Have you ever wondered in passing how certain people got on the career path they're on? I have to say that that quandary has frequently come to the forefront whenever I've encountered the quirky work of William Wegman, who has carved a unique (to say the least) niche in the entertainment world with his photos of dogs (usually his doleful-eyed Wiemaraners) in various costumes and with assorted props. Wegman has never limited himself to still images, however; as early as the 1980s, with appearances on Saturday Night Live, Wegman brought his distinctive touch to short films. Though your reaction to The Hardly Boys may just boil down to whether or not you're a "dog person," the low-key (some might say subterranean) humor of Wegman's dogcentric take on a certain F.W. Dixon book series (along with at least one hommage to Hitchcock) will probably touch most funnybones, if however slightly.
The 25 minute-or-so film follows the exploits of "The Hardly Boys," who, as female dogs, are--well, hardly boys. Get it? That's about the consistent level of the comedy in this piece, which, while frequently amusing, if only because the treatment is so outré, is "hardly" ever laugh out loud funny. The Boys arrive with their parents at a Maine inn to discover a note from their friend Gladiola Mason, who, when they attempt to meet her at her lodge, has mysteriously disappeared. Following the familiar detective trope developed by Dixon in the "real" Hardy Boys mysteries, the disappearance soon leads to clues about hidden riches. To say that the comedy in this piece is peculiar is perhaps best highlighted by the fact that a major part of the plot then revolves around various characteristics of garnets. Yes, as in mineral, though (as Wegman explains in one of the two commentaries) in this case industrial class, not gemstone. I'm not making this up.
The fun, obviously, is in seeing these dogs dressed up (those playing females in a variety of patently ridiculous wigs), with human hands emerging from their bulky clothing, while Wegman's deadpan voiceover handles all of the "dialogue," as well as narrative bridging. It's just so ridiculously silly to watch dogs playing tennis, or rowing a boat, or, more nefariously, dumping sewage into a pristine river, that it's hard to form a coherent reaction at times. However "cute" this gimmick is, the fact is the novelty tends to wear off after a few minutes, leaving the less than stellar comedy more exposed.
Wegman has several nice directorial touches, including, surprisingly, a wealth of tracking and dolly shots, all the while with his dog performers remaining perfectly calm and with heads focused in the right direction. There's one nice tip of the hat to Hitchcock's Notorious that takes on a wholly different meaning when seen from a dog's-eye point of view. There are also some cute sets, especially the Boys' secret lab, which is full of retro-chic analyzing computers and a nifty hidden "elevator" that delivers them to the premises.
Kids are probably going to love this DVD, whether or not they like dogs personally. In fact, the entire enterprise has the whimsy and, frankly, weirdness of a lot of kid humor, and, if taken in that vain, can provide some genuine amusement, at least for the younger set.
This transfer from a previous videotape release (listen to Wegman's voiceover warning at the top saying not to copy "this tape") is a full frame color release with decent, if unexceptional, video quality. There's a fair amount of abrasion, with various scratches, and quite a bit of grain. The contrast is notably spotty, especially on the darker interior shots. That said, it's all perfectly watchable.
A standard stereo soundtrack consists entirely of Wegman's character voices and narration, interspersed with at times disjointedly edited library source music. I detected next to no separation in the soundtrack, with virtually everything front and center. Wegman's voice is well reproduced, and the various source music varies in quality from fine to Victrola-esque.
I think this is the first time this has ever happened in a review of mine, but for me the extras on this DVD were actually superior to the main feature. Perhaps because this sort of gimmicky humor works better in smaller doses, the two Wegman shorts here, "Dog Baseball" (made for Saturday Night Live in 1986) and "Pine Tree Frosty," are frankly laugh out loud hilarious, something that the main feature never quite rises to. There's also a patently strange collection of two public service documentaries made to promote Maine's scenic countryside, both redolent of the 1950s, and one of which is used briefly in the main Hardly Boys feature. Those two will take some of you back to your public school days perhaps quicker than you'd like.
There are two commentaries, one by Wegman and his associate producer, and the next (in what I can safely say is probably a first for a DVD extra), a "Hands' Commentary," made by those providing the human appendages that poke out from the dogs' costumes. Both commentaries go into some of the production techniques used to get the dogs to perform various tasks in the film, as well as the technical challenges to get the dogs arranged behind costumes on stools.
This is a two-sided DVD, with an NTSC transfer on one side, and a PAL on the other.
I'm definitely a dog person, and I think most dog lovers will get a kick out of this from an evening's rental, perhaps, like me, more for the brief extras than for the somewhat tiresome main feature which can't quite sustain its conceit. Others may want to at least look into this one for its decidedly one-of-a-kind entertainment value.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet