By the time he opened his own studio in 1918, Charlie Chaplin was already the most famous man in the world. After just five years as a film comedian, his spectacular international success had brought him unprecedented financial and artistic clout.
He intended to use this power making a different kind of silent comedy: longer, more structured, and emotionally richer than the usual slapstick fare. As the first effort under his own banner, Chaplin chose to tell the story of a ragged tramp and the stray he rescues from a dogfight.
Chaplin, of course, would don his famous mustache and bowler to play the tramp. Casting the dog, though, became a challenge. “What I want is a dog that can appreciate a bone and is hungry enough to be funny for his feed,” said Chaplin, who told reporters he had been thinking of canine comedy ideas since his days on the British vaudeville circuit. “I’m watching all the alleys, and some day I’ll come home with a comedy dog that will fill the bill.”
With his usual perfectionism he considered hundreds of dogs, kenneled purebreds and dog-pound castoffs alike. At one point, he had so many dogs auditioning on the studio lot that the police told Chaplin the neighbors were complaining about the noise. Finally, he settled on an adorable terrier mix. The remarkably expressive Mutt, as Chaplin named her, proved to be more than a fine performer. She quickly won Chaplin’s heart and became something of a mascot for his fledgling studio.
Their one film together is a screen milestone. “A Dog’s Life” was enthusiastically received around the world, resulting in Chaplin’s first million-dollar box-office gross. It established Chaplin as a producer-director of the first rank, and it encouraged him to push the boundaries of his craft even further, leading to such masterpieces as “The Kid,” “The Circus,” and “The Gold Rush.”
In this scene from “A Dog’s Life,” the tramp—hungry and penniless, as usual—sneaks Mutt into a saloon.
“A Dog’s Life” was made during World War I. After shooting wrapped, Chaplin embarked on a cross-country tour to sell bonds for the war effort. During Chaplin’s prolonged absence from the studio, Mutt pined away for her beloved master. In her depression, the little dog stopped eating.
By the time Chaplin returned to Hollywood, there was a grave in the studio garden. The marker read, “Mutt—died April 29—a broken heart.”
(“A Dog’s Life” can be seen in its entirety here; running time: 32:30.)