Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) dir. Michael Winner
Starring: Bruce Dern, Madeline Kahn, Art Carney, Teri Garr, Phil Silvers and Billy Barty
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
When the notion of movies so bad they were good came to prominence in the 80s and 90s, thus yielding the Golden Turkeys, The Razzies and eventually Mystery Science Theatre 3000, it maddeningly gave license to critics and audiences to shove their pretentious tongues in their cheeks and knowingly wink at each other over the incompetence of whatever slobs had created and foisted these less-than-stellar works upon the movie-going public. A major target of this high-falutin’ derision was director Ed Wood Jr. and, in particular, his “Plan 9 From Outer Space”, proclaimed by these elitists as the worst film ever made. Wood’s films and many other Grade-Z efforts – incompetent or not – were replete with the pure joy and fun of moviemaking and more-than made up for their lack of production values with an obsessive quality that placed them in a class all on their own. The truly bad pictures were not Grade-Z efforts but rather, bloated studio misfires replete with big bucks and not one iota of joy, not one drop of entertainment value and certainly devoid of voice, style and a distinctive personality.
One such studio debacle was (and still is) the celluloid cesspool that is “Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood” – a total misfire – a movie so moronic and jaw-gapingly terrible it’s a mystery as to how it could have been green-lit, never mind made.
In 1970s Hollywood, perhaps in a pathetic search for the old glamour, the studios were obsessed with turning the camera back on their past and generating film after film set against the backdrop of “Old Hollywood”. While this resulted in some good work – most notably a clutch of terrific Mel Brooks movie parodies, John Schlesinger’s flawed, but still powerful “The Day of the Locust” and the “That’s Entertainment” franchise, one must come to grips with the nadir of the 70s; films like “Under the Rainbow”, “Gable and Lombard” and, among too many others, “W.C. Fields and Me”.
At some ill-conceived point, during this odd 70s zeitgeist, someone thought it might be funny to craft the story of early Hollywood and satirically focus on a canine star (not unlike that of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and other doggies of a similarly heroic kind) and meld an innocent kids’ movie with Mel Brooks-like anarchy and fill it with interminable appearances by near-dead Old Hollywood stars in mostly cameos. On paper, this might have seemed like a good idea. In practice, however, it was quite the opposite.
One wonders why Michael Winner, a solid hack with a flair for nasty, brutal and extremely macho action, directed the film. Between 1971 and 1974, Winner delivered a series of near-classic action pictures including “Scorpio”, “Lawman” and four Charles Bronson shoot-em-ups: “The Mechanic”, “Chato’s Land”, “The Stone Killer” and “Death Wish”, but he was certainly not the wisest choice to direct a comedy. Did someone think he would bring an edge or sense of darkness to the material? He does neither. All he brings is utter incompetence.
In “Won Ton Ton…”, Bruce Dern is cast calamitously against type as a wannabe screenwriter-director and tour bus driver who uses his studio access to pitch ideas to a mogul played blusteringly by the otherwise great Art Carney. Along the way, Dern meets and romances a struggling ingénue played by an extra-shrill Madeline Kahn. The title character – a German shepherd takes a liking to Kahn and eventually joins her and Dern in an unholy trinity of Hollywood domination as they collectively contribute to the production of numerous blockbusters where the canine takes top billing.
The plot, if you can call it that, is a fortunes rise, fortunes fall and fortunes rise again trifle that might have been less offensively simplistic if the whole film wasn’t awash in bad casting, bad direction and bad taste. I have no problem with bad taste when it’s entertaining, but the sort of bad taste infusing “Won Ton Ton…” is risibly incompetent, stupid and mean-spirited. For example, the film has the tone of a family-oriented kiddie picture, but is rife with sniggering casting couch rape attempts and other sordid activities that make one wonder just who this picture was aimed at and most importantly, why and how the film was made at all.
The other noteworthy lack of taste is the use of cameo appearances by faded stars of the Silver Screen – most of them look bored, embarrassed and/or near death. Guy Madison, Huntz Hall, Victor Mature, Milton Berle, Johnny Weismuller, Dick Haymes, Joan Blondell, John Carradine, Alice Faye, Dorothy Lamour, Mike Mazurki – the list goes on – appear to be trotted out for the filmmakers to proclaim: “Here are a bunch of Old Hollywood stars who have been forgotten and will be dead soon! That’s okay; they’re getting double scale! Enjoy ‘em while you can!” One of the saddest cameos is that of the great comic actor Stepin Fetchit duded up in tails and top hat and performing a little shuck n’ jive – in extreme wide shot! We don’t even get to see his deliriously expressive face. For all the stereotypes he was forced to play in Hollywood over the years, his talent shone through. Here, he’s just an old Black man a shuckin’ and a jivin’. That’s what the filmmakers have reduced him to. It’s not funny. It’s not fun. It’s just plain sad.
Which brings me back to my original point. Laughing at movies BECAUSE they’re bad is ultimately a fool’s game. Detest what is truly awful. Detest what is devoid of joy. Detest incompetence. To laugh at it, to hold oneself up higher and take the Fifth Amendment of “Guilty Pleasures” is to raise (lower) oneself to the position of those who make truly bad pictures. Watching “Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood”, the only impression I am left with is that its makers attacked the material with the same kind of high-mindedness – to say they were better than those who came before them, to say how hip and sophisticated they were in comparison to the filmmakers and audiences at the dawn of cinema and in so doing, they ended up with a… well, uh… a dog.
“Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood” is currently available on the Legend Films DVD label as part of the series of titles that Paramount Pictures did not feel like distributing themselves.