Chaplin's first short for the First National company, A Dog's Lifemay be a thematic forerunner to his later "smile, and perhaps a tear" feature THE KID, but there are no tears in this one, only laughs. Looking to make a good first impression at his new cinematic home, Chaplin loads the film with well-timed routines played out to perfection.
In a well-choreographed classic bit of business, Charlie attempts to be first in line at the employment agency windows, but each time a window opens, another work-seeker manages to get ahead of him. From first window to second window he goes and back again, never managing to actually be first in line, until, of course, all the jobs are handed out and the window slams shut on him. It is a routine that Keaton could have done just as easily (and probably did somewhere) but Chaplin has the tramp linger a few moments, asking if there could possibly be any jobs left, whereas Buster would have simply walked away stoically.
Another superbly timed scene comes when Charlie steals pastries one by one from a lunch wagon, hungrlily shoving one in his mouth each time the proprieter turns his back. The wagon owner is played by Chaplin's half-brother Syd, now part of his younger brother's stock company. A fine comic in his own right, Syd plays the scene with the kind of timing you might expect from somebody who grew up with a comic genius. The whole routine is self-contained, adding nothing to the story and ending with Syd accidentally whacking a policeman on the head with a skillet meant for brother Charlie.
The final classic routine comes when Charlie knocks out one crook at a nightclub table and then uses his own arms to gesticulate and gesture to the crook at the opposite end of the table. It's a routine many comedians have done, but few have executed as well as it is done here. One huge reason why it is funny is because of stock company member Albert Austin, a tall, gangly, strange-looking man who always stood out in Chaplin films. Austin was just funny to look at, even if he was doing nothing (see the begining of One A.M. for a good example, where Austin is a driver just sitting in the front seat of his cab). There's something hilarious about the blank look on Austin's face that makes the routine even better.
Perhaps more could have been made of the dog, a marvelous little mutt named Scraps, but even if A Dog's Life is merely made up of self-contained comedy routines, it is still one of the best of the mixed bag of short films Chaplin made for First National.