A Dog’s Life

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 16, 2015

This review has been adapted from TMA’s Children’s Media Review:

This is one of Chaplin’s finest films, undertaken at the beginning of his contract with the First National Company. As usual with early Chaplin, the story is simplicity itself, or maybe more a juxtaposition of situations than a story. Comic bits flesh out each simple set-up: a street person wakes up in the cold, dodges the local constabulary, finds a canine friend, gets something to eat, enters a dance hall looking for some fun and company, causes chaos, gets a girl, gets out and makes his own way. Observers have sometimes made mistakes in this regard, but the bare or basicness that you hear in the synopsis is not really cause for complaint or criticism. With Chaplin, at least at this stage, it’s not the materials, but what he does with them, that deserves attention and celebration.

Wonderfully aided by his longtime collaborators (Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, and in a particularly charming turn, Edna Purviance), Chaplin accomplishes virtuosic variations with all these basic situations. His social concerns are present here, and it will be interesting for rising citizens to read between the lines for the hard realities referred to. (When is a dance hall more than just a dance hall?) But mostly, A Dog’s Life is just really funny. Watch for Charlie’s deft, gender ambiguous (cf. Bugs Bunny) cop-dodging at the beginning, the must-be-seen-to-be-believed lunch stand mouth-stuffing sequence (that’s Chaplin’s half-brother Sidney playing the patient proprietor), a customarily excellent street chase, a great comic dance, a delightful, affectionnate parody of Victorian sentimentality (Edna’s musical performance), some hilarious knockabout larceny and a whole bunch of other miscellaneous business.

The conclusion of the film, where Charlie and Edna escape to form their own idyllic union, is quite sweet and wildly implausible. Optimism and pessimism, present in equal parts, grapple quite interestingly here. As with any good family media experience, in A Dog’s Life there’s fun to be had and a lesson to be learned. Film buffs and Chaplin fans have long treasured this film. Most people haven’t heard of it; after you see it you may be left wondering why. That’s the thing: merit and availability, or familiarity, are often kind of exclusive of each other. That’s the other thing: there’s always more to the great artists than the usually cited one or two titles. With this guy, always, keep digging…

Since we’re on the subject of digging in and doing research, here’s a hint about some other Chaplin films you might want to check out. The films are grouped according to the company for which they were produced, and selected partly according to their availability in properly restored and remastered versions. (As a general rule, you want to avoid the inexpensive/horrible compilations of the early films. In this case, the corporations generally do it up right: Fox, Image, and most recently and comprehensively, Warner.)

Keystone: Kid Auto Races at VeniceThe Rounders, Mabel’s Married Life, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (all 1914)

Essanay: His New Job, In the Park, The Tramp, Work, The Bank, Police, Burlesque on Carmen (all 1915)

Mutual: The FiremanOne A.M., The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen (all 1916); The Rink, Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant, The Adventurer (all 1917)

First National: Shoulder Arms (1918), The Kid (1921), The Idle Class (1921), Pay Day (1922), The Pilgrim (1923)

United Artists: A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957)

Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography

Dale, Allen. Comedy is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

Gruner, Charles R. The Game of Humor: A Comprehensive Theory of Why We Laugh

Kamin, Dan. Charlie Chaplin’s One-Man Show

Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns

Lahue, Kalton. Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films

Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind

Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art

Sennett, Mack. King of Comedy

(Thanks to David Shepard for some of these book suggestions.)