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Monday, September 18, 2017

When Movies Went To The Dogs

What Pulled Sleds For Reading, Then Watching, Wildlife

So far as the mass sees it, classic movies bear much a same onus as classic books. Too few are widely read or watched. I heard of a rich sponsor once who tried spreading great music country wide. He figured just hearing Beethoven, Debussy, the rest, would make converts of us all. After ten years, his project chucked, the would-be spreader of culture acknowledged that classics were for an elite after all. Irony is that all art was once brand new and (mostly) popular, at least to first receiver eyes and ears. People think of classic novels as something they were compelled to read in school, Never Again forsworn as doors swing behind graduation. I got out a so-called Great Book last week, Jack London's The Call Of The Wild, published in 1903, serialized in The Saturday Evening Post earlier that same year, and never out of print since. Were Post readers force-fed those chapters from week to week? From what I understand, they'd wait on tenterhooks for each installment.

For me, The Call Of The Wild was a corking good yarn, not work at all to read, and went by fast. It has dogs, violence, gold seeking, and dogs. I don't know how the writing could come at faster clip, or be more engaging. Additional kick in first editions was cover, and throughout, art by Philip R. Goodwin, dean of outdoor illustrators (sample at right). Only trouble with Jack London's story is that you couldn't practically translate it to film. Buck the St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd is kidnapped and put to sled-pulling in the Klondike. He reasons and schemes like a human. How's getting that over in a feature film without narration or dogs given speech? Rin-Tin-Tin managed it, with assist of titles throughout to guide our way. By such means, he could "talk" and still be credible. Lots of wonder dogs prospered during the silent era. Sound and chat hobbled their act, except as support to humans. Dialogue was largely why Buck got demoted for Twentieth-Century's 1935 adapt of The Call Of The Wild, also practical necessity of stars to make attractive a story everyone knew by name, if not content. "Jack London's Call Of The Wild," or as credits read, "Based On The Story by Jack London," lent heft to make this more than Hollywood dream-up of life in snowy raw.

So long as movies had to distort source novels, I don't know how they could do it better than 1935's Call Of The Wild. Enough spirit of the London story is here to make us know it is his inspiration that will drive action. Buck the dog is subsidiary to Gable and lead lady Loretta Young, but much of narrative turns on what Buck will do, including a most memorable portion of book and film, where he pulls a thousand pound sled. Answering the title Call takes Buck away from human company, then back, till an honest end, consistent with London, sends him permanent to woods and company of wolves. Call Of The Wild was made largely on location, first in Washington state, then closer to L.A. for outdoor work that was left. It is a better constructed job than most of what Hollywood did from literature. William Wellman as director lends usual energy and pace. I didn't feel cheated by compliance to the Code, greater enforcement in effect for six months before Call Of The Wild began shooting. Gable as "Jack Thornton" and married-to-another Young are clearly living together in their wilderness cabin, this after Gable has fallen out with, and discarded, mistress Katherine DeMille.  To this extent, Call Of The Wild plays like a precode release, and is much the better for it.

Call Of The Wild would wait to be adapted faithfully, but as things worked out, not as Call Of The Wild. Walt Disney had worked up to all-animal features from successful "True-Life Adventures" that put a bead on nature and made these thirty minute extras a highlight of 50's programs. Disney acted on conviction that wildlife could anchor a matinee or evening's entertainment, and so began a cycle of well-received features with four feet in the lead, 1957's Perri a "Fabulous First" to gamble against humans as rooting interest. True-Life featurettes had proven this could be done, and besides, at just 75 minutes, Perri could be propped by other of Disney output to fill out a show. Dogs had been most vital aspect of memorable Old Yeller, but that was as much a human drama, and not so dramatic a departure from boy-dog stories well-received before. Lassie had gone on long treks for MGM, but made and kept human contact during each. Disney would depart from movie norm by letting his Nikki, The Wild Dog Of The North go it alone for most of that 1961 film's 75 minute run-time, the dog interacting with other animals he hunts, or that prey on him. Narration supplies the context, explanation here and there of what's happening, though little of that is needed. Derived from a novel by James Oliver Curwood, so say credits, Nikki is actually truer to spirit of Jack London than other films up to that point. Disney made us embrace animals as central interest and like it. Nikki and its kind were in their way as revolutionary as full-length animation Walt had introduced back in 1937 with Snow White.

Walt Intros 9/27/64 TV Premiere of Nikki, The Wild Dog Of The North on Sunday Night NBC Program

Nikki gets lost in Canada wilds and reverts to savage nature. Can he go back to being man's best friend? There is rugged animal action to belie expectation from family-geared Disney. Nikki fights for life, and meat sustenance, on less sugar-coat terms than we'd expect. Act three suspense turns on whether he'll be rescued from a dog fighting arena to which he's tossed. Dog fights on screen, real or faked, are a touchy theme today, but Disney stages melee like blood sport it is, and we liked such raw meat fed us in 1961. My own Nikki, a stray found days after I Liberty-saw Nikki, The Wild Dog Of The North, had come in from her own wilderness laden with ticks and expectant of pups (she had five within weeks of adoption). I'd cherish Nikki for five years, until she was lost to wheels of a passing car while I was downtown watching One Million Years B.C. (the reason I've been cold on B.C. since). Nikki, The Wild Dog Of The North was obscure for years, but now streams in HD and widescreen at Amazon. My fondness for it is borne on wings of sentiment (what isn't where seen in childhood?), but of Disney live action with nature as backdrop, I'll stack Nikki high if not snug at the top. 

More of the 1935 Call Of The Wild at Greenbriar Archive HERE.


Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Yes, our first dog after seeing this was a Nikki as well!!!

4:30 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

A rock promoter at a conference bemoaning the fact kids will not come out for Mozart listened but did not say a word. Then he booked The Albert Hall. He offered MOZART: LOUD. The place was packed with young people.

Too often the classics are offered like a church service. They were not and are not.

In these days when EVERYTHING can be downloaded off the web getting people out for any movie is difficult. Most folks see the ads and hit their computers.

We have to offer a format they can't download.

My programs out of Toronto in the days before Cineplex Odeon and Famous Players bought up all the independent cinemas used to pack theaters that normally sat empty. One theater said, "This is not good. Our popcorn machine can't handle this many people." That was a new one on me. Complaining they had too many people.

On another occasion I sponsored a young fellow who had lived with me with a film series on the campus he went to. The first screening someone from the campus film society said to him, "You are not going to get more than thirty people."

I said, "If you had been smart you would have waited until this was over to speak. Then you could have said, 'We knew you would only get a few people,' but now that you have laid your cards on the table I will lay mine. We are going to pack this place."

We had the place so full folks had to sit in the aisles.

Claude Hopkins, the father of Scientific Advertising, said, "Never let someone with a college or a university degree write copy for the masses."

Nowadays only people with college and university degrees are writing for the masses. The masses ain't buying.

There was way more to Rin Tin Tin than subtitles. I probably have all of his films that are available. They are routinely wonderful. It is no wonder by rights the first Academy Award for Best Actor should have gone to him.

5:48 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Off the dog topic: That still from "Call of the Wild" reminds me of how incredibly good-looking Loretta Young was back in the day -- probably the most beautiful of all movie actress at the time.

3:41 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Many years ago, Walt Disney World had a memorabilia shop that was, at opening, full of Disney posters and lobby cards going back to the 60s. They must have cleaned out a warehouse somewhere. I picked up a vertical black-and-orange poster for "Legend of Lobo". Hadn't seen the film, but there was something about the poster that irresistibly recalled Saturday matinees on a hot, dusty day at the Granada in Morgan Hill, CA.

I did see "The Incredible Journey" (the original, without actors voicing the animals) and "Charlie the Lonesome Cougar" in theaters. First full viewing of "Old Yeller" was DVD, when Yeller's fate was pop culture knowledge. The True Life Adventures were mainly familiar from television and occasionally school.

I pinned the poster up in my cubicle. A dog-loving coworker, about a generation younger, stopped and stared at it. She said, "I thought I knew ALL the Disney wolf movies". Guessing she included everything with dogs and coyotes as well as wolves, but I liked the notion of Disney wolf movies being an actual genre.

5:16 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Did their costarring in this flick lead to their producing their long-hidden son? When was the lad born?
The wolf, man.

11:51 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

No, CALL OF THE WILD led to Gable and Young producing their daughter, not-so-long-hidden.


4:46 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Please elaborate,Imshah.

The wolf, man.

10:38 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Loretta Young's child by Clark Gable was a girl named Judith, born November 6, 1935, who went by the name of Judy Lewis, she was an actress.


12:21 PM  
Blogger Jan Willis said...

And Judy Lewis wrote a very good memoir about her life.

By the way, London's CALL OF THE WILD remains a popular read among students. It's always someone's favorite book, every year, at my school.

3:41 PM  

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