THE SHAGGY DOG (1959)
After a decade of putting out children’s adventure films, Disney released The Shaggy Dog, its first live action comedy. Directed by Charles Barton, this mishmash of nonsensical plot threads manages to provide a legitimately fun cinematic experience, but are there deeper themes hiding beneath all the shenanigans?
There are so many subplots snaking in and out of The Shaggy Dog that it’s difficult to know where to begin. One thing, however, is certain: Wilson Daniels (Fred MacMurray) hates dogs.
A hatred that burns with the heat and intensity of three suns.
This turns out to be a bit of a problem, when his oldest son Wilby (Tommy Kirk) falls under a curse that sporadically turns him into a dog (don’t ask how or why, it has something to do with a cursed ring and the Borgias).
Why he’s still bothering with pajamas is anybody’s guess.
To add to the trouble and confusion, Wilby’s little brother Moochie (Kevin Corcoran) is completely enamored with the idea of his brother being trapped as a dog forever, because he’s always wanted a canine companion. He isn’t the least bit freaked out that the dog happens to have the brain of his brother, he just wants to cuddle him, and maybe put a collar on him. Wait. What?
It’s best that we not think about this too much.
There’s also a subplot where Wilby’s asshole friend Buzz (Tim Considine) is trying to take two girls (Roberta Shore and Annette Funicello) to a dance at the same time. Oh, but one of them has a missile-stealing spy for a father. And wait, there are also two cops (James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis) who keep getting dragged into the action, and one of them thinks he’s going crazy, what with the talking dog and all. Between the cops and the girls and the spies and the dogs, hijinks ensue.
So where do all these converging plot threads lead? Well, nowhere really. But guess what? It’s all completely excusable since that’s exactly what a shaggy dog story is in the first place. Well played, Disney. Well played.
“It could have happened anywhere, or to anyone. It so happened that it happened to Wilson Daniels, a man who loved people, but hated dogs.” Yes, as much as the film seems to focus on teenage Wilby, it’s his father who is the central character in the piece. It is Wilson Daniels who has to ask the deep disquieting question that lurks within The Shaggy Dog: “What if I hate who my son grows up to be?” Behind all the zaniness, there’s a painful story of a kid fearing that his dad won’t accept who he is, and a father coming to grips with his own deeply held prejudices.
While still being about a kid who turns into a dog, of course.
When Wilby first transforms, literally the first action he takes is to hide himself from his father. And remember, this is the era of Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver; dads are supposed to help and guide you when you get into a tough scrape. How odd that in this instance Wilby sees his trial as something shameful, something to be hidden from the man who is supposed to protect and guide him. And we see that Wilby’s fear of his father is entirely justified, as a few scenes later, Mr. Daniels literally tries to kill him.
Shit, this is dark!
Eventually, in a genuinely touching scene, Wilby attempts to open up to his father, saying, “Pop, I’ve got something to tell you, but I’m afraid.” Wilson expresses his willingness to not get mad, no matter what Wilby has to say, but his son’s revelation proves to be too overwhelming for the old man. Eventually, when he gets over his hangups and tries to bring some vital national security information that his son has scrounged up to the proper authorities, he finds himself under psychiatric scrutiny. “Do you often visualize yourself as a dog?” the doctor asks. In other words, does Wilson’s hatred of dogs spring from his own secret desire to become one? Is his real fear that his son is turning out too much like him?
Whoa, did this stop being a kids movie for a minute?
While this shaggy dog tale could be a stand-in for any number of parent/child dynamics, to me it seemed like the loosely disguised story of a closeted teen cautiously coming out to a deeply homophobic father. While 1959 almost seems too early for that particular story to be consciously concealed within a Disney film, it would in no way surprise me if that theme had made its way into the script subconsciously (it’s not as though people weren’t dealing with these issues back then, as is painfully evidenced by Tommy Kirk‘s own unfortunate life story). And after all, what better way to address a taboo subject than to surround it with the wackiness of a talking dog movie? In the end, the message is a positive one: when forced to choose between his hatred of dogs and his love for his son, Wilson sides with his son and gives him the support he needs. Intentionally or not, the film ends on a high note. Good job, movie.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
Well, to be completely fair, people did like it. It was an unexpected hit for Disney, and spawned a sequel, a remake, and two made-for-TV movies. So what is it doing on my list? Well, the users of IMDb have rated it the second worst live action Disney movie released in the 1950s. Hell, it was beaten out by Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue. I can only assume that IMDb users have a bias against zany bullshit. But you know what, fuck whoever rated this movie poorly, because even if it makes no goddamn sense and has no relevance to the plot, setting off a rocket in a house is FUN.
- The film’s opening credits feature a stop motion dog puppet that hovers somewhere between adorable and outright terrifying.
He’s here for your soul.
- Against our better judgement, Cinemanaut Bill and I watched the film a second time with the commentary track that accompanies the DVD release. It was about as fun as watching The Shaggy Dog with four elderly relatives, who loudly and inanely comment on the movie. “Ha. He hates dogs!”
Any time a commentary is billed as “A Lively Discussion,” you know you’re in for a treat.
- Jean Hagen may get second billing as Mrs. Freeda Daniels, but she really doesn’t get much to do in the movie.
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
Sometimes you get the feeling that the well-being of the titular dog was not a huge priority. According to the cast commentary, the go-to method for making the dog talk was to have someone stick their hand into the dog’s mouth and “tickle” its tongue, while someone else held its head rigidly in place. And while that sounds uncomfortable, the scene where the dog falls down a laundry chute looks like it may have been outright painful for our poor canine actor.
Oof, look at him ding his poor chin!
While this is no Milo and Otis, it seems like a bit more care could have been taken.
It may be ridiculous. It may be silly. It may make little to no sense. But, in the end, The Shaggy Dog is just too fun to discount. Add in a positive message encouraging parents to accept their children for who they are, and we have an all-around good kids movie.
Ten Who Dared (1960)