Movie Review: Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)
Is “Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood” the worst movie ever made?
It’s a comedy that has zero laughs. Zero. And it has Madeline Kahn in it. I didn’t think it was possible for Kahn to be this not-funny but everything she does here falls flat. Kudos to Michael Winner, who took time off between directing rape scenes in “Death Wish” movies, for directing her in this.
It’s a heartless film. Every human being in it is worthless. Women want stardom, and will do whatever to get it; men want power and women, and will do whatever to get both. Near-rape scenes are treated lightly, as are two instances of near-child porn. We get jokes at the expense of the Chinese, Eskimos and “faggots.” Stepin Fetchit makes a cameo as a tap-dancing butler. I’d say the thing is racist and homophobic—it is, of course—but the greater insult is to the whole of humanity. It insults and condemns us all.
It’s 1923 and Estie del Ruth (Kahn) is a starving actress in silent-era Hollywood. She doesn’t even have enough money for the bus to go to a studio for an interview with a director, so she hitchhikes in the manner of Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night”—by lifting her skirt. Except, since it’s Winner, and filmed in the 1970s, she’s much less discreet. Full thigh. One car screeches to a halt but he’s rear-ended by the guy behind him, who is rear-ended by ... etc. Four-car pileup. And as the soundtrack gives us a Keystone-Comedyesque rag filtered through ’60s sex comedies, Kahn mugs, hides behind some garbage cans, and mugs some more, while the drivers, all dressed in white for some reason, fight each other. It’s supposed to be reminiscent of slapstick comedies, but it’s so poorly choreographed it’s just confusing. Kahn’s reactions are just confusing. Is she amused? Self-satisfied? What’s going on here?
That’s when, from the garbage can she’s hiding behind, a German Shepherd—whom we’ve seen engineering an escape from a dog pound—rises and licks her nose. That’s our title character. And that’s their meet-cute.
Except almost nothing about their relationship is cute. He loves her but she wants stardom. Does she even like the dog who does everything for her? It’s kind of sad.
When she gets to the studio, for example, the director she meets is actually a stagehand who gets her in a back room, where his intentions are obvious. She’s willing to go along if she gets a starring role—but she wants the quo before she surrenders her quid—and since he’s just a stagehand, he can offer nothing; so he attacks her. It’s the dog to the rescue. In doing so, he becomes a star—this universe’s Rin Tin Tin. And since he only follows Estie’s instructions, she has to be his onset trainer. She resents this. She’s kind of awful about it.
So is her vagueish boyfriend, grifter-director Grayson Potchuck (Bruce Dern), who takes credit for the Won Ton Ton phenomenon while promising Estie he’ll get her a big role in his next production. He never does. Or just as he’s doing so, just as he’s convincing the studio boss, J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney), to include Estie in a movie with Won Ton Ton and Rudy Montague (Ron Leibman)—this universe’s Rudolph Valentino—Estie, in an amazingly stupid coincidence, runs into Montague at a theater where one of his pictures is playing. He’s in drag. To avoid fans? No, he’s a drag And he’s so taken with Estie he demands she co-star in his next picture.*
(*The pitch is that Montague will play Gen. Custer and he and Won Ton will save the regiment. Which leads to a conversation that is only interesting post-Quentin Tarantino:
JJ: Wait a minute. Custer got killed at the end.
Potchuck: So what?
JJ [pause]: You’re right. History’s not the Bible.)
So is Montague an OK dude? Nope. At the press conference introducing the Custer movie, Estie and Won Ton get more attention so he puts out a hit on his co-stars. As one does. That phone call is a master class in gratuitous vileness. When the hit man, Nick (Victor Mature), hears who it is, he turns to his moll and says, “It’s the fag.” Then when the call is over, we see, in the room with them, tied to a chair with thick ropes, a half-naked 2-year-old girl. He tells her he’ll let her go when the ransom is paid; then he puts her gag back in. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything—it’s just tossed in there. It’s like Winner thought, “This scene isn’t awful enough: What can I add?”
The hit doesn't go off, of course. Or Estie gets the upper hand and it turns cartoonish—with speeded-up motion and big “BOING” sound effects. Meanwhile Won Ton, in an attempt to rescue her, tries to jump through the wall like he’s able to do in his movies. Instead he just bangs off and whimpers. It feels like a stagehand just threw the dog actor against the wall. It’s painful to watch.
Then the Custer movie bombs and fortunes turn 180 degrees. Potchuck (and Estie and Won Ton) lose the mansion and are forced to live in a cramped studio apartment with her friend Fluffy (Teri Garr). They try a Mexican porno film, but that bombs, too. So Fluffy and Estie simply become prostitutes.
Reminder: This is a comedy.
Since Won Ton Ton will attack any man kissing or pawing at Estie, she leaves him with a kindly older man (Edgar Bergen), who, it turns out, is a vicious dog trainer with a shitty two-bit show. She doesn’t tell the man that her dog is Won Ton Ton, the most famous dog in the world, and he doesn’t figure it out. He just whips Won Ton and locks him in a closet and has him sprayed with seltzer on stage. Won Ton, or the dog actor, looks genuinely hurt and confused here, probably because he was. Before long, he becomes a stray.
Reminder: This is a comedy.
Then Estie’s fortunes turn again. On the set of a Keystone-y cop comedy, Mark Bennett (read: Mack Sennett) extols the virtues of Estie in the Custer flick and makes her a star. But now she wants Won Ton back. She holds press conferences and offers $5,000 rewards. Then she and Potchuck get married.
At the wedding, guess who shows up? Won Ton! Yay! The end. No, sorry, we haven’t descended far enough yet. Despite her very public search for him, not to mention the fact that he’s the most famous dog in the world, Won Ton is shooed out of the chapel; and despite his normally resilient personality, he accepts it; he slumps away with head bowed. Then we see him being fed liquor by cackling bums in a dark alleyway. Then he tries to kill himself by:
- putting his head in a gas oven (Keye Luke tosses him out of his kitchen)
- lying in the middle of the road (a car runs over him without touching him)
- putting his head in a noose and knocking the chair away (he slips and falls to the floor)
Reminder: This is a fucking comedy.
Ironically, I’ve wanted to see this movie for a long time. I think I wanted to see it when it was released in 1976—being dogless, I liked dog books and dog movies—but it came and went so fast I didn’t get the chance. I was thinking about it again after reading Susan Orlean’s excellent bio of “Rin Tin Tin,” and then again when I'd do deep IMDb dives on the likes of Joan Blondell or Huntz Hall or Eddie Foy, Jr. and discovered they were all in “Won Ton Ton.” Hey, must be something there. How wrong I was.
The cameos from long-in-the-tooth stars was supposedly one of the movie’s selling points, and, sadly, “Won Ton Ton” wound up being the last screen appearance for many of them. From IMDb’s trivia section:
- Final film of Stepin Fetchit
- Final film of Rudy Vallee
- Final film of George Jessell
- Final film of Ann Rutherford
- Final film of Andy Devine
- Final film of Johnny Weismuller
- Final film of William Demarest
It’s like a hit list. It’s like Michael Winner killed them all.
Why do I keep blaming Winner, by the way? Why not screenwriters Arnold Schulman (“Goodbye, Columbus”) or Cy Howard (“Smothers Brothers”)? Or someone at Paramount Pictures? Because by his own admission Winner was a bit of a martinet. “You have to be an egomaniac about it,” he said of directing. “You have to impose your own taste. The team effort is a lot of people doing what I say.” Some actors have gone further; they say he was a virtual sadist on set.
In the end, of course, Estie and Won Ton are reunited, but it’s just so stupid. Won Ton shows up at Estie’s new place overlooking the ocean, but their butler—again, oblivious—shoos him away; then he throws rocks at him. Won Ton whimpers; then he tries to kill himself again by running into the surf. That’s when Estie finally spots him, and they’re all reunited, and cavorting in the surf. The press gets wind, talks up the next Won Ton Ton picture with Estie, but she says the dog isn’t Won Ton; it’s another dog. She lies so he won’t have t do movies anymore. Because that was always the problem.
This stupid movie can’t even get its movie history right. It keeps referencing Clara Bow as the industry’s big star when that was later—1926 or '27. It shows Keystone Cop movies being filmed when that was earlier—the 1910s. Potchuck has a recurring gag pitching movie ideas that get shot down even though they’re the plots of later box-office hits: “It’s about a giant shark terrorizing an entire New England town,” he says, or “A little girl gets possessed by the devil.” He also pitches a musical about a girl who “gets caught up in a tornado and she winds up in this strange land with a scarecrow and a guy made out of tin.” Immediate thought: Musical? In the silent era? And why doesn’t anyone say “You mean ‘The Wizard of Oz’?” Since, you know, it was known. It was a famous series of books that had already been made into a movie three times: 1910, 1914 and 1925.
I haven’t even mentioned how “Won Ton Ton” gets his name. Early on, Potchuck is pretending the dog is his even though he keeps calling him different things: Rex, Fido, etc. So J.J. asks for his name.
Potchuck: Well, his name is .... All right, I mght as well tell you the whole story. When I was working on the railroad back there in ’21, there was this Chinaman bit by a rattlesnake right here in the throat. He lay dying in my arms, and just before he died, he looked up at me so sadly and said, [in pigeon English] “You take care of my dog, no matter what happen. Because he like my velly own boy.”
JJ: Look, I’m not interested in Chinamen, they don’t go to many movies. What the hell is the dog’s name?
Potchuck [dazed]: Won Ton Ton.
JJ [dubious]: Won Ton Ton.
And that’s the joke.
At the Custer screening, one fed-up moviegoer shouts, “This picture could kill the movie business!” Truer words, brother.