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!
The mid-1950s were chalk full of western films from Disney, mostly starring Fess Parker who had made the role Davy Crockett the most famous character in television and film. The western film genre in general had been a big hit amongst audiences in the 1950s and as Walt was capitalizing on the rugged shoot-em-up genre, he looked at another semi-western in 1957. He wanted to make a film based on the best selling book by Fred Gipson titled Old Yeller.
Old Yeller was a 1956 children’s novel that was a best seller and had won a Newbery award. It mixed Post-Civil War Texas life with a family story. It was the perfect blend of western and family film making that Disney was looking for. Disney brought Fred Gipson into to co-write the screenplay which allowed the film to be true to the novel, which was a risk for Disney as many of his films had been sugar-coated for audiences.
The film also starred two of the Mickey Mouse Club cast members, Tommy Kirk and Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran, who had made a name for themselves as playing the Hardy Boys on the hit kids show. Fess Parker plays a small roll in the film as the boys father, but with so many of the past few films I have researched starring the actor, I’m glad to see that he only plays a small part and that the Mouseketeers get most of the glory here, at least as far as human characters are concerned. Old Yeller is a wonderful dog himself and steals the show as a stray dog who winds up being taken in by the family.
Over the course of the film, we learn that the bond between children and dogs is endless and family is truly one of the most important things we have in life. As Old Yeller becomes a part of the Coates family, we connect with him as if he had always been a part of the family. When Old Yeller is infected from a wolf bite and has to be penned due to fear of him having rabies, we feel for this family being torn apart. Then, we get to the ending, when a rabies infected Old Yeller snarls at the boys. The older boy, Travis, played by Tommy Kirk, is forced to put down his dog that he had grown so attached to. It’s one of the saddest moments in film history. It’s strange to think that Walt Disney allowed for such a brutal ending, but he must have known that it would be for the best.
The film was released on Christmas Day 1957 and was an instant hit with both critics and audiences. The film ended up grossing over $6M in it’s initial release and would go on to make over $21M in later releases altogether. It was within the top 5 films of the year. The film has gone on to be part of pop culture. It is referenced for it’s death scene on shows like Friends. It’s legacy far surpasses many of the live action films Disney had put out in the 1950s, and it may be one of the greatest live action films, the Walt Disney company has ever put out period!