Who saw Old Yeller? Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I'm sure! I cried my eyes out . . .
--Bill Murray, Stripes
The title canine of Disney's Old Yeller saves young Tommy Kirk from wild pigs, and catches rabies doing so. Tommy must shoot the poor creature. Even though this scene, like the death of Bambi's mother, has traumatized a couple generations of moviegoers, Old Yeller is regarded as a family classic. Yet in 1989, when big, slobbery Hooch sacrificed his life rescuing Tom Hanks in Turner & Hooch, audiences were outraged, and the film was a bomb. I gave it one of the few moderately good reviews it received, and was scolded by my sister for not warning her of the denouement before she took her son to see it--he was inconsolable.
Discussing this rare slip in his meteoric career years later on David Letterman's show, Hanks disclosed that if he ever made another "big, slobbery dog movie," he'd remember a basic rule: Don't kill the dog. Letterman seemed perplexed that anyone would have needed to learn this by experience.
Actually, the killing of dogs--that is, the killing of dog characters--is a fairly common melodramatic method of establishing degrees of evil or desperation. Old Yeller is probably the ne plus ultra of the genre, but most of the canine victims in the movies aren't noble, tragic heroes like Yeller or Hooch. More often, mutts who get whacked are pawns of a lazy screenwriter, incidental victims used as a shortcut to our atavistic emotions.
In screenwriters' parlance, it could be called the Puppysnuff Technique. It isn't, of course--I just made up the term--but it sort of fits, don't you think?
Though I've always been a dog lover, and can think of few things more odious than brutality toward a dog, I was never particularly squeamish about fictional depictions of this sort of behavior. I never realized how offensive, even unwatchable, many people find it, until the early Eighties, when I took a date to The Road Warrior. I had already seen it--it was then, as now, one of my favorite films--but my date had not. When one of the postapocalyptic goons shot a crossbow out of frame and sent Mel Gibson's faithful dog to canine heaven with an off-screen yelp, my date became livid, then lost all interest in the film. The dog was dead; as far as she was concerned, no happy ending was possible. The suspense was gone.
In subsequent years, I noticed a rash of wanton Puppysnuffs--in Cape Fear, in Single White Female, in Panther, and perhaps most disturbingly in the Australian thriller Dead Calm, in which Nicole Kidman takes out her own dog with a spear gun, thinking it's psycho Billy Zane. The one crude touch in Boaz Yakin's fine inner-city psychological drama Fresh has the title character hanging his own bulldog as part of a plot against his enemies. In Roger Spottiswoode's well-directed actioner Shoot to Kill, the first mention of the savage villain (Clancy Brown) comes when one of his frantic victims (Milton Seltzer) sobs to the authorities, "He killed our dog!" We never meet the poor pooch, but the effect is potent all the same.
Last year, my wife was on the verge of writing to her congressperson to demand an anti-dog-trashing V-chip. She and I watched a dreadful Italian film called Babysitter in which killer Vic Morrow offed a dog and stuffed it in the refrigerator to terrorize its owners. The same week we saw an episode of Combat in which a sweet mutt who befriends Morrow behind enemy lines dies when a rotten Jerry kicks him into the trunk of a tree. My wife has since sworn off anything Vic Morrow's in, but to no avail, as a few weeks later Agent Scully's little pom made a tasty snack for a swamp monster on The X-Files.
The last straw, though, came when we started watching a tape of the Canadian film When Night Is Falling--what could be safer, we thought, than some genteel Canadian lesbian erotica? Sure enough, before the film is ten minutes gone, the heroine has found her angelic little white dog lying in an alley.
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Why dogs? And why, in films full of death and the threat of death to humans (including, in Fresh, a child), does the death of or threat of death to dogs seem so obscene? There must be something about the evolutionary blind alley up which we humans have led Canis familiaris that gives them a perfect air of vulnerability, because cats in the movies tend to do a bit better. Not always, of course--in the current Walking and Talking, a cat undergoes an unpromising program of chemotherapy, and the cutest kitten in movie history, after frolicking under the titles of Larry Hagman's Beware! The Blob, is gobbled up by the title creature in Godfrey Cambridge's kitchen.
As a rule, though, cats are survivors of adversity in the movies, escaping certain destruction in Alien, in The Specialist, and in The Towering Inferno, where a kitty survives not only the skyscraper fire but rescue at the hands of none other than O.J. Simpson, and is delivered at the end to the arms of Fred Astaire. A kitten even lives to mew the tale of sharing a flat with a Scottish junkie in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. If it had been a dog, it would have overdosed next to its master.
Or, maybe not. All this is by way of observing what may be a small movement against the Puppysnuff Technique in current films--the Puppysave. It's always been rarer than the Puppysnuff, though the title hound did bounce back from being gruesomely shot in Martin Ritt's Sounder, as did Tom Berenger's bright little pal after taking an arrow in Last of the Dogmen. But in two recent blockbuster films, Independence Day and A Time to Kill, pooches on the verge of being turned into fricassee were pointedly allowed to escape. Both are crowd-pleasing moments, but also more than that--they're heralds of a reversal of fortune against evil forces. They signal a turning of the tide, in favor of the good guys.
Jackie Cooper titled his autobiography Please Don't Shoot My Dog. It's a grabber, suggestive of the pathos both of the sort of roles that Cooper played as a kid and, more disturbingly, of his off-screen life as a child star. But movies now seem to be replacing this sort of emotional bushwhacking with the elation of another film icon, Judy Garland, when the resourceful Toto slips free of the clutches of the Wicked Witch: "He got away! He got away!" "More than I can say for you, my pretty!" rages the Witch. Ah, but who cares, as long as Toto's safe?