IT’S A DOG’S LIFE (1955)
Article 2645 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 7-3-2008
Posting Date: 11-9-2008
Directed by Herman Hoffman
Featuring Jeff Richards, Jarma Lewis, Edmund Gwenn
A bull terrier tries to survive on the streets of the city with his mother. He discovers the secret of his birth, and then his mother vanishes. He vows to find his mother so he can take care of her, and to find his father so he can kill him.
The story is a borderline fantasy because we’re told the story from the dog’s point of view. This basic premise could have been used any number of ways, but I really like the way they went. An uncredited Vic Morrow provides the voice for the streetwise bull terrier called Wildfire, and he manages to give the dog a really engaging personality. It also helps that the movie does not shy away from darkness; the dog is trained as a fighting dog, and though we don’t actually see the dogs fighting (Wildfire accurately tells us that we don’t need to see it to know what’s going on, and even name-drops the Humane Society and the ASPCA at one point), we still get to see enough of the ugliness and seediness of this world to make us really care about the the dog’s fate. The story lightens up somewhat when the dog is befriended and adopted by a kindly old man, but somehow the sense of potential darkness and tragedy never entirely dissipates. The movie even achieves an unexpected depth when the dog finally wins over the unhappy owner of the estate; their bond turns out to be that they’ve both stared death in the eye. With all that, the movie manages to retain a charm and wit that really brings it to life.
Still, I couldn’t help but ponder sadly over what would happen to this movie if it were made today. No attempt is made in this movie to make the dog look like he’s actually talking; nowadays, I’m sure they’d go the route of using the talking animal effects we see in so many movies and TV commercials, and that fragile sense of reality that this movie retains would be lost. Furthermore, the darker aspects of the movie would be traded in for a series of “dogs sniffing butts” jokes, and the whole movie would probably end up like the chaotic dog show that makes for what I felt was the weakest scene in this movie. The very thought of this saddens me somewhat.