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Monday, September 28, 2009

DOGVILLE COLLECTION -- DVD review by porfle

Back in the old days, studios sometimes tended to get a little experimental with their short subjects. And sometimes they got just plain nutty. Nowhere is this more evident than in MGM's bizarre and fascinating "Dogville" shorts, all nine of which are now available in the DOGVILLE COLLECTION, a 2-disc set from Warner Brothers' Archive Collection.

Directed by Jules White ("The Three Stooges") and Zion Myers, these shorts are corny take-offs on various movie genres and sometimes certain films in particular, using dogs in place of human actors. This means you'll see different breeds of dogs wearing clothes, walking around, hanging out in bars, etc. and speaking with dubbed voices. The miniature sets and props are great--sometimes I'd forget they weren't full-sized. Some shots of dogs driving cars, flying (and parachuting out of) airplanes, riding in buses and fire engines, and just about anything else you can think of, are ingenious.

Are these shorts funny, you ask? Well, the sight of a bunch of dogs strolling around on their hind legs wearing clothes and "acting" out scenes from old movies just can't help being occasionally funny, especially when the costumes and setpieces are more elaborate. Every once in a while a dog's expressions will synch perfectly with the dubbed dialogue and be laugh-out-loud hilarious. And even when it doesn't work, you just sit there mesmerized, thinking, "What the hell am I watching?"

Of course, the thing that will make some viewers uncomfortable and others refuse to watch altogether is the possibility of animal cruelty. To what degree any actual abuse might be involved here in these pre-SPCA shorts is hard to ascertain--mainly the dogs just look like they'd rather be somewhere else instead of wearing clothes and pretending to be movie actors, often sporting a distinct "WTF?" expression.

The most bothersome aspect is the use of harnesses and invisible wires to make the dogs walk around on their hind legs. The sight of entire chorus lines of dogs being manipulated in these contraptions is especially worrisome. However, I didn't see anything in any of the shorts that I would consider out-and-out abuse. I assume (naively, perhaps) that these dogs were valuable to MGM and well cared for during the shoots, and that they at least didn't have it as rough as they would if they were being forced to pull sleds in the Yukon.

Running from 1929 to 1931, the series is wonderfully antique-looking with beautiful opening titles. Dubbing and sound effects are well-done considering that talking pictures were still in their infancy, and the editing is snappy and cartoon-like. The first three Dogville shorts are billed as "All Barkies", after which each is officially designated "A Dogville Comedy." MGM's celebrated mascot Leo the Lion sounds like he has a frog in his throat in his first few appearances, loses his voice altogether for a few shorts, and then finally comes back in fine voice for the last ones.

1929's "Hot Dog" takes place in a speakeasy and concerns a roguish playboy named Joe Barker out on the town with Clara Bone, another dog's wife. When she worries that her husband might show up and catch them together, he brags, "I've been chased by some of the best husbands in town!" There's an all-dog band banging away on their instruments while the entertainment onstage consists of some lovely canine hula dancers in grass skirts. "You never looked at me like that," complains one lady dog to her husband, to which he replies, "You never LOOKED like that!" Naturally, the husband does show up, leading to a violent confrontation. "There's my wife with some yellow cur! I'll kill that dirty dog!" is another example of the pun-filled dialogue. The story ends with a dramatic courtroom scene.

In "College Hounds", a spoof of the old campus football comedies, we find a dorm room full of students going about their daily business--shaving, brushing their hair, relaxing in the bath, lifting weights, ironing their clothes--as they discuss the upcoming big game. Later, a scoundrel with big money bet on the other team hires a femme fatale to lure hometown hero Red Mange into a trap so he'll miss the game. There's a really bizarre love scene, and an even more bizarre football game with two whole teams full of dogs in uniforms being scooted around like puppets on a tiny football field.

"Who Killed Rover?" is a Phido Vance murder mystery complete with knives, guns, and all sorts of scary goings on. An all-dog wedding ceremony leads to a romantic honeymoon night with a rather risque' scene--the groom enters the bedroom, whisks the pillow off one of the twin beds, and nestles it next to the other one. Ooh, suggestive! This one has a surprisingly downbeat ending.

"The Dogway Melody", a spoof of backstage musicals, is one of the best. A slick-talking smoothie hustles to get his girlfriend into the big show, which consists of a series of mind-boggling production numbers including an elaborate version of "Singin' in the Rain."

Then comes the impressive war movie spoof "So Quiet on the Canine Front", which features a full-scale WWI battle sequence with machine guns, cannons, and flea grenades. Private Barker is enlisted to go behind enemy lines disguised as a nurse and ends up at the wrong end of a firing squad before his pal rescues him in the nick of time.

"The Big Dog House" tells of a mild-mannered bookkeeper for the Dogville Department Store who is framed by his boss Mr. Barker (related to Private Barker, perhaps?) for embezzlement and murder, and sent to Dogville Penitentiary. A funny spoof of hardboiled prison pictures, this one has another suspenseful ending with the innocent dog on his way to the electric chair as his girlfriend Trixie, after hearing Mr. Barker's deathbed confession, races with the governor to stop the execution.

Heartbroken soldiers in the Foreign Legion recount their sad tales of romantic betrayal in "Love Tails of Morocco", which offers several entertaining flashbacks in various settings. In "The Two Barks Brothers", gypsies steal a baby who later becomes a shiftless tramp named Oscar, while his twin brother grows up to be an anti-liquor crusading district attorney. Underworld beer king "Scartail" Growler hires Oscar to slip some gin into the D.A.'s water pitcher, leading to a hilarious scene in which the D.A. tries to deliver a temperance speech to some conservative citizens while getting sloppy drunk.

The final short, "Trader Hound", lampoons the enormously popular jungle adventure "Trader Horn" which would in turn inspire MGM's "Tarzan" series. Using the same music and basic plot, this spoof begins with a safari into darkest Africa in search of the great white goddess, Nina T-Bone. This film seemed promising but turned out to be one of the worst of the series--much time is devoted to the antics of human actors in animal costumes, with an extended battle between a lion and a gorilla proving particularly boring. The whole thing is narrated by Pete Smith in his usual unfunny (to me, anyway) style. However, the dramatic appearance of Nina T-Bone and the climactic chase as the hunters flee a tribe of dog-eating cannibals liven things up at the end.

As usual with the Warner Archive series, this burn-on-demand DVD set is taken from the best available video masters in the Warner vault, but with no remastering or restoration. Thus, the picture quality is less than perfect, yet considering the age of these shorts they look and sound quite good. Average running time is 15 minutes each.

The entertainment value of these DOGVILLE COLLECTION shorts is, of course, a matter of taste, not to mention one's tolerance for seeing dogs being manipulated like puppets to walk around on two legs and perform other human-like activities. While several moments elicited big laughs, the overall effect of this series of novelty films is a sort of dazed incredulity at their utter strangeness. I would love to see a roomful of stoners watching these things and flipping out.

Buy it at The WB Shop

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