In the order in which I watched them: Old Yeller (1957); Dean Spanley (2008); All Dogs Go to Heaven (1991); Lassie Come Home (1943)
Old Yeller (1957)
Dir: Robert Stevenson
Cast: Tommy Kirk, Dorothy McGuire, Kevin Corcoran
Old Yeller is a big ugly thieving lop-eared mongrel, who turns up at a small Texas homestead and, in the words of the theme song, becomes ‘the best doggone dog in the West’. The film is set soon after the Civil War. Father goes away on a three-month long cow-drive over to Denver to earn some desperately-needed cash, leaving young Travis (Tommy Kirk), aged fourteen or so, to look after his Mom (Dorothy McGuire) and little brother Arliss, and the running of the farm. Old Yeller initially teams up with little Arliss – an extraordinary performance from Kevin Corcoran – but after winning Travis’s trust soon becomes his right-hand man. Old Yeller is badly wounded saving Travis’s life from an angry wild boar; Travis too is injured and as boy and dog convalesce together their bond deepens.
Made a decade after the end of WW2, and only four years after the end of US involvement in the Korean War, this is a film about masculinity, about fathers leaving home, and about fathers returning. It’s a Walt Disney film, and I was expecting something schmaltzy and cosy, and found myself taken quite by surprise, first by the seriousness with which the film tries to address what it means to ‘be a man’, and secondly by the bleakness of Travis’s own trial. When Old Yeller becomes infected with rabies, having fought and killed a rabid wolf, Travis has to shoot him dead. Wow. Quite something. (Oh dear, crying again.)
Dean Spanley (2008)
Dir: Toa Fraser; Writer: Alan Sharo, based on a novella by Lord Dunsany
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Bryan Brown, Judy Parfitt, Art Malik
What a weird, peculiar, crazy delightful film. It’s based on a novella by writer of the weird, Lord Dunsany, so perhaps that explains it.
Edwardian England. Curmudgeonly Mr Fisk (Peter O’Toole) never got over losing his dog Wag the day he was sent off to boarding school (‘Difficult? No, it was unbearable.’) He has never expressed an emotion since, and now, 60 or more years later, can articulate no grief for his younger son who has died in the Boer War, nor love for his surviving son.
This elder son, Fisk Junior (Jeremy Northam), narrates the story. He is always dutiful, never thanked by his father, and at a lecture given by an Indian Swami, meets and becomes interested in Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), an Anglican Dean no less, who believes in the Transmigration of Souls, or reincarnation. Not only believes in it, but claims that he himself has undergone reincarnation. In his former life he was a dog. It seems that in the Dean’s youth, at Oxford, he was known as Wag Spanley …
The Dean can be persuaded to talk when plied with the wine he loves above all else: the exquisitely rare and expensive Hungarian Imperial Tokay. Dogs, deans, precious wines … The fourth member of the male quartet is a ‘conveyancer’ called Wrather (Bryan Brown), a New Zealander ‘colonial’ who can get his hands on anything.
The climax comes at a dinner party at which the Tokay is passed around and the Dean tells the story of his last day alive as Wag the red spaniel. Fisk Senior discovers why Wag never returned home that fateful day. It’s a mesmerising scene: four Edwardian gentlemen engaged in all seriousness in a story of reincarnation. Fisk’s acceptance of the long-ago death of his dog opens the way for him now to grieve for his son, also shot dead. Yes – sorry – as in Old Yeller, a dog is shot dead. In fact in this one two dogs are shot dead. The knowledge of what happened allows Fisk, at last, to express his love for the son who has survived.
All four men give excellent performances in this highly-theatricalised, cleverly-written movie, as does Judy Parfitt as the widowed housekeeper with a painful past of her own. Peter O’Toole, as the curmudgeon who finally opens his heart, is marvellous. As indeed is Wag the spaniel, who alas we meet for only too brief a time.
All Dogs Go to Heaven (1991)
Dir: Don Bluth
Voiced by: Burt Reynolds, Dom de Luise, Loni Anderson, Judith Barsi, Vic Tayback
Not reincarnation this time, but resurrection! German Shepherd Charlie Barkin returns to earth from doggy heaven to deal with unfinished business: to wreak revenge on pit bull Carface Caruthers, his one-time partner in the casino business, who first double-crossed him and then had him murdered. However, Charlie becomes entangled with a little orphan girl who can talk to animals.
Set in the 1930s, the style of animation harks back to that era. I didn’t like the busyness of the visuals, nor the reproduction of cartoon stereotypes – the big-eyed little girl in her teeny skirt, female horses with sugar-pink lips and so on – nor indeed the film’s jokey knowingness. And the characters keep on breaking into song, which I found especially annoying. But my initial resistance soon softened, and by the time of the final set-piece of dramatic rescue, when orphan Anne-Marie’s life rests in Charlie’s paws, I was completely gripped. I thought I wouldn’t shed a tear, but the doggy sacrifice and final parting did their work …
Lassie Come Home (1943)
Dir: Fred M Wilcox; Screenplay Hugo Butler, from the novel by Eric Knight
Cast: Roddy McDowall, Donald Crisp, Elizabeth Taylor, Elsa Lanchester, Lassie
The oldest of all these Dog Weepies, and at last a film that doesn’t end with the dog dying. Hurrah for that! This is the kind of narrative arc I enjoy: lots of heartbreak upfront, but it all turns out fine in the end.
Lassie is generally agreed to be the best dog in Yorkshire: faithful, elegant, preternaturally intelligent. Every day at 4 o’clock (she’s brilliant at telling the time) she waits for Joe (Roddy McDowell) outside his school and escorts him home over the moor. Until one day when she isn’t there. Joe’s impoverished parents have sold Lassie into captivity. She is taken up to Scotland, but with the help of little Priscilla (11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor), she escapes from her cruel dog-handler and sets off south to Yorkshire and her beloved little Joe. Oh, the trials and tribulations, the bloody paws, the violent storms, the rushing rivers, the evil footpads. But on her journey she encounters plenty of kindness, too.
Muffet: Nobody wore clothes like that in the 1930s. The dresses the women wore were … ludicrous. And the countryside was definitely not English countryside. But Lassie … Lassie was sweet.
As Muffet said, you’ve never seen landscapes look less like Yorkshire, Scotland and places in between, nor heard Yorkshire men and women speak with such weirdly American accents. But who cares when your heart is warmed by lovely Lassie?
I’ve got one more Dog Weepie to watch. I discovered that when Ismay and HB were ordering my birthday DVDs (see post on Dog Weepies 1: the titles came from Anne Billson’s ranking of 10 Best Dog Weepies in the Guardian), Ismay had vetoed The Incredible Journey. She must have been remembering the times I read the book to her when she was little, and was quite unable to read out loud the last few pages (Bodger alert!). (Just as well there isn’t a film of The Velveteen Rabbit or doubtless she’d have vetoed that too.) So now I’ve bought the DVD myself …