16 August 2008

A Dog's Life (1918)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 40 mins.

Influenced by the stylish flourishes of D.W. Griffith's epics, Charles Chaplin wanted to make feature-length films when he left Mutual Studios and moved to First National, but the company was hesitant and tried to restrict him to his typical two-reel shorts. For his first film – A Dog's Life – he managed to break outside the time constraint of two-reels and made a forty-minute feature. It was a tremendous commercial and creative risk for Chaplin, whose previous films were hardly ever more than twenty minutes apiece. The payoff, however, prove to be equally tremendous: it was his first film to earn more than $1 million.

A Dog's Life is a cute, sweet, and lightly funny film, filled with what would become known as standard "Chaplinesque" slapstick and pathos. Chaplin's Tramp is living on the streets when he saves a homeless mutt named Spot, who quickly becomes his fellow vagabond. Together the two hunt for food and weasel their way into a dance hall club, where the Tramp falls in love with a singer (Edna Purviance). Among the more famous comic gags include a scene at an employment line, where the Tramp, looking for work, can never seem to become first-in-line at the next available window of the agency. There's also a famous scene where the Tramp slides his arms under an unconscious crook's arms, acting out the crook's movements. (It's worth noting that this gag, imitated by many, was originated here by Chaplin.)

The film's emotional side is as tangible. The title refers to the puppy, of course, but also the Tramp. Chaplin's social conscience was prevalent in so many of his films, and this one shows the rough life of the impoverished and homeless – they are, in a manner of speaking, living the lives of dogs, struggling to find comfort each night and food the next day.

A Dog's Life was re-released in 1959 by Chaplin alongside his films Shoulder Arms (1918) and The Pilgrim (1923) for a film called "The Chaplin Revue." He used interlocking segments to link the short films together, his emphasis on feature-length entertainment still strong late in his career. Who knows if Chaplin could have gone right into feature-length films after his time with Mutual; all we have are the medium-length films, many of which can be counted among the true treasures of silent comedy. The success of A Dog's Life and his other "longer" films at First National – Shoulder Arms (1918) and The Kid (1921) – seem to suggest he might have been. As they are, they feel like brilliant stepping stones to greater things, firmly pointed in the skyward trajectory of his career.


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