Tuesday, June 16, 2015

It's a Dog's Life

When you think dog movies, you probably think Lassie. TCM is running a bunch of those this morning and afternoon, but one of today's dog movies isn't a Lassie film: It's a Dog's Life, airing at 6:30 PM.

Wildfire (played by a dog named Wildfire) is a bull terrier lives as a stray on the New York City waterfront circa 1900 with his mother. Wildfire doesn't have a father, at least not that he knows of. So he goes to one of the older dogs on the waterfront and asks (voiced by Vic Morrow) about his heritage. It turns out that his father was a champion show dog, knocked Mom up, and then just left the two dogs. This ticks Wildfire off, so he vows to go off and avenge what his biological sire did to the mother he loves.

Wildfire goes off and winds up in the Bowery, which was the part of New York inhabited by the down-and-outers and people who made a living however they could. For some people, this meant dogfighting. Wildfire fights one of the strays himself, which gets him noticed by Patch McGill (Jeff Richards). Patch likes what he sees in Wildfire, takes him in, and trains himto be a champion fighter, getting the money to train him from his burlesque girlfriend Mabel (Jarma Lewis). As I said, these are rough people living in the Bowery. Wildfire becomes a successful fighter, at least until Patch has the hubris to put him up against much bigger dog, which results in Wildfire losing a fight, getting injured, and being abandoned by Patch.

Thankfully for Wildfire, one Jeremiah Nolan (Edmund Gwenn) has been hanging around down in the Bowery from time to time. Jeremiah is a servant for the wealthy Wyndham family, and takes Wildfire home with him to nurse Wildfire back to health. Mr. Wyndham, the patriarch of the family (Dean Jagger), doesn't like the idea of this dog being around, especially when Wildfire starts to mix it up with some of the Wyndhams' well-bred St. Bernards. Wyndham's daughter Dorothy (Sally Fraser), however, sees that Wildfire is really a beautiful dog, and with a little good grooming and refinement, could easily be entered in a dog show. It's at these dog shows that Wildfire also meets the lady dog of his dreams....

You'd think with the presence of a talking dog (and a whole lot of dogs, in fact), and kindly Edmund Gwenn), that It's a Dog's Life is a children's movie, but in some ways, it's not. The presence of dogfighting as an integral part of the plot, even though it's obviously never explicitly shown, makes the movie almost schizophrenic. For the most part the movie wants to be light, but the dogfighting is clearly a dark idea. That having been said, the movie tries to handle it fairly lightly, which makes things even odder. The human actors are, for the most part, OK, but this is really Wildfire's story. Wildfire does carry it well enough to make it worth at least one viewing.

It's a Dog's Life has been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

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