Monday, July 7, 2014

Love My Dog (Hal Roach Studios, 1927)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched Love My Dog, a 1927 short from the original Our Gang, a.k.a. the Little Rascals, series from Hal Roach Studios. The series lasted for over two decades and was based on the idea that comedy shorts featuring children would clean up at the box office — which they did. These appear to be the original cast members — Roach would rotate the players as the originals “aged out” of their roles — including Allen Hoskins as the Black child “Farina,” who actually got to show street smarts and play a far more intelligent character than most African-American adults (or the white actors who played “Black” characters) did in 1920’s films! The confusion around the series’ title came about because in the early 1940’s Roach sold the rights to the “Our Gang” title and concept to MGM, but kept control of the films he’d made and in the 1950’s sold them to TV under the series title “The Little Rascals.” This print of Love My Dog actually includes both titles, announcing we’re about to see an “Our Gang” comedy featuring “Hal Roach’s Rascals.” Directed effectively by Robert F. McGowan from a story by Roach himself, with titles by H. M. “Beanie” Walker (who went on to write scripts for Laurel and Hardy’s talkies and was one of the few silent-screen title writers who graduated to screenplays in the sound era), Love My Dog is about the efforts of Farina and Joe Cobb (the fat kid who was always the lead in these films, and was replaced after he got too old for them by the legendary “Spanky” McFarland) to save the dog they’ve found on the street and adopted from a gang of villainous dog-catchers who, to protect the people of L.A. against hydrophobia (the common name for rabies then) are determined to capture all the dogs in town, charge their owners $5 each for vaccination, and gas all the dogs whose owners can’t come up with the cash. It’s a grim story line for what’s basically a chase comedy, and given the history of the Holocaust (the gas chamber in which the dogcatchers place the dogs looks all too much like a miniature version of the ones the Nazis built to dispose of humans similarly) the shots of the dogs being executed are even more frightening now than they would have been in 1927 — and the fact that, however loathsome their actions, the dogcatchers are responding to a genuine public-health threat adds an odd moral ambiguity to the film which you pretty much have to put on hold to be able to enjoy it.

Once you do that, though, it’s funny as hell, and it builds to a bizarre ending in which Roach and Walker, their tongues obviously firmly in their cheeks, actually cop Sir James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan gimmick of asking the audience to clap if they want Joe’s and Farina’s dog (already locked in the gas chamber) to live — which he does: the dog managed to stop the flow of gas by sticking his tail into the outlet, thereby coming to no harm, though the gas has turned the end of his tail white. There are some great gags in the movie, including one in which the lead dog manages to open the gate of the dogcatchers’ van and free all the other dogs the bad guys have captured, and another one in which Joe and Farina are sitting on a large wooden box in which they’re hiding the dog, the dogcatchers catch on when the dog’s tail (which looks almost prehensile — did Roach have some special-effects puppeteers to help the dog do things its real-life counterparts couldn’t?) pokes through holes in the box, and when Joe and Farina get up the box moves, apparently by itself but really propelled by the dog inside. The dog itself is unidentified on but is not only personable and charming, he’s also quite well trained — in an era that abounded in canine stars; the first one (Teddy the Keystone Dog) had been introduced by Mack Sennett in the teens but the 1920’s had seen first Strongheart and then Rin Tin Tin, whose personality, well-trained tricks and moving backstory (he’d been found on a World War I battlefield by an American soldier who adopted and trained him) made him one of the big box-office attractions of the decade.