Totheroh
Run Time: 33 Min