The Shaggy Dog Story

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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“A new kind of horror movie…horribly funny!” declared the movie poster for the Disney live-action comedy The Shaggy Dog when it was released March 19,1959. The film wasn’t a horror story even though it had a supernatural element in it (and the song lyric describes “the spookiest dog”) nor was it a classic “shaggy dog” story usually defined as a long, detailed, rambling story with an anti-climatic punchline.

The Shaggy Dog was, in fact, the first live-action comedy produced by the Disney Studio and it success resulted in a string of popular family films that are still enjoyed today. The idea for the film began almost a century ago.

Felix Salten (1869-1945) was born Siegmund Salzmann in Budapest, Hungary, but spent most of his life living in Vienna, Austria. He began writing poems and short stories to relieve the boredom of his job at an insurance agency. He sold his work to newspapers and published them under a number of pseudonyms, one of which (Felix Salten) he later took as his legal name.

He also wrote historical fiction and a few plays, but is best known for his stories about animals. His novel Bambi: A Life in the Woods (1923) was the basis for the popular 1942 Disney animated feature.

In the late 1930s, Walt Disney had purchased the rights to several Salten stories including Perri, the fictionalized story of the adventures of a young female squirrel. Disney made the story into the first Disney True-Life Fantasy in 1957 that combined documentary filmmaking techniques with a scripted scenario.

In 1923, Salten wrote Der Hund von Florenz (as translated by Huntley Paterson), that was published in the United States by Simon and Schuster as The Hound of Florence in 1930. It was a best-seller during Salten’s lifetime, although little remembered or republished today.

The basic storyline was that an artistic young Italian man in Vienna, during the time of the Renaissance, makes a wish on a magical ring belonging to the infamous Borgia family that he could turn himself into a dog, in order to travel south to Florence, in the archduke's coach. The wish is granted, but only on alternate days and misadventures ensue. At the end of the novel, he is fully human again with the possibility that he may become a famous artist as he has become an apprentice to the legendary artist, Michelangelo. However, at the end of the story, he also saves a young woman he loves in his canine form and the evil duke drives a dagger through his heart. It’s a convoluted kind of story.

In 1940, Walt Disney was looking to diversify into live-action as a faster and less expensive alternative to animation. In March 1941, Walt wrote a letter to George Schaefer, president of RKO, the company that was distributing the Disney films. In the letter, Walt pointed out that a live action film based on the Salten story “could be done in a high-class manner, with a fairly good cast, for less than $400,000. I believe it is the type of thing that would have the same appeal as Topper, The Invisible Man and other of those unusual pictures that have been so successful.”

The project stalled not only with the outbreak of World War II but because of RKO’s reluctance for Walt to produce something that did not feature animation either entirely or as a significant portion of an otherwise live-action film.

More than a decade and a half later, ABC was enjoying financial and critical success with televison shows produced by the Disney Studio, including the weekly series hosted by Walt, as well as the original Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro programs. ABC aggressively pushed Walt to suggest other ideas for more series.

“They kept insisting that I do more and more Westerns and my show became loaded with Elfego Baca, the Swamp Fox, Texas John Slaughter, and Daniel Boone," complained Walt to TV Guide writer Bill Davidson in 1961. "When I came up with a fresh idea, the network executives would say ‘no.’“Just to give you some notion of what they turned down, one of their rejects was The Shaggy Dog. We made a theater movie out of it and it grossed $9 million.”

Walt had encouraged writer Bill Walsh’s concept of modernizing the Salten story of shape shifting to utilize his younger performers from the Mickey Mouse Club, especially with the recent success of the AIP 1957 feature film I Was A Teenage Werewolf.

"Don’t be ridiculous—my son isn’t any werewolf! He’s just a big, baggy, stupid-looking, shaggy dog!" states MacMurray’s character when his story is challenged by the authorities in The Shaggy Dog. To further emphasize the connection with that previous low-budget horror film, one of the movie posters for the Disney movie featured a cartooned image of the dog saying, “I was a teen-age boy!”

In a legendary and infamous pitch meeting in 1958, Walt was selling the story of a young boy who turns into a sheepdog as a weekly series to ABC’s vice president in charge of programming, Jim Aubrey. Before Walt was even finished with his proposal, Aubrey stopped him and apologized that he had another pressing appointment and needed to leave immediately. Of course, the rest of the executives, seeing Aubrey’s massive disinterest, suddenly felt this was not the right project for ABC.

A half-hour after leaving the meeting, Walt Disney was still so infuriated that he called a story meeting and told his team they were going to make a feature film based on the premise.

Years later, Disney executive Donn Tatum ran into Aubrey and told him that the Disney Studio had put up a shrine to him. A confused Aubrey wanted clarification and Tatum happily pointed out that by Aubrey leaving the meeting so abruptly, it resulted in the Disney Studio making one of the highest grossing films of 1959 and that its success springboarded into the studio doing a series of similar successful comedies like The Absent Minded Professor. Aubrey was not amused at all.

“Walt had an idea,” screenwriter Walsh told Richard Hubler. “He had a story called The Hound of Florence, which was part of a package he had bought from Felix Salten. It was a mystical story. You couldn’t read straight through it. Walt keep seeing something in it. We came up with the modernized teenage thing and broached the idea to ABC as a series. They said ‘no’.”

“We get stories in a strange way here. We don’t literally get stories as stories. We get springboards or ideas and we develop the story around that,” said writer Walsh to Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz. “Like for The Shaggy Dog, which was based on a book by a guy named Felix Salten. Kind of a nutty little thin book called The Hound of Florence. That was always on the shelf here and nobody knew what to do with it, because it was kind of nutty. It was a kind of a strange little book. It was completely impossible to read.”

The final screenplay takes just some of the basic concepts from the original story which is why the credit on the screen states “suggested by The Hound of Florence."

Walsh emphasized to Hubler that Walt was always very much involved with the story, contributing little bits of comedy business, “As we started developing the story, Walt said, ‘If a man’s son is turned into a dog, who would most hate dogs?’ It was a mailman, of course. So [actor Fred] MacMurray became a mailman, and that made the whole idea much funnier than if he was an insurance man or a stockbroker, etc.”

The screenplay was by Bill Walsh and Lillie Hayward. Hayward had written some of the serials for the original Mickey Mouse Club and teamed up with Walsh for this film and Toby Tyler, as well as the unmade Rainbow Road to Oz script. Walsh, of course, was both a long time producer and writer for the Disney Studios with eventually many films like The Love Bug and Mary Poppins to his writing and producing credit.

In The Shaggy Dog, Wilson Daniels is a mailman who, after 20 years on the job, is allergic to dogs and dislikes them because they often tried to prevent him from doing his daily rounds. He is happily married with two sons, Wilby and Moochie.

Wilby is an amateur tinkerer with a basement full of animals and lab equipment but his father puts a stop to his sometimes dangerous hobby after Wilby shoots off a homemade rocket in the basement. Wilby is a rival with Buzz Miller for an attractive young local girl, Allison D'Allessio. However both boys switch their amorous attention to the new 17-year-old girl who just arrived in town from a school in France: Franceska Andrassy.

On a trip to a local museum, Wilby gets separated from Buzz and Franceska and meets Professor Plumcutt, who is setting up an “Age of Sorcery” exhibit. The kindly professor tells the young boy about the legend of the Borgia family who used the magic of shape-shifting. On the way out, Wilby bumps into a table filled with rings and the cursed Borgia ring ends up in his pants cuff.

Discovering the ring later at home, he reads aloud the inscription and is transformed into Franceska’s extremely rare Bratislavian sheepdog, Chiffon (who mysteriously disappears whenever the transformation takes place) but retaining the abilites of human speech and thought. Only a heroic act of selflessness will break the curse.

A series of misadventures follow as for unknown reasons Wilby keeps shifting back and forth between human and canine form at the most awkward times. His younger brother, Moochie, who has always wanted a pet dog, knows the secret and helps protect Wilby when he is a dog.

Franceska’s aloof father, who is the new assistant curator at the museum, is actually a foreign spy planning to steal “section 32,” a mechanism for a super secret undersea hydrogen missile, with the help of some evil cohorts. Wilby accidentally discovers that secret and tells his father, also revealing that he is now a dog. The spies have suspicions that their plans may have been uncovered and attempt to flee with Franceska as an unwilling hostage.

When Buzz shows up to take Franceska on a date, Wilby, who has transformed back into a sheepdog, steals Buzz’s hot rod and goes off to rescue the damsel in distress and stop the villains. Attempting to flee by boat, they push the helpless Franceska overboard. Wilby in his dog form rescues her, breaking the curse. The spies are captured by the harbor patrol who have been alerted by the police who were pursuing the hot-rod-driving sheepdog to stop the boat.

A shaken Franceska decides to return to school in Paris and leaves Chiffon with the Daniels family. Chiffon has been declared a hero in the newspaper and awarded a medal of valor. Mr. Daniels who tried unsuccessfully to warn the authorities when he found out from his sons about the espionage scheme is also honored for his love of dogs that helped stop the spies. Wilby and Buzz decide to now concentrate their affections on Allison, who in the interim has found another boyfriend. An unspectacular but satisfying ending to a simple story.

In the March 30, 1959 issue of the New York Times, reviewer Howard Thompson wrote: “Any Disney presentation has its wholesomeness and its moments, and this is no exception. The sight of a shaggy dog with a boy's voice lumbering around a typical small-town neighborhood to the consternation of everyone but his wise little brother couldn't help but provide some chuckles and laughs. Especially when it involves a pretty girl next door, some flabbergasted cops and shifty-eyed neighbors… the pajama-clad animal's bathroom gargling and teeth-brushing, his brisk car-driving and one priceless bit when he's ‘frisked’ by a cop —these are hilarious.”

Time Magazine bluntly stated that "producer Walt Disney tells his shaggy-dog so doggedly that he soon runs it into the pound, [but] the young pups who make up most of [his] audience will snap happily at this scented rubber bone."

Unusually, Walt made the film in black and white and, over the decades, there has been speculation that the choice was made to save expense and to try to conceal the special effects. However, both author Bob Thomas and Annette Funicello have each stated separately that Walt told them that he made the decision because he didn’t want the dark mystical elements to seem too real and frightening for younger audiences if they had been filmed in color.

Fred MacMurray, who had been recently relegated to much more serious roles in a series of Westerns, was cast as the earnest but clueless father and given an opportunity to once again show off his comedic talents. His performance was so well received that he appeared is several similar Disney family films within the next few years, as well as starring in his own successful and long-running television show, My Three Sons, that premiered a year after this film. Co-writer Walsh was always quick to point out in interviews that the concept of the television show featured MacMurray in a similar role, with similar aged sons (one of whom was played by Tim Considine) and a sheepdog.

The cast was filled with some of the teenage stars from the Mickey Mouse Club serials, including the ever-charming Annette Funicello, making her big-screen debut in a small role. Tommy Kirk, Tim Considine, Kevin Corcoran, and Roberta Shore also demonstrated a charm and naturalness unusual in films featuring teenagers from the same time period, perhaps thanks to the direction of the ever-patient Charles Barton.

Barton had directed several Abbott and Costello films, including their encounter with the Frankenstein monster. He was one of the first film directors to go into television, directing the Mickey Mouse Club serial The New Adventures of Spin and Marty and several episodes of Zorro for the Disney Studio. After The Shaggy Dog, he also directed Toby Tyler. He was renowned for his ability to work with young actors.

Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk had played brothers earlier in the Mickey Mouse Club serial The Hardy Boys. Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran played brothers in five other Disney films: Old Yeller, Savage Sam, Swiss Family Robinson and Bon Voyage (where MacMurray played their father). Except for Annette, none of the teenaged stars were Mouseketeers, but all had appeared in Mickey Mouse Club serials.

These young actors were given strong support by a veteran cast of outstanding seasoned performers, including Jean Hagen (completely unrecognizable from her Oscar-nominated role as vain silent movie character Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain), Cecil Kellaway, a very young Strother Martin, Alexander Scourby, Jacques Aubuchon, Gordon Jones, Jack Albertson and others.

James Westerfield as the befuddled Officer Hanson was so beloved by audiences that he was brought back as the same character to experience the same befuddlement in The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963).

Veteran Disney voice actor Paul Frees (the voice of Ludwig Von Drake) made a very rare on-screen appearance in the film portraying psychiatrist “Dr. J.W. Galvin,” as well as providing the voice of the narrator at the beginning of the film.

The title song was co-written by Paul Smith and Gil George. “Gil George” was the pseudonym for Walt’s studio nurse, Hazel George who was living with Smith and contributed to many songs for Disney projects over the years.

The playful stop-motion opening titles were done by Imagineering legends Bill Justice and Xavier Atencio with some help from animator T. Hee. Justice and Atencio would create other stop motion animated titles, including the ones for The Parent Trap and The Mis-Adventures of Merlin Jones.

After shooting the title sequence for The Shaggy Dog, Justice and Atencio were shocked to find that the exposure they had chosen was incorrect so that the entire sequence would need to be re-filmed. Hesitantly, they told Walt about the mistake, worried that he would be upset about the additional time and expense. However, Walt realized it needed to be done and as Justice started to leave, Walt called after him, “Give yourself and X credits for that title sequence.”

The budget for the film was a modest $1.2 million and it earned more than $9.5 million in the United States and Canada alone. In comparison, Sleeping Beauty, released the same year, cost $6 million to make and lost money in its initial domestic release.

Despite its success, it took more than 15 years for a theatrical sequel to be made, The Shaggy D.A. (1976) with Dean Jones as a 45- year-old Wilby Daniels. In 1987, a two-part Disney television movie titled The Return of the Shaggy Dog was shown featuring Gary Kroeger as a 30-something Wilby Daniels and taking place somewhere between the original film and The Shaggy D.A.

In 1994, the Disney Company remade the original film with Scott Weinger playing Wilby Daniels. Finally, in 2006, the film was remade with Tim Allen playing a 50-something character named Dave Douglas with a completely different story, characters and plot devices unrelated to the original films.

One question that has always puzzled me and that readers of this column might be able to answer is what is a “Paul Revere Dance”? At the country club dance, the band (performed by a real band from San Gabriel High School that Roberta Shore also attended) announces “Paul Revere” and the lights dim and then there is almost a square dance move like “Right and Left Grand” of alternating right and left handshakes as they go around in a circle until finding a partner.

Neither Kirk nor Corcoran had any clue on their commentary track on the DVD and Considine could only point out that the dancing was done without music, which was dubbed in later so as not to obscure the dialog. Does anyone know?

NEXT TIME: The true story about the real dog who performed the majority of the action in the movie and how he was trained—plus a surprise or two.