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Thursday, March 23, 2017
I only saw WON TON TON: THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD (Olive Films) once before, when me and the guys caught it during its initial run back in 1976, and we all hated it. Why? Because we were expecting something really wildly, wickedly funny and off-the-wall, like a Mel Brooks or Monty Python flick.
Well, this movie isn't like that. In fact, it seems to be willfully corny and sometimes gives the impression that it actually wants to be bad just to mess with us, although it doesn't really. And now that I'm an avowed bad movie fan, I find this irresistible and maybe even a little wonderful.
It certainly has a chipper enough attitude with its sunny early-Hollywood atmosphere, fast action, rapid-fire (and often dumb) comedy dialogue, and utter lack of seriousness even when Won is being led to the doggy gas chamber with none other than Andy Devine, as a priest, reading his last rites.
That's another thing about this movie--it is literally packed with guest star cameos. Like, dozens of them. The whole running time is a spot-the-stars thing where every bit part is a potential Old Hollywood has-been passing through.
Some get a bit of business with a few lines, such as the two surviving Ritz Brothers, while others flash by so briefly and thanklessly you're not even sure who you think you just saw. (Sadly, many of today's younger viewers will probably recognize only a small percentage of them.)
They include such Tinsel Town luminaries as Phil Silvers, Milton Berle, Johnny Weissmuller, Ann Miller, Broderick Crawford, Walter Pidgeon, Ethel Merman, Cyd Charisse, Rhonda Fleming, Fritz Feld, Georgie Jessel, Virginia Mayo, Billy Barty, Peter Lawford, Sterling Holloway, Janet Blair, Fernando Lamas, Aldo Ray, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Huntz Hall, Stepin Fetchit, and many, many more. I even spotted an unbilled Toni Basil as Dean Stockwell's date at an award show.
One of the most unusual casting choices is Ron Liebman (NORMA RAE) as Rudy Montague, a Rudolph Valentino type who dresses in drag so that he can attend his own movies without getting mobbed since he's his own biggest fan.
The plot, if it matters, is about starving actress Estie Del Ruth (Madeline Kahn, BLAZING SADDLES, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN) and aspiring screenwriter Grayson Potchuck (Bruce Dern, THE COWBOYS, THE TRIP) both managing to break into silent pictures on the coatttails of a talented German Shepherd named Won Ton Ton, who loves Estie and does whatever she tells him to do.
This delights unscrupulous studio boss J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney, "The Honeymooners"), who sees big, fat dollar signs when Won's first picture is a smash. Estie has a harder time convincing him that she's actress material, however--in fact, after J.J. has her thrown off the lot, Potchuck must sneak her back in so that she can direct Won from behind the camera.
As per the usual "rise and fall and rise" Hollywood yarn which this movie spoofs, Won's success doesn't last and he eventually hits the skids. He ends up getting drunk in an alley with a homeless John Carradine and then, in one of the film's strangest sequences, unsuccessfully attempts various methods of doggy suicide.
As for the rest of the comedy, it's a real hit-and-miss affair. Some is just so loud and destructive that we can't help but laugh, or at least cringe, while other attempts, such as an old-fashioned piefight and various bits of traditional slapstick, simply lack the imagination, finesse, and timing of the original silent comedies they're imitating.
This isn't helped by the fact that director Michael Winner is hardly known for his comedy skills, having helmed such films as the DEATH WISH series (along with other Charles Bronson shoot-em-ups), THE BIG SLEEP, MURDER ON THE CAMPUS, et al.
Striving for a light touch, he often achieves a level of physical and verbal humor akin to a cheap Filmation cartoon, and tends to simply aim the camera at his myriad of actors in hopes that they'll just naturally be funny and charming.
And sometimes they are. It's hard to miss with Madeline Kahn and Bruce Dern as the leads (as unlikely as it sounds, perennial bad guy Bruce was funny when given a likably sleazy character to play) and supporting players such as Art Carney and Teri Garr (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS).
The setting is another plus, encompassing several Hollywood landmarks and an overall atmosphere of silent-film-era nostalgia that's vivid and colorful. (Vintage car buffs will love seeing the classic old models, and then cringe as they crash into each other.) Even the simulated silent movies we see during various premieres appear authentic, although much too aged-looking to have been newly filmed.
The DVD from Olive Films is in 1.78:1 widescreen with mono sound and optional English subtitles. No extras.
Those expecting excellence will be disappointed, as will those settling in for a total bad-movie bash. But those who set their sights in between and take the good with the bad--between which extremes this film fluctuates wildly--should find WON TON TON: THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD a passable time-waster at worst, and, at best, a cheerfully featherbrained and delightfully screwy sort of novelty artifact.
Order the Blu-ray or DVD from Olive Films