In 1922, motion picture audiences were treated to The Man from Hell’s River, the first of a myriad of feature films and serials starring a German Shepherd that had been rescued from a World War I battlefield by American soldier Lee Duncan. Following in the paw prints of the earlier silver screen canine known as Strongheart, the new movie star hero known as Rin Tin Tin would work steadily until his death in 1932. (The dog’s progeny, Rin Tin Tin, Jr., picked up the slack after that…though many have suggested that Rinty, Jr. wasn’t as talented as his old man…er, dog.) The Rin Tin Tin films were an economic shot-in-the-arm for the fledgling Warner Brothers film studio, and in addition, jump-started future studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck’s early career in “the flickers.”
The history of this incredible canine movie star inspired writer Cy Howard (creator of radio’s My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi) to pen a story entitled Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Warner Bros. Howard hired Arnold Schulman to collaborate on a screenplay, maybe because fellow comedy scribe Parke Levy once remarked of Cy, “Cy Howard couldn’t write his own name.” (Ouch.) While producer David Picker was employed at Warner’s, he took an interest in the Howard-Schulman project…and when Picker moved onto a job at Paramount, he took the property with him. Naturally, the change of studio venue dictated that name of the movie had to change…and while it was known at one time as A Bark is Born (I wish they had gone with this one…but they abandoned it because of the A Star is Born remake in production at the time) it eventually became Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976). (She does not receive screen credit, but longtime Lily Tomlin collaborator Jane Wagner also worked on the script since Tomlin was at one time scheduled to play the role that eventually went to Madeline Kahn.)
Hollywood, 1923. Aspiring movie actress Estie Del Ruth (Kahn) befriends a German Shepherd who has managed to crash out of the city dog pound…but is upset because she believes the pooch is putting a serious crimp in her silver screen ambitions. Au contraire—when the dog rescues her from the lecherous advances of a studio worker (a cameo by Aldo Ray), New Era Pictures president J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney) gets the idea to make that mutt a star, spurred on by the enthusiasm of a would-be writer-director (Bruce Dern) who answers to “Grayson Potchuck.” The canine, promoted on theatre marquees as “Won Ton Ton,” becomes a big name in motion pictures and Grayson goes along for the ride as New Era’s directing wunderkind. But the success of both man and dog are due solely to Estie, the only person Won Ton Ton will listen to…and complications ensue when the eccentric Fromberg bans Estie from the set.
Despite this setback, the Won Ton Ton pictures continue to pack theater houses…but rumors start to run rampant in Tinsel Town that it’s Estie who’s the secret behind the dog’s success. An ill-advised decision to team Won with silver screen sensation Rudy Montague (Ron Leibman) in a feature film just may be the catalyst that kills the career of one of Hollywood’s most endearing success stories.
In his memoirs, actor Bruce Dern remarks that he initially found the script for Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood hilariously funny. Dern, a man known for his conservatism and disdain for the counterculture (despite appearing in a lot of movies in the 1960s that dealt with this theme—The Wild Angels, The Trip, etc.), doesn’t seem like the kind of individual with a substance abuse problem…so you should sort of wonder what kind of hallucinogenic drug he was on to come to this conclusion about Won Ton Ton. It’s an incredibly flat comedy; there are some inspired bits here and there (when the dog is scheduled to be put to sleep at the pound, a priest [Andy Devine] walks “the last mile” with him) but the movie seems to mostly feed on the nostalgia boom prevalent in pop culture at that time (the surprise box office success of the That’s Entertainment! and That’s Entertainment, Part 2, for example).
You can make a strong argument that a more accomplished director with a solid background in movie comedy could have made more out of Won Ton Ton—even though Michael Winner had romps like You Must Be Joking! (1965) and The Jokers (1967) on his C.V., he’s probably better known for the Charles Bronson smash Death Wish (1974) (and other Bronson hits like Chato’s Land and The Mechanic [both 1972]). Winner proves startlingly inept at staging comedic scenes, and the editing (by Bernard Gribble) in Won Ton Ton doesn’t do the laugh quotient any favors, either. But ultimately, the schizophrenic script (it can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a Hollywood spoof, a paean to the silent era, or a Disney-like family film) is responsible for doing in the finished project: make no mistake—it takes a deft hand mining laughs from touchy subjects like transvestism, prostitution, and doggie suicide. Furthermore, it adopts the “big-destruction-is-funny” gospel of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963—a movie I do like even though its reputation is obscenely inflated) to unnecessary extremes—seriously, people…you don’t always have to blow things up real good.
So why would I recommend Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood to classic movie fans? Well, like the aforementioned World, Won Ton Ton features a cornucopia of celebrity cameos that although Leonard Maltin dismissed them as “pointless” I feel they’re the picture’s only saving grace. There’s something immensely satisfying in seeing the great William Demarest (his last film appearance) in a brief bit as the guard at the studio gate, or Jackie Coogan and Johnny Weissmuller (also his swan song) as stagehands. (One of the subtlest gags in the film is that Carney’s studio head is always spotted with a different woman at his side at various social/publicity events…and those bits of “arm candy” are portrayed by Gloria DeHaven, Ann Miller, Janet Blair, and Cyd Charisse.) Broderick Crawford is an SFX artist (his specialty is dynamite); Fritz Feld (complete with mouth pops) is a servant; Dennis Day delivers a singing telegram; Harry and Jimmy Ritz (the Ritz Brothers) masquerade as cleaning women (I will not apologize for laughing at this, particularly when studio guard Mike Mazurki notices one of them is sporting a moustache); Huntz Hall a moving man (his fellow Bowery Boy, William “Billy” Benedict, can be spotted on Dern’s tour bus); and John Carradine a skid row bum. The only cameo that didn’t work for me is Edgar Bergen as the burlesque performer (Professor Quicksand) who acquires Won Ton Ton…and mistreats the dog terribly. (That left a bad taste in my mouth…though Bergen’s performance is accompanied by a brief glimpse of the indestructible Regis Toomey as a stagehand.)
It’s just a hell of a lot of fun seeing both Stepin Fetchit (as the manservant who does a little trucking when Kahn and Dern move into their mansion) and Walter Pidgeon play butlers in this film that Stuart Galbraith IV at DVD Talk aptly describes as “an endlessly fascinating car wreck of a film.” Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood was originally released to DVD in 2008, but has been resurrected by Olive Films this week (yesterday) to make its Blu-ray debut (many thanks to Bradley Powell for the screener). My fellow classic movie mavens are going to want to add this to their library for the star-gazing thrill, and remember: “Success is nothing without the dog you love to share it with.”