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Friday, November 9, 2007

The Hollywood Hounds, Part 2 (originally published 3/00)

As the producers of the currently playing "My Dog Skip" are well aware, few movie plots are as surefire as a heartwarming tale of a boy and his dog. Kids and dogs, after all, are natural comrades. They are both free spirits by nature, and yet they exist in a state of near-total dependence. How could they not see each other as allies?

Even so, notwithstanding the undeniable appeal of this formula, moviemakers don't always choose to pair their canine protagonists with juvenile companions. There have been plenty of worthwhile films made about relationships between adults and their dogs as well. Here are a few titles to look for at the video store.

"A Dog's Life" (1918). In 1921, Charlie Chaplin scored one of his biggest box office triumphs with "The Kid," in which he became the unofficial guardian of a young street urchin. "A Dog's Life," made three years earlier, anticipates that theme by having Charlie, as his familiar tramp character, adopt a stray mutt, whom he calls "Scraps." The two down-and-outers quickly become inseparable companions, scrounging for food together and staying one jump ahead of the law. As he would later do with Jackie Coogan as the title character in "The Kid," Chaplin managed to coax a remarkable performance out of Scraps. You won't find this on video under "A Dog's Life," by the way. Instead, look for "The Chaplin Revue," a compilation of Chaplin's films for First National, which includes "Shoulder Arms" (1918) and "The Pilgrim" (1923) as well as "A Dog's Life."

"Greyfriars Bobby" (1961). Set in 19th Century Edinburgh, this sentimental Disney picture is based on a true story of a dog's enduring love for his elderly master. The dog in question is a Skye terrier named Bobby. When the old man to whom he has become attached passes away, Bobby refuses to leave the graveside. Even when he is compelled to venture back into town for food, the ever faithful dog always returns to the graveyard at night to sleep beside his friend's grave. This leads to a small legal problem, since all dogs must be licensed and yet no one can actually claim ownership of Bobby. Everyone in town knows and loves Bobby, however, and there is no shortage of people willing to put up the seven shillings to pay for his license. As a result, the lord provost officially confers on Bobby the "freedom of the city," making him in effect community property.

"A Boy and His Dog" (1975). Despite the title, the main character of this futuristic film is definitely post-pubescent. Vic (Don Johnson) is a loner, trying to survive on his own in a desolate, post-apocalyptic world. Nuclear war has wiped out civilization, causing most survivors to band together in "roverpacks." Vic has chosen instead to go it alone as a "solo." And yet he's not really alone. His companion is a faithful dog named Blood. What makes the story interesting is the fact that Blood is the beneficiary of a curious genetic mutation. He is able to communicate telepathically with Vic. In the course of their conversations, it quickly becomes apparent that Blood is by far the more intelligent of the two. Harlan Ellison's original novella was skillfully adapted for the screen by, of all people, L. Q. Jones, who is best known as an actor in Western movies.

"The Call of the Wild" (1976). Jack London's classic tale of the magnificent sled dog Buck and his adventures during the Yukon gold rush has been adapted for film and television many times. It is, however, a challenging work to adapt because the novel is told from the dog's point of view. This made for television version has a distinct advantage over all the other screen adaptations in that the script was written by James Dickey, author of "Deliverance," one of the great luminaries of 20th Century American literature. For fans of London's novel, this is the version to see.

It may have crossed your mind that there is one celebrated movie dog whom I have yet to mention. That's because I felt he deserved a column all to himself. Next week we'll wrap up this tribute to screen canines with a look at the legendary career of the greatest of them all.

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