In my head, this is the first live-action Disney movie. My head is wrong. However, it is Disney’s first live-action comedy, surely a milestone itself. It was made fairly cheap, mostly using people Disney had under contract already and sets built for other things; apparently, the plan had initially been to air it on ABC, but ABC said no. So Walt released it theatrically as much in a fit of pique as anything else, it seems. At that, the original novel was just one of several Walt had obtained the rights to from Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. So much history for such a light movie.
The Daniels family is your standard ’50s suburban sitcom family. Wilson (Fred MacMurray) is a retired mailman with an intense hatred of dogs, as well as an allergy. His wife, Freeda (Jean Hagen), is supportive and kindly and kind of a nonentity. And then there are their sons, Wilbur (Tommy Kirk) and Montgomery (Kevin Corcoran). Wilbur is Wilby and Montgomery is Moochie. Wilby is a wacky inventor type, though that’s downplayed for most of the movie, and Moochie is wild about animals. He desperately wants a dog, though of course his father won’t go along with that.
Wilby has a friendly rivalry with neighbour Buzz Miller (Tim Considine) over Girl Next Door Allison D’Allessio (Annette Funicello in her feature debut), but then a new girl moves in. She is lovely, glamorous, French Franceska Andrassy (Roberta Shore), daughter of Dr. Mikhail Andrassy (Alexander Scourby). While trying to impress her, Wilby ends up learning a bit about the Borgias and getting his hands on a cursed Borgia ring that turns whoever utters its inscription into a large dog, not dissimilar from Franceska’s dog Chiffon. So of course that happens to Wilby.
There is, to be honest, an astonishing amount of plot in this movie. Because it’s not just the rivalry of Buzz and Wilby. It’s not just Moochie’s perverse obsession with how Wilby will be just like having an ordinary dog, even though he can talk and indeed maintains all of Wilby’s intelligence and other knowledge and so forth. It turns out that Andrassy is involved in some sort of spy plot, and so Wilby manages to uncover a spy ring as a dog. Because why wouldn’t the spies talk in front of Chiffon?
It is an awfully busy movie, but one of my favourite moments is relatively quiet. Wilby encounters the ring at a museum exhibit about “the age of sorcery.” The man in charge of the exhibit is Professor Plumcutt (Cecil Kellaway), whose paper Wilby used to deliver. After he is placed under the curse, Wilby returns to the museum to talk to the professor in the hopes of breaking the curse, on the grounds that the professor is the most likely to know how to do it. And when he reveals himself to the professor, the professor isn’t even surprised. Not even a little. He talks very calmly and matter-of-factly to Wilby without even a “wow, it turns out all this is real.” And he of course gives information that will come in handy.
Conversely, I am horrified at the fact that Wilson Daniels fires a shotgun in the middle of his quiet suburban neighbourhood. I mean, my mom had an air pistol that just made noise that she’d sometimes use to scare dogs out of our yard, but this wasn’t that. This was really loaded. We know that for sure, because he peppers the clean laundry hanging on the line. Without, it seems, worrying about what else, or who else, he could hit, because dog.
It’s kind of frustrating, too, because it’s implied that Wilson was bitten by dogs on more than one occasion in the twenty years he spent as a mailman. Freeda tells him that it’s because mailmen sometimes bring bad news, but come on—the dogs don’t know that. And that’s not an acceptable reason anyway; if he’s been bitten, it means people aren’t controlling their dogs. I don’t myself like dogs, and it frustrates me that someone with a perfectly reasonable explanation for not liking them is shown as completely irrational—heck, his allergy is implied to be psychosomatic, at the end, despite acting up when he has no reason to believe a dog is around anyway.
This movie is also notable for an actual in-person Disney appearance from the great Paul Frees, whom I consider to be one of the triad of Great Voice Actors of the Mid Twentieth Century, along with Mel Blanc and June Foray. He narrates the beginning, too—even starting out by telling us that we’re watching a shaggy dog story—but he appears toward the end as a psychiatrist who believes that Wilson’s tale of his son’s transformation into a large, shaggy dog is a sign of mental illness. Which, you know, is understandable. Because it’s crazy.
I’d point out that Francesca is kind of snippy at Allison for not speaking French despite the fact that, you know, why would she speak French? I’d really have liked it if Allison had gotten a bit of her own back by saying rude things under her breath in Italian. But even if she knew a second language—and the boys noticeably don’t, either—there’s no good reason for it to be French. I took a second language in high school, and I took Spanish, as it was considerably more useful in my day-to-day life.
A moment, here, to talk about Lucrezia Borgia (not appearing in this film), who is contrary to the film’s claim not from the Dark Ages but from the Renaissance. And probably nowhere near as evil as history portrays her. A lot of the negative stuff said about the Borgia family is likely to have been because her father was a Spanish Pope, and the Italians didn’t like that. So their life in Rome was influenced by politics, and there was no better way of doing than by shaming the kids—not least because, you know, in that era, Popes weren’t supposed to have kids in the first place.