Saturday, February 3, 2018

Stubs - A Dog's Life (1918)


A Dog’s Life (1918) Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Syd Chaplin, Henry Bergman, Charles Reisner, Albert Austin, Tom Wilson. Directed Charlie Chaplin. Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin. Produced by Charlie Chaplin. Run Time: 33 minutes USA Black and White, Silent, Comedy

An article in the January 26, 1918, issue of the Los Angeles Times heralded the opening of a movie studio on the corner of La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood, next to what had been a lemon orchard. Flush with a million-dollar contract from First National, Chaplin had spent about half of it, according to the story, to build his own studio.

In the article, written by Grace Kingsley, who was the LA Times’ motion picture editor from 1914 until her retirement in 1933, Chaplin discusses the first film he plans to make. "All about a dog!" Chaplin had apparently been thinking about the comic possibilities of working with a dog and felt that time was right.

But before he made A Dog’s Life, Chaplin wrote and produced a short called How Movies Are Made, which gave the audience a brief tour of the new facilities disguised as a day in the life of Charlie Chaplin, movie mogul. We see him arrive at his new studio, receive the morning fan mail, working with his crews, applying makeup on an actress and then giving her a screen test, rehearsing with his actors, editing his film, etc. We’re also shown how negatives are processed and the film dried on giant drums. A fairly interesting slice of life, but for whatever reason, never released.

In his effort to find the right dog, Chaplin looked at several breeds, including a dachshund, a Pomeranian, a poodle, a Boston bull terrier and an English bulldog before deciding what he needed was a mongrel. To find the right one, Chaplin picked up 21 dogs from the Los Angeles pound and brought them to the set. When neighbors complained, he cut back to 12 dogs before settling on one, Mutt. In her article, Kingsley refers to “a scrap of a mongrel” that was at Chaplin’s feet during the interview. She refers to the dog as Bingo, but it’s not clear if that is the same dog that made it into the film.

Chaplin films were not written in the usual way that we think films are written. Routines were worked out, sometimes on the set, with a trial and error to find the right bit. At the time of the Kingsley article, all that was known for sure about the movie was that it included an employment bureau in it.

When the film opens, The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is sleeping in a vacant lot. When a traveling hot dog vendor stops to service a customer, Charlie reaches through the broken down fence to fish a hot dog out while the vendor isn’t looking. As he goes back for mustard, The Tramp is spotted by one of several cops on foot patrol. The Tramp avoids capture by rolling in and out of the lot through the missing bottom of the fence, while the hapless cop runs back and forth. When the Tramp sees his chance, he kicks the officer’s backside, when he gets stuck halfway under. The arrival of a second cop causes The Tramp to take off.

The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) gets caught stealing a hot dog from a vendor.

Meanwhile, we see a lonely Scraps (Mutt) who is also hungry and looking for food on the streets.

Things are much better for Scraps (Mutt).

The Tramp, with best intentions, goes to an Employment office where there are openings for strong men to work in the sewers but there are also openings for work at a brewery. Even though The Tramp is the first one in, he gets knocked off the bench, twice and gets cut on by others in line for the jobs. He runs back and forth between windows and clerks (Charles Reisner and Albert Austin) until all the openings are filled.

Charlie's attempt to find work gets thwarted at the Employment Bureau.

Back out on the street, The Tramp spies Scraps, who gets attacked by a pack of feral dogs over scraps she’s found. The Tramp rushes out to save her, fighting off dogs, one of which attaches itself to The Tramp’s backside.

Finally clear of them, The Tramp tries to find something to feed the dog. There is a bottle of milk on the porch, awaiting collection, the remnants of which Charlie lets the dog drink. To get to the bit on the bottom, The Tramp inserts the dog’s tail into the bottle and lets her lick the excess milk off of her own tail.

The Tramp steals muffins from a lunch wagon run by his half-brother Syd.

Later, the two happen by a lunch wagon and harass the owner (Syd Chaplin). First, Scraps steals two hot dogs the owner was preparing to cook. And then The Tramp helps himself to a plate of muffins set out for the paying trade. With the owner’s attention elsewhere, The Tramp steals and eats all of them. Things get harder when the owner grows suspicious. They play around with double and triple checks as The Tramp uses any opening to steal one.

At the Green Lantern, the Tramp and Scraps are escorted out.

From there, the two venture over to a street café, the Green Lantern. Despite a large sign saying No Dogs Allowed, The Tramp tries to walk in with the dog on a leash. However, The Tramp is not to be undeterred. Stuffing Scraps into his pants, The Tramp re-enters. And except for the dog’s tail sticking out of a hole in the back of his pants, he might get away with. Finally, he lets Scraps out of his pants.

The Tramp sticks Scraps in his pants and goes back in.

The Green Lantern is part bar and part nightclub. We see the patrons dance and see a girl dancer perform on stage. Then a new singer (Edna Purviance) comes to the stage and delivers a song that brings everyone, literally everyone including the musicians, to tears. Some cry so hard and so much that it is almost surreal.

The Bar Singer (Edna Purviance) is not good at flirting.

Despite her talent as a singer, she is encouraged by the Dance Hall Proprietor (Granville Redmond) to flirt with the clientele to get them to buy her drinks. Edna is not a natural flirt and it takes her telling The Tramp that she’s flirting with him for anything to happen. They dance a frenetic and awkward step together. The band seems to have only one speed, fast. Afterward, when The Tramp can’t afford to buy her a drink, the barkeep throws him to the curb.

The Tramp and the Singer dance while she holds Scraps' leash.

Meanwhile, a rich drunk is mugged by two assailants who steal his wallet. The cops are close by and take up the chase. One of the robbers buries the wallet in the same vacant lot Charlie lives in. The thieves escape and later we see the drunk rich man get up and stumble away.

Scraps makes a good pillow.

Later, when The Tramp and Mutt return to get some sleep, Scraps digs up the wallet. With his newfound wealth, The Tramp returns to the Green Lantern to look for the bar singer. He has money now and wants to marry her.

The Tramp shows the Singer the money he has.

Back at the bar, her failings as a flirt don’t go unnoticed by the owner. A rather large man at the bar (Alf Reeves) is very aggressive with her and when she resists, the man walks away but the owner fires her.

The Green Lantern also just happens to be where the thieves plan to rendezvous. They are there when The Tramp flashes the money to the Singer and they recognize the wallet. When they take it back by force, The Tramp and The Singer are escorted out.

Determined to get the wallet back, The Tramp sneaks back into the bar and gets in behind the crooks in their booth. He smacks one of the men on the back of the head, through a curtain, with a mallet. 

Reaching through holes in the curtain, he sticks his arm up behind the unconscious crook, assuming his identity. The Tramp does various gestures as if he were the Crook, straightening his tie, lifting a glass of beer for a sip, wiping his mouth and holding out his hand for a cut of the loot. His partner gives him half without question. The Tramp then waves the other Crook forward and hits him over the head with the bottle of beer when he leans in.

The Tramp takes the wallet and hurries out the way he had come in, as the Crooks revive and take chase. Out on the street, the Tramp takes refuge in the lunch stand, with the proprietor and him taking cover while the Crooks fire on them. Scraps relieves The Tramp of the wallet and takes it back to the Singer, as the cops move in and arrest the thieves.

The idyllic ending with Scraps as a new mother.

Now with the money, the Tramp and the Singer can live out their dream lives. As the film ends, the Tramp is shown planting seeds in the soil. Inside, the Singer is making dinner and brings him his robe at the end of the day. Together, they gaze down lovingly on a layette, within whicha reScraps and a lovely litter of puppies.

The film is notable for several things. This is the first film in which Charlie and his elder half-brother Sydney appear together on film. The two have had a working relationship going back to the English music halls. Syd had worked hard to get Charlie into the Fred Karno’s comedy troupe that would ultimately lead to him being discovered by Mack Sennett. Charlie, in turn, got Syd signed by Keystone where he starred in A Submarine Pirate (1915), the second most financially successful comedy that studio ever made, behind Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), which starred Charlie.

After leaving acting, Sydney was the one who negotiated Charlie’s contracts with Mutual and First National. A Dog’s Life was Syd’s return to acting, though he would still handle his brother’s business affairs. Following his appearance here, Syd would also appear in films like Shoulder Arms (1918).

The film also represents a step forward in his own filmmaking. Not only was it his longest film to date but according to Chaplin, it was also the first in which he seriously considered comic plot construction. Chaplin’s next film, Shoulder Arms. would indeed be his first feature-length film. Released on April 14, 1918, A Dog’s Life would also be his biggest hit to date and was advertised as his "First Million Dollar Picture".

A Dog’s Life is often times more poignant than laugh out loud funny. Chaplin was in the process of taking the Tramp from his slapstick past into a more of a sentimental character. To quote John McCabe’s biography Charlie Chaplin, “It was clear to Chaplin that Charlie now needed a deeper dimension. Roguish tricks as such would no longer sustain such a character. The problem was that as a slapstick comedian his farcical plots did not easily accommodate sentiment. This conflict Chaplin helped resolve by making Charlie increasingly more of a Pierrot, that wistful mischievous clown who so artfully combines tears and laughter.” Chaplin was taking steps towards making films like City Lights (1931), that successfully married comedy and sentiment in what was perhaps one of his greatest and most memorable silent films.

All that said, A Dog’s Life is not all that great. The humor is never laughing out loud and in some cases, hasn’t aged all that well. That is not to say there are not funny moments, but they are not anything you haven’t seen before in a Chaplin film.

The speed at which the romance moves between the Tramp and the Bar Singer is lightning fast. In fact, it wasn’t all clear that they had shared more than a dance, let alone fallen in love until Charlie obtains the wallet. The money seems to propel them together. It is never clear how much money there is in there, but it must have been enough to buy a farm and start a new life. Talk about a gap between the wealthy and the downtrodden, as our wealthy drunk was carrying that much on him and doesn’t seem to be all that bothered about losing it.

While there are moments in A Dog’s Life, I can’t say that I would necessarily recommend it. This definitely points to better films to come and I would recommend you seeking those films out.

Be sure to check out other silent film reviews at our Silent Cinema Review Hub.

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