Chaplin Diary, Part 8: Early First National

Charlie Chaplin’s contract with First National turned him from an employee to an independent contractor. He built his own studio, hired his own employees, and financed his own films. First National just handled distribution. Chaplin was required to produce eight movies of two reels or more, over the course the 18 months. It took him five years.

first national dvdChaplin wanted more than laughs; he wanted to tell stories. That took time, both in the studio and on the screen. Only three of his eight First Nationals were short two-reelers.

In this eighth entry of my Chaplin diary, we look at his first four films as an independent producer. He was experimenting here, and not all experiments work. On the whole, these aren’t as funny as the Mutuals. But the best ones have a depth that didn’t exist before.

I streamed A Dog’s Life at FilmStruck. The others I watched off of the currently out-of-print First National Collection DVD – one of the first DVDs I ever bought.

A Dog’s Life

Minute by minute, Chaplin’s first three reeler isn’t as funny as the best Mutuals, but it has much to make you laugh. He evades the police in remarkable ways. In an employment office, he tries to get to a window but someone else always gets there first. He steals rolls from a food truck while the proprietor (played by Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney) tries to catch him. Charlie uses his own arms and hands to convince one villain that his knocked-out partner in crime is fully conscious.

But all this serves a story about a desperate man searching for happiness. From the start, Charlie is clearly a tramp, trying to stay warm as he sleeps outside, and even here he’s funny. He’s desperately hungry, and perfectly willing to steal food, but he shares his food with the small dog who becomes his partner in life.

Of course, he gets another partner with Edna. Purviance has a wonderful moment attempting badly to flirt (it’s part of her job).

Shoulder Arms

Chaplin intended to make Shoulder Arms as a five-reel feature, but he decided to cut it down to a three-reeler. Whatever the length, it was a big risk. World War I was raging in Europe, and America had joined the fray. Would those with relatives overseas (dead as well as alive) laugh at the war killing their young men?

And yet the movie, which opened less than a month before the armistice, was a huge success. And for a good reason: It’s very funny. Charlie tries to waken his numb foot, getting more and more worried that he can’t feel anything…until he discovers it’s someone else’s foot. There’s a sequence in a half-destroyed house where, despite the lack of walls, everyone insists on using the door. Best of all, there’s Charlie disguised as a tree, chased through a forest.

Every time the movie threatens to become sentimental, it gets funny, instead. Charlie, sad because he’s received no mail from home, reads over the shoulder of a doughboy reading his own letter. Both men react with the same emotions.

Sydney Chaplin plays a major role – the biggest role he ever had in one of his younger half-brother’s films.


Another 3 reeler, but this time, Chaplin seems to have problems filling it. The movie is set in a small rural community, and Charlie works on a farm that’s also, apparently, the town’s only (and extremely rundown) hotel. His boss is abusive, but the uncredited actor who plays the part doesn’t offer the menace that the late Eric Campbell could have provided.

There’s a dream sequence where Charlie dances with nymphs, but it seems pointless. It’s not funny, nor does it help the story. The last part deals with Charlie’s fear that a rich city slicker will take Edna from him. Charlie’s attempts to be urbane provide some modest laughs.

Chaplin is stretching here, but he isn’t sure in which direction.

A Day’s Pleasure

The best I can say about this two reeler is that it’s better than most of Chaplin’s Keystones. It’s at least as good as some of the worst Essanays.

In this totally useless comedy, Charlie is comfortably middle class, with a house, a car, a wife, and two kids. They go off on a day’s excursion by car and boat. Everything goes wrong. I laughed mildly, once or twice.

It’s tempting to guess that A Day’s Pleasure is so bad, and only two reels long, because Chaplin was in a hurry to finish his First National contract. But he spent seven months making this nearly laughless short.

Maybe Chaplin had something else on his mind. He was about to make the very big leap into feature films.