The Shaggy Dog
Audiences used to laugh at The Shaggy Dog. In fact, they’d roar --- guffaw --- shake the roof with glee. When I saw it in April 1959 (my first theatrical movie ever), those squealing teens and kids shook the house. Again in 1967, when The Shaggy Dog was re-issued with The Absent-Minded Professor, the crowd went nuts. All they had to do was cut to those two comic policemen, and everybody’d bust a gut. Those guys didn’t even have to do anything. Just the sight of them was enough to alert the audience that big laffs were coming. So how does this comedy riot play today? Well, I just looked at it again. Not with an audience, mind, so I can’t speak to how it might come off in that situation, but can report that the roof is secure. No guffaws on my part, but I never expected that. After all, it’s forty-seven years later (I’ll not weary you by going on as to my incredulity over that). Like so many childhood memories, it’s faded with passage of time. You Had To Be There is an expression we often hear, and never was it more truly applied than to The Shaggy Dog. I don’t think kids today would give it ten minutes. Maybe I’m wrong though. Roberta Shore said something on the DVD extras about showing it to her grandkids, and how they loved the film (she also referred to it as a classic in the same league as Casablanca, but we’ll not get into that). Bless your heart, Roberta, but I suspect their attention was mostly stimulated by the fact that it was Grandma on the screen, not the movie itself. Tommy Kirk went her one better by claiming that The Shaggy Dog was the biggest grosser of 1959, surpassing even Ben-Hur at the wickets! But why nit-pick? We go to these interviews for nostalgic reminiscence, not accurate history. It’s enough just to see how these people look and sound today.
Maybe I didn’t laugh at The Shaggy Dog, but boy, was I fascinated by it. Being Disney’s first comedy, it sure changed the direction of studio operations. Walt must have gone through five packs of Chesterfields trying to figure how a low-budget black-and-white like this could have out-profited a behemoth like Sleeping Beauty, which was out the same year and cost a blue fortune to produce. The dog movie had been proposed to ABC for a possible series, but lunkheads there gave Walt the breeze, and in a fit of pique, he decided to make of it a quickie feature. Star Fred MacMurray got down off his horse (he’d been mired in westerns for a while), and rode a career rocket out of this one that got him six more Disney assignments and a TV series we thought would never end (My Three Sons). Walt rented the Universal back-lot for exteriors (did I see the Munster house in the background?), so the physical trappings fit neatly into what is often, and derisively, referred to as a "typical" fifties suburban family setting. Tommy Kirk’s character (Wilby) mentions a paper route he once had, and dad Fred is an alleged postman, though never seen on duty. That opening scene irritated me because Fred was clearly drinking out of an empty coffee cup. Who do these actors think they’re fooling? Tim Considine is a wise-ass neighbor kid clearly patterned after Eddie Haskell, and when Wilby ventures into an apparent House Of Horrors exhibit in the local museum (wish my town could have boasted a museum House Of Horrors --- we didn’t even have a museum), the whole thing becomes a direct lift from House Of Wax, even the "depth" effects so strikingly photographed in 3-D for the earlier pic.
This color ad is actually the cover of the original pressbook. Disney really had an inspired campaign for this show. "A New Kind Of Horror Movie" was a lure for all those kids who’d gorged themselves on the American-International cheapies --- there’s even a specific reference to AIP’s teenage Frankenstein and Werewolf pics in the dog’s balloon caption. Black-and-white wouldn’t have been a problem, because The Shaggy Dog’s audience was well accustomed to it, not only in the theatres, but at home on TV as well (although Disney would go largely with color after this, the Flubber pics notwithstanding). The usual nutty tie-ins are here. "The First and Only Album Ever Recorded By A Dog" is almost certainly a collector’s item among Disney completists, but one can only imagine the hell attendant upon listening to it. Wonder if Roberta Shore’s ever scored a copy of it for the grandkids? That may have been pushing family loyalty too far. The "Shaggy Dog Mask" might well have provided a short cut to an after school beating, if it were not first confiscated by teacher, and the idea of wearing a dog tag emblazoned with Tommy Kirk’s image would appear to be a singularly pointless enterprise, even if you were a fan of Tom’s thesping. Wish I had that Sunday Comic Series so I could reproduce it here in vivid color, but this B/W sample will have to do. Just fill in the later entries with your imaginations.
You wouldn’t know it until the final third, but The Shaggy Dog also has a sub-plot about Communist spies. Attentive viewers will have their radar up near the beginning, however, when the as-yet-unmasked miscreant is revealed to be an intellectual and an art collector --- sure tip-offs that he’s also a Red! Seems the spies (including a boyish Strother Martin) are after "the complete mechanism of the undersea hydrogen missile." Well, surely Walt had one left over from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Anyway, Roberta Shore’s hitherto benign father all of a sudden turns nasty and brutal, manhandling even her in the one genuinely disturbing scene in the film. They really stacked the deck against the Russkies in those days! In fact, there’s a number of alarming aspects about this movie. At one point, Fred chases the titular character out of his house with a shotgun, firing both barrels in what has been clearly established as a populated neighborhood. Any number of Universal sitcom characters could well have been killed! Charles Barton does show remarkable restraint in the Country Club party scene (in which parent, teen, and even little kid couples dance merrily together to a striped-suit combo --- it’s wonderful). When Wilby/Shaggy gets loose, he leads the customary manic chase through the crowd, bypassing a very Parent Trappish punch bowl that looks ripe for the tipping --- but it remains intact. Barton no doubt regarded that punch bowl prior to shooting and asked himself, "What would Lubitsch have done?" To Charlie’s everlasting credit, he doesn’t go for the easy laugh. Guess it was just that well-known Barton Touch at work again. Finally, and this is an element of the story that no doubt caused a lifetime of sleepless nights for astute viewers --- Wilby isn’t cured at the end. There is every reason to believe that his transformations will continue. Unlike Larry Talbot at the end of House Of Dracula, there is no joyous release from the curse of lycanthropy. Logic would dictate that, at the very least, the dog would have to be euthenized in order for Wilby to find peace, but of course, we can’t have that. To this day then, we must assume that Wilby, now into his sixties, remains beset with this dreadful malady. I wonder if Walt got letters addressing the issue in 1959? If so, he no doubt pushed them aside on his desk to make room for the money he was counting (I'm told it was upwards of eight million).