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The Shaggy Dog

The Shaggy Dog(1959)

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teaser The Shaggy Dog (1959)

Although Walt Disney built his reputation on animation, there was always a live-action component to his output, whether it was the combination of animation and live-action in films such as Song of the South (1946), or the popular True-Life Adventure nature films such as Perri (1957) or a straightforward adventure movie such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) or Swiss Family Robinson (1960). Surprisingly, it wasn't until 1959 that Disney released their first live-action comedy, The Shaggy Dog (1959). The movie's wild success it earned over $8 Million on its first release took the studio by surprise and changed the course of Disney live-action features for years to come.

Some of the advertising for the movie made a point to say "Warning Don't miss the beginning... It's a Blast!" Indeed, as the film begins we find teenager Wilby Daniels (Tommy Kirk), tinkering in the basement of his suburban home on a missile interceptor. He and his brother Moochie (Kevin Corcoran) can't stop a huge homemade rocket from beginning a launch sequence, which rattles the upstairs dishes and nerves of their parents, Wilson and Freeda Daniels (Fred MacMurray and Jean Hagen). The family escapes the house just in time, as the rocket blows a hole through the roof of the residence. Wilby and his hot-rod driving pal Buzz Miller (Tim Considine) watch a new neighbor move in down the street, the French-speaking Franceska Andrassy (Roberta Shore). Buzz falls all over himself to impress the new girl, which insults his date, Allison D'Allessio (Annette Funicello, making her big-screen debut). Franceska has a large, shaggy sheepdog named Chiffon, who matches the appearance of a dog in an antique family portrait of the Borgias owned by her father, the new assistant curator at the local museum. The kids drive to the museum, where Wilby is left to wander alone. He runs into Prof. Plumcott (Cecil Kellaway) who shows Wilby more artifacts from the Borgias who, he explained, were known to dabble in the occult. Later at home, Wilby discovers a mysterious ring that had fallen into his pants cuff he wears it and recites the words that trigger a strange shape-shifting spell he turns into a Bratislavian Sheepdog! Plumcott tells Wilby that a good deed may break the spell, but this may be problematic his father Wilson is deathly allergic to dogs and plans to shoot the next one he sees in his house.

The Shaggy Dog was first proposed as TV series to the ABC Network, which was already airing Disney's Zorro (1957-1959) and The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1959), as well as the flagship Disneyland (1954-1961) program. Rejected as a series, Disney decided to produce a feature film using the premise. Bill Walsh, who had worked as a producer on much of Disney's early TV content, fashioned a screenplay suggested by The Hound of Florence a novel written in 1930 by Felix Salten. (Austrian writer Salten also penned the story Bambi, which was adapted as an animated feature by Disney in 1942). Walsh would go on to write the screenplays for a number of Disney's live-action features, including Mary Poppins (1964) and The Love Bug (1968).

The Shaggy Dog was filmed in black-and-white and featured some fairly unconvincing special effects of the talking dog an obvious puppet is often put to use. The muddled origins and low-budget execution of The Shaggy Dog make for an uneven film with some particularly sloppy plotting. (For example, why include a lengthy set-up sequence showing our suburban teenage hero to be a whiz at science when the conceit that will turn him into a dog is one of pure fantasy?)

Given the TV origins of the project, it isn't a surprise that the cast of The Shaggy Dog is mostly made up of teen stars from Disney TV shows. These included Kirk and Considine, who would have been well-known to TV viewers in 1959 as the stars of The Hardy Boys (1956-1957) and other serialized Disney programs. Kirk and Kevin Corcoran played brothers for the second time in The Shaggy Dog; they had already appeared in Old Yeller (1957) as siblings, and would go on to play brothers in three further movies: Swiss Family Robinson (1960), Bon Voyage! (1962), and Savage Sam (1963). Annette Funicello has a deceptively small role in The Shaggy Dog - she may have been the most popular youngster in the cast in 1959, due to her high visibility on The Mickey Mouse Club and her recently-begun recording career; her Top-Ten single "Tall Paul" would receive much national airplay in 1959.

To the cast of teenagers was added a few veterans, including Fred MacMurray, appearing in the first of his seven starring roles in Disney films; Jean Hagen in a thankless "Mom" role; and the always-welcome Cecil Kellaway, playing the sort of befuddled-professor type that audiences had come to expect from him by the late 1950s. While later live-action Disney films would become well-stocked with familiar comedic faces in supporting roles, there are only a few on view here, such as Strother Martin, Gordon Jones, and Jack Albertson. The Shaggy Dog also features a rare on-camera appearance by Paul Frees, who provided off-screen voices for many years worth of Disney TV shows, movies and theme park attractions. (In fact, he also provides the opening narration for The Shaggy Dog!)

Critics at the time seemed to recognize the low-budget nature of The Shaggy Dog. Time Magazine bluntly stated that "producer Walt Disney tells his shaggy-dog so doggedly that he soon runs it into the pound, [but] the young pups who make up most of [his] audience will snap happily at this scented rubber bone." Writing in The New York Times, Howard Thompson called the film "brisk but unrewarding" and goes on to say that "any Disney presentation has its wholesomeness and its moments, and this is no exception. The sight of a shaggy dog with a boy's voice lumbering around a typical small-town neighborhood to the consternation of everyone but his wise little brother couldn't help but provide some chuckles and laughs." Thompson finds fault with the finale, though, which he says "...races into a wild chase of a climax that is pure bunk, as the shaggy hero discovers a nest of sinister foreign spies right across the street. No child, we'll wager, who has ever seen television or another movie will swallow this wrap-up."

The year after The Shaggy Dog, MacMurray began his twelve-year stint as Steve Douglas on the TV series My Three Sons (1960-1972), where Tim Considine played eldest son Mike. In 1960 MacMurray also appeared in his second feature for Disney, as The Absent-Minded Professor (1960) who invents Flubber. Like The Shaggy Dog, this film was also a smash hit at the box-office. Disney has remade The Shaggy Dog twice first as a TV movie in 1994, then as a big-budget theatrical film in 2006 starring Tim Allen. The studio also produced two separate sequels, one for TV in 1987, and the theatrical The Shaggy D.A. (1976), starring Dean Jones as a grownup Wilby Daniels.

Producer: Bill Walsh
Director: Charles Barton
Screenplay: Bill Walsh, Lillie Hayward, based on the novel The Hound of Florence by Felix Salten
Cinematography: Edward Colman
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Hazel George, Will Schaefer, Paul J. Smith
Film Editing: James Ballas
Cast: Fred MacMurray (Wilson Daniels), Jean Hagen (Freeda Daniels), Tommy Kirk (Wilby Daniels), Annette Funicello (Allison D'Allessio), Tim Considine (Buzz Miller), Kevin Corcoran (Moochie Daniels), Cecil Kellaway (Professor Plumcutt).
BW-102m. Closed captioning.

by John M. Miller

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