When I wrote about Tonka, I said it was the end of an era at the Disney studio. Westerns had dominated the live action films of the 1950s for Disney, but as we were about to head into a new decade, a new type of live action film would become the norm at Disney. I’ll call it “gimmick comedy”. The first of these gimmick comedies was The Shaggy Dog.
Walt Disney had become a house hold thanks to television. Thanks to the Disneyland tv show and the Mickey Mouse Club, his success in television was profitable. As he looked to expand into more television, he came across the story “Der Hund von Florenz” by Felix Salten. Salten had already been a name at the studio as they had used one of his other stories, Bambi. “Der Hund von Florenz” or “The Hound of Florence” is about a young boy who wishes to be a dog. Walt found that the adventures the boy could go on as he transformed into a dog would make for a good television series.
A pilot for the new Shaggy Dog series was put into production. Charles Barton, who had directed Spin and Marty episodes of Disneyland, was made the director and many of the children from Mickey Mouse Club, Spin and Marty, and the Hardy Boys were cast into roles. Tommy Kirk, who had also been in Old Yeller, was cast as the transforming boy, Wilby, and Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran of Mickey Mouse Club fame was cast as the little brother. Television regulars Fred McMurray and Jean Hagen filled out the rest of the cast as the boys’ parents.
This was the first Disney film to be shot completely in black and white. Walt had prided himself on new technologies and breaking barriers in the film industry. Since Snow White, he had made his films in color, but the Shaggy Dog was met with a few faults. In color, the transformation of Wilby from a boy to a dog looked fake. Shooting in black and white hid some of the visual effects. The film, since it was never meant for theaters, was also shot simply instead of using something like Cinemascope or Technirama 70. The tv pilot, which was shot at the low budget of $1 million (Sleeping Beauty cost $6 million.) was then decided that it might fit the big screen.
The mini-series was pushed together into one larger film and was advertised as a new type of film from Disney. The movie was released in March of 1959 and unlike Sleeping Beauty which made it’s theatrical debut two months earlier, became a rousing success. Critics and audiences alike loved the films comedy and style as it resembled a television sitcom but with better production values. The film grossed $9 million in it’s initial run and ushered in the new era of gimmick comedies. Walt was happy with his new film and pushed the studio more toward this style which dominates the 1960s and downplayed animation, which we will see much less of in the coming decade.
The Shaggy Dog, despite it’s somewhat cheesy premise, went on to become a classic for the Disney company. The film from 1959 still holds up and still holds credibility for younger audiences who aren’t familiar with the vast amount of Disney live action films. The Shaggy Dog would also inspire a sequel, a made for television remake, and a theatrical remake. It would also be an inspiration for other “talking dog” films in the future like Homeward Bound or even the Air Bud series of films. If Davy Crockett defined the 1950s at the Disney studio, you can bet that the Shaggy Dog would build towards defining the 1960s. There will be greater comedy films to talk about in the coming decade but The Shaggy Dog broke open the door for all of those films to be made.
What are your thoughts on The Shaggy Dog? Have you seen it? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Leave a comment and keep the conversation going!
Walt’s continued love for his nature documentary series pinned him into a film with tons of footage but not from one place in particular. Unlike previous outings for the documentary series of films, Disney’s Secrets of Life focused less on one climate or geographical area of the world and more on our ever changing planet and the cycle of life we all take part in.
What separates this film as well, apart from the topic at hand, is the cinematography. This was the first time time lapse was used to shoot flower growth. The shots of volcanic eruptions as well as small insects is also breath taking and something rarely seen in the mid-1950s. The film starts like the other True Life Adventures, with paint brush strokes bringing us into our scenes, but this film is far more advanced than the previous films. I’ve noticed that these films tend to get better and better with each one.
With the critiques on the previous films, Walt, as well as director and writer James Algar, dropped the slapstick comedy and silly punchlines for a more serious look at nature. I hope this continues as it was one of the only complaints I would make about these films. Secrets of Life opened in November 1956 and critics gave it praise but unlike the previous films in the True Life Adventure series, it was not nominated for an Academy Award and seems to be lost in the vaults of the studio. There was a DVD release in 2006 as part of a bigger collection of films, but there has yet to be a stand alone film release of Secrets of Life in modern times.