Call of the Wild: Jack Oakie, Clark Gable, and Buck star in Hollywood’s 1st talking version of Jack London’s classic.
One wonders how replicant Harrison Ford will fare playing opposite a CG tail-wagger — or is it the other way around? — in the latest incarnation of The Call of the Wild. Just in case, why not track down a copy of William A. Wellman’s early adaptation? And dog lovers in the crowd will thank me for introducing them to Wellman’s last stab at putting on the dog, Good-Bye, My Lady. Put down the remote and pick up the Kleenex.
Call of the Wild 1935 trailer
Call of the Wild (1935)
Jack London’s semi-autobiographical The Call of the Wild, published in 1903, was based on an arduous year the author spent in the Yukon, looking to find a cure for Gold Rush fever — a time when a man’s best friend was his sled dog. The novel was told from the point-of-view of Buck, a 140-pound St. Bernard–Scotch Collie mix, but with star Clark Gable on costly loan from Metro to Fox, there would be but one top dog commandeering the closeups. This, the first sound version of the oft-filmed adventure yarn, couldn’t be more dissimilar from its source if Buck walked on his hind legs and joined in the conversation. Gable stars as a prospector who takes his loss at the poker table with a smile, then partners with comic relief Jack Oakie, recently paroled for tampering with the U.S. Mail and in possession of a treasure map obtained by “jimmying” a letter. A romantic subplot was tacked on, and who better than the divine Loretta Young to play the “married” love interest and part-owner of the map? The studio had its hands full suppressing what was initially thought to be an off-screen romance between the two leads that resulted in Young’s pregnancy. (Her daughter-in-law later revealed that prior to her death, Young insisted that she’d been raped.) The worse the bad guy, the louder the hiss that greets him; audiences of the day must have sounded like a wheezing steam factory every time Reginald Owen’s Mr. Smith — the Coke bottle-bespectacled Brit willing to drop $1000 simply for the pleasure of giving the mutt a dirt blanket — hit the screen. It was the desire of rough-and-tumble director William “Wild Bill” Wellman to shoot entirely outside the studio, but Mother Nature had other plans. The surviving location work is spectacular, but not as stunning as the muddy boom town and the crowded watering hole that opens the picture.
Good-bye, My Lady 1956 trailer
Good-bye, My Lady (1956)
Before Google saw to it that data on all creatures great and small was but a swipe away, inquiring minds sought refuge in bookstores or the local library. In some cases, filmmakers banked on audience curiosity — and their own ability to fashion a narrative around said oddball animal — to sell tickets. Ever hear of a basenji puppy, a rare breed of African hunting dog? (The trailer describes the film’s star, “Lady of the Congo,” as “A funny little dog… that didn’t bark, but laughed instead.”) Wellman was looking to bridge this knowledge gap when he agreed to direct this adaptation of James Street’s heartwarming novel. An orphaned boy (Brandon de Wilde) living in backwoods Mississippi with his illiterate old coot of an uncle (Walter Brennan, perfecting what would lady become “Stumpy” in Rio Bravo), learns the meaning of responsibility when the rightful owner of a rare breed of dog he’s adopted as a pet returns to claim the pooch. Sure, it’s sad, but at least no dogs were killed during the scripting of this picture. (Old Yeller came out the following year.) How’s this for the happiest of endings? The young star and the pooch became so close that the dog’s owner allowed de Wilde to keep Lady. “One of the best I ever made,” is the way Wellman described the film, and its failure to find an audience made a dent in his gruff exterior.