Order Out of Chaos
In keeping with Hollywood’s ongoing project to remake every particle in the known universe, filmgoers were recently treated to a retread of Disney live-action classic The Shaggy Dog. And what’s a remake without the obligatory DVD re-release of the original? (Anyone ever read Baudrillard’s old saw about the museum whose sole purpose is to memorialize the historical site razed to build it?) Disney has put out special—“Wild & Wooly” and “Canine Candidate”—editions of the 1959 Shaggy Dog and its 1976 sequel, The Shaggy D.A.. These movies are decent, cheesy fun as well as curiously indicative of their respective ages.
The Shaggy Dog was Disney’s first non-animated film, heralding the ‘60s golden age: The Parent Trap (1961), Mary Poppins (1964), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). But it also comes on the tail end of a different movie trend, the ‘50s having been replete with Jekyll-and-Hyde-style transformation movies. In its heyday, the genre took itself at least half-seriously—atomic testing exacts a terrible toll in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1951) and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957)—but by the time Shaggy Dog rolled around, the sci-fi transformation motif had largely devolved into parody. So, awkward teenager Wilby Daniels’ (Tommy Kirk) supernatural curse comes not as a result of radiation poisoning, but from a glowing ring bearing a magical inscription. And his transformation periodically into a scruffy sheepdog is preposterous.
Still, Shaggy Dog isn’t lacking in weird subtexts. Wilby is on the cusp of puberty, unable to act on his awkward crush on girl-next-door Allison (Annette Funicello). Girls in general look right through Wilby as though he weren’t there. But after he starts changing into a sheepdog and back again, he becomes a hit with the ladies, who, it should be added, have no inkling of his bizarre secret. Thus is sexual awakening clumsily associated with the bestiality of the subconscious, in fealty to the original Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (The Victorian Age being the only era to rival the Eisenhower years in the sheer force of its collective sexual repression.)
The Shaggy Dog‘s money shots are all about making kids giggle by having Wilby’s canine shifts occur at inopportune moments, but eventually it adopts some semblance of a plot, concerning a spy ring uncovered by Wilby and his little brother Moochie (Kevin Corcoran). Wilby’s curious affliction becomes an asset yet again, because in his shaggy-dog form, he can spy on the spies without them becoming any the wiser. In this homage to Cold War vigilance, Shaggy Dog consummates its break with the more traditional ‘50s transformation movies.
Seventeen years separate Shaggy Dog and its sequel, so it’s scarcely surprising that Shaggy D.A. is a very different movie. Wilby is now a happily married family man, as the movie focuses on runaway crime and political corruption, both pet-rock issues of the mid-1970s. D.A. is arranged more or less like Shaggy Dog in reverse, in that the earlier movie passes its first hour in idle farce whereas D.A. spells out its plot within two minutes of the opening titles. Wilby and fam return home in the movie’s second scene to discover that burglars posing as furniture movers have filched their every worldly possession. Wilby finds the police indifferent to their plight, a fact he attributes to the corrupt local district attorney (veteran Disney heavy Keenan Wynn, who went on to play Mel in the legendary TV show Alice). He vows to run for office and thereby bring “order out of chaos.”
It turns out there’s all manner of chaos in D.A. crying to be sorted out. Wilby and wife Betty’s (Suzanne Pleshette) hypermodern son Brian (Shane Sinutko) is perpetually tuned into radio headphones with huge antennae that make him look like a space alien, and he spends most of the movie quizzing his parents on a litany of obscure matters that make them seem woefully out of touch. (Out of the blue, he asks Wilby how many eyes flies have, and when Wilby guesses they have two, the son smugly corrects that they in fact have thousands.)
At first blush, this might seem like a generic generation gap issue, but the problem really lies in the mass media and the comparative adeptness the 30-something Wilby and Betty and the 10-something Brian show in surfing them. By dint of his constant immersion in FM radio (the internet of the 1970s), Brian is in the know (the Daniels first learn that the shaggy dog ring has resurfaced because Brian hears a news update on his space alien headphones), while Betty and Wilby chronically come up short.
Campaigning, Wilby presses flesh outside a local grocery store and Betty advises him to seek out a baby-kissing photo-op, but the first baby he spots is smeared in sticky candy, which the smooching Wilby gets all over him. A photo of the besmeared Wilby in the paper is captioned, “Local Attorney Promises to Clean Up City if Elected.” Soon after, a TV crew shows up at the Daniels house, and Betty is so wooden on screen, indulging in long-winded political oratories about poetry and standing by her husband, that the crew rolls their eyes in disgust. Between the two of them, Betty and Wilby demonstrate such ineptitude at manipulating the media that, moments later, when Wilby turns into a sheepdog on live television, it feels rather like an afterthought.
Given that all this happens in Shaggy D.A.‘s first 30 minutes, it’s not surprising that the movie hits its apogee before it’s halfway over, with an epic pie fight that makes the cafeteria fracas in Animal House look phoned in. The movie doesn’t know where to go to top this, and the rest of it feels unfocused. Wilby becomes basically stuck in dog form after the corrupt D.A. and his henchlings learn the secret of the shaggy dog ring, wandering from one entanglement to another in his struggle to expose the evil politicians and regain his human form.
But this too is in keeping with the mid-1970s, with its curious convergence of aftermaths and precursors—the smoking ruin of the Vietnam war and the travesty of Watergate, dovetailing with the mad diffusion of communication technologies and the advent of the personal computer. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the movies of that era would adopt confusion as a theme—that from the serious to the banal, they would feature characters in plotless maelstroms, teetering on the edge of overload.