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Monday, March 13, 2006

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.

The color ad at top 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 ---would that push family loyalty too far? The "Shaggy Dog Mask" might be 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 till a final third, but The Shaggy Dog also has a sub-plot about Communist spies. Viewers with radar up will note as-yet-unmasked villainy to be not only intellectual but an art collector, tip-offs that he is also a Red. Seems the spies (including a boyish Strother Martin) are after "the complete mechanism of the undersea hydrogen missile." Surely Walt kept one still from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Roberta Shore’s benign father turns nasty and brutal, manhandling even her in the film's one disturbing scene. Decks were stacked against Soviets in those days. There are alarming aspects about The Shaggy Dog. Fred chases the title character out of his house with a shotgun, firing both barrels in what we're told to be a populated neighborhood. Any number of Universal sitcom players could have been felled. Charles Barton shows restraint in a Country Club party scene (where parent, teen, 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 remains intact. Barton no doubt regarded the bowl prior to shooting and thought, "What would Lubitsch have done?" To everlasting credit, he does not go for the easy laugh. That well-known Barton Touch at work again. Finally, and this is an element of the story that surely 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 closing House Of Dracula, there comes no release from the curse of lycanthropy. Logic would dictate that the dog would be euthanized for Wilby to find peace, but we couldn’t have that. I wonder if Disney got letters addressing the issue in 1959? He'd no doubt push them aside to make room for money being counted (upwards of eight million).


Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Slight correction: I just picked up a 1961 TV GUIDE with an article about Walt's defection from ABC to NBC. Walt said he pitched "Shaggy Dog" not as a series, but as a two-part entry for "Walt Disney Presents." ABC passed - they wanted westerns, westerns, westerns. NBC, on the other hand, gave him carte blanche to produce whatever he wanted - and encouraged him to forget black & white. Hence "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" in the fall of '61.

Also, Walt was a Chesterfield man.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If they had a re-release of the original, it might get me into the theater to see it.
The new version, from print ads to trailers to promo clips on talk shows, makes me nauseous. The poster showing the dog with human eyes is more frightening than any commie spies in suburbia subplot ever could ever be.

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article, and you saved me from having to write a review of it for What I find very funny about the film is the "throw-off" lines that are sometimes hilarious; Fred MacMurray warning his sons not to fall off the roof -- not because they'll get hurt, but because they'll damage their mother's flower bed below! Or Moochie's reaction to finding out his brother's now a dog: "Do you think Pop'll let me keep you?"

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for these scans! It's fascinating to learn about the merchandise tie-ins back then, and that poster art is my new desktop wallpaper. :)

I'm a Disney nut, interested in anything made during Walt's time. While The Shaggy Dog may not be hilarious today, I agree with JimTex that it's preferable to the remake. I hate all the remakes Disney's doing. Nothing beats the charm of the originals. Sometimes it's nice to go back to a more innocent time, y'know?


1:57 AM  

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