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Dogville Shorts

Warner Bros. // Unrated
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted October 10, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Series:
In 1929 Hollywood was transitioning over to talking pictures, for both features and shorts.  The technology was expensive at the time, but MGM was looking for a cheap series that could crank out some sound shorts to be shown before the A picture.  Enter Jules White.  He started at Mack Sennett's studio and would later become famous working with the Three Stooges.  At this point in tome however he, along with his friend Zion Myers came up with an idea that was just what MGM was looking for:  a series of shorts with dogs as the actors.  It was easy to make since the sound wasn't recorded with the image.  They'd film the dogs first and then dub the voices (most done by White and Meyers themselves) afterwards.  They didn't need to worry about a quiet soundstage or on-set sound equipment. 

The result was the Dogville shorts, nine of which were made between 1929 and 1931.  These films are actually funny, though more than a little rather surrealistic and bizarre.  WB has now released the entire collection of Dogville shorts through their Warner Archives program, and though these aren't for everybody, they're definitely worth checking out.
This is one of those series where the idea is so strange that it's almost inconceivable that it was actually made.  The entire cast in these films is dogs.  Not like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin though, these are canines that are dressed up as humans, walking on their hind legs, playing the piano, and generally acting like people.  My first reaction was "and this is funny because..." but I have to admit the crazy idea does work and there are some good laughs to be found in each of these.

Many of the films are parodies of famous films of the time, be even the ones that aren't have a solid, though simple, plot and some good set ups and gags.  A typical entry is The Dogway Melody, a parody of The Broadway Melody (1929), which follows the original movie rather closely.  In this hysterical short Mr. Cur decides to put on a show and hires an engaged actress to be his leading lady.  The production is a huge success and includes a dog named Al J. Olsen singing Mammy and a big production number of Singin' in the Rain (and this was 22 years before Gene Kelly would immortalize the song in the classic musical.)  After the show the starlet's beau wants to run off and get married, but she has a meeting with Mr. Cur.  Upset at her rejection, the dog goes off to get drunk, vowing never to see the bitch again.  When he hears his girl struggling with the producer once he tries to put the moves on her, the jilted lover breaks down the door and rescues his love. 
The whole idea is so absurd that it's funny.  These shorts don't rely on only that however.  They actually have some pretty clever dialog (though there are a few too many puns based on dogs).  This caries them along after the initial strangeness of seeing dogs act like humans wears off.     

Say what you will about the studio system, the bug guys like MGM certainly had a lot of talent working for them.  That's clear in these films, where despite the low budgets that costumes and sets were astounding.  The outfits the dogs wore were well done and extravagant in some cases.  Not only would they dress a dog up in a shirt and pants, but they'd add a waistcoat and jacket too, and the 'women' had elegant, fancy dresses.  With prison uniforms, night club outfits, Egyptian harem get ups and WWI uniforms they certainly went all the way with dressing these dogs.
The same can be said for the sets.  They were all created to scale, naturally, but there was a lot of attention paid to detail.  These shows featured WWI battlefields, court rooms, a harem, prisons, and a football field, just to name a few.  It's fairly amazing how much work went into each of these shorts.

Something should be said about animal cruelty in relation to these shorts.  Yes, the dogs were dressed in silly costumes and made to walk upright, sometimes with the aid of wires.  Some people will watch there and immediately be turned off because the creators are forcing dogs to do something that they would never do naturally.  These weren't some mutts off the street though the dogs were highly trained and therefore valuable to the trainer.  You can't get a dog to sit still in a chair without teaching him, and there are several times when you can see the dogs looking off camera to their trainer and barking on command.  It has also been reported, though I could not verify it, that the ASPCA came to the set one day and stated that the dogs were treated well, which makes sense since they were highly trained and not easily replaced.
This set contains the following shorts:
Disc 1:
Hot Dog - A wife is cheating on her husband with another 'man' and when the husband finds out a fight ensues that leaves the husband dead and the wife on trial for murder.
College Hounds - This spoof of college football movies gets the genre down pat.  After the star player is taken out of the big game by a gang of crooks, it seems like State has no chance to win.  The game at the end is hilarious.
Who Killed Rover? (a/k/a The Dogville Murder Case) -  When the nephew of a wealthy man inherits his fortune, he gets kidnapped and it's up to Detective Phido Vance to find out who did it. 
The Dogway Melody -  A fun parody on the big musical production movie.  One of the best in the series.
So Quiet On the Canine Front -  They take on the famous film this time.   It includes an impressive WWI battle scene complete with flea grenades.

Disc 2:
The Big Dog House - Poking fun at the prison flick this time, a 'man' gets framed for a crime he didn't commit and sent to the big house to await execution.  Can his girlfriend who has proof of his innocence make it to the governor in time?
Love Tails Of Morocco - A group of 'men' who have joined the foreign legion tell stories about the 'women' that did them wrong.
Two Barks Brothers - Two brothers, separated at birth, take two different paths in life.  One becomes a drifter and the other an anti-liquor crusading DA.  Their paths cross when the drifter is hired to spike the attorney's drink.
Trader Hound - a funny parody of the film "Trader Horn."  This jungle adventure has men dressed up as jungle animals, apparently for a joke, but it doesn't work that well.  One of the more lame entries.
Note:  A few sites (including Wikipedia) claim there are 10th Dogville short.  This is incorrect, there were only 9 made.  Who Killed Rover? was also released as The Dogville Murder Case.  The sites that list 10 films are counting that one twice.  
The DVD:

This Warner Archive collection arrives on two burned DVD-R discs.  Both discs have generic labels and come in a single-width double DVD case with a custom cover.
The two channel mono soundtrack was pretty good for films this old that have not been restored. There was some background noise, a slight hiss that's present throughout, and there are a few pops and some slight distortion.  The dialog is easy to hear and the music comes through well even though the dynamic range is very limited.  

These full frame shorts actually look pretty good for unrestored films from the late 20's/early 30's.  The contrast is excellent and the level of detail is very good too.  The image is clear and generally crisp.  There is some minor print damage, some spots and a few scratches, but nothing that's distracting.  Overall I was very pleased with the picture quality of these shorts.
As with the other Warner Archive discs, there are no extras at all.
Final Thoughts:
These aren't for everyone and they loose a lot of their appeal if you watch them one after another, but these shorts are funny and enjoyable.  They're also guaranteed to surprise your friends when you play one before a feature.  One of those things that you have to see to believe, I found the whole set very entertaining.  The set come Highly Recommended for fans of early cinema and collectors of the bizarre, and they're still recommended for more casual movie buffs.
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Highly Recommended

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