I’ve been a big film fan for over 30 years now, but there are lots of big films that it has taken me some time to get to. Last year, one of those films was the Charles Bronson classic Death Wish. I enjoyed it so much I watched Death Wish II very quickly afterward. Now, the director of both those films, and many others, is a man named Michael Winner. Looking over his filmography I think it’s fair to say that Death Wish was his biggest hit ever. Today, though, we’re going to look at the film he did after that festival of nastiness. Oddly, it’s a movie about a dog. Let’s travel back to days of silent films with 1976’s Won Ton Ton, The Dog who Saved Hollywood.
The film focuses on a struggling actress named Estie (Madeline Kahn) who one day makes a new friend on the streets of Hollywood in the form of a german shepherd who has recently escaped from being gassed at the local pound. Not only that, he released all the other dogs in the process. Later, while trying to get work at a studio, the dog rescues Estie from a crew member who tries to have his way with her. In the process, the dog catches the attention of a tour bus driver/wannabe director named Grayson Potchuck (Bruce Dern) and the studio head, JJ Fromberg (Art Carney). They are anxious to start making movies starring the dog, who is dubbed Won Ton Ton, but the pooch will only perform with Estie on hand.
Quickly, the dog becomes a big big star. The dog even ends up winning a (not the) Academy Award over four human actors. Most of the movie follows the ups and downs of the dog’s career, as well as Estie’s, in the movies. This includes the high of starring in a big budget adventure film alongside heartthrob Rudy Montague (Ron Leibman)…who is actually a closeted homosexual and crossdresser. We also see the dog hit rock bottom, appearing in what is essentially Mexican porn.
I had wrongly assumed that this was somewhat of a family film. It is about a dog, after all. It’s still a PG by 1976 standards, but it’s definitely not for the kiddies. Still, the scenario has a lot of potential, and I did enjoy some moments of it. As a classic film fan, I certainly enjoyed this movie’s portrayal of a movie studio in the silent era. Several scenes have the feel of a silent slapstick comedy. When Madeline Kahn flashes her leg to try and hail a cab, the accident that ensues leads to a fight full of pratfalls and comedy punches. It’s nowhere near Buster Keaton quality, but it’s kinda charming. The movies within the movie are also quite fun, especially for those wired for classic film. One truly wonderful sequence sees Kahn’s character become a huge silent comedy star in a film with some very Keaton-esque gags. A building even collapses around her like in Steamboat Bill Jr.
The movie is helped big time by Madeline Kahn’s stellar comedy skills. She’s absolutely adorable in this and turns in a solid comedic performance. Bruce Dern definitely takes a back seat to Kahn, but is effectively slimey as a the director behind Won Ton Ton’s films. There are several gags where Dern pitches movie ideas that are funny, if a bit too on the nose. “It’s about a giant shark terrorizing an entire New England town!” One role that was a bit too small for my taste was Teri Garr as Kahn’s Una Merkel-ish roommate.
One character severely lacking in personality, though, is the dog. Sure the dog does some impressive stunts. I loved his trademark of jumping through walls in all of his films, even ones that are supposed to be made of brick or stone. He also looks great with a stick of dynamite in his mouth, another one of his trademarks. Sadly, though, the dog comes across as a bit robotic. Sure, the dog does what his handlers tell him to do, but he never really has a moment of connection with the audience. Since this is the dog’s story, that’s a serious blow against making the film a success. Another serious problem is that the third act is an absolute train wreck which makes the film feel way too long, though it only clocks in at 90 minutes.
Despite some pretty big problems, Won Ton Ton still has some enjoyable aspects. Madeline Kahn’s performance is almost reason enough to check it out. Classic film junkies will also enjoy the myriad of cameos from stars of the past. Included are the likes of Milton Berle, Joan Blondell, Rory Calhoun, Ethel Mermen, Jackie Coogan, Edgar Bergen, The Ritz Brothers, Huntz Hall, Phil Silvers, and tons more. It’s actually a good thing that we have all those cameos. After a clever start for the film, once we hit the hour mark hunting for those cameos is one of the few things that keeps it interesting.
Note: Won Ton Ton, The Dog who Saved Hollywood was recently released on DVD and Blu Ray by Olive Films. Thanks to them for letting us check out the film.