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Good-bye, My Lady (DVD Review)

17 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Walter Brennan, Phil Harris, Brandon de Wilde, Sidney Poitier.

Before marketers got savvier in terms of selling them, audiences had a strong tendency to talk a good game in term of so-called “family movies” — yet never particularly went out of their way to support the ones without a Disney logo unless they were disproportionately good. The situation was not dissimilar to how modern audiences have treated movies dealing with bona fide grown-ups for the past three-plus decades running. Which is to say that a movie about real adults usually has to be six times superior to a button-pushing action picture or dumbed-down comedy to do the same amount of business.

So woe be, back then, the family movie that had its moments but just wasn’t quite good enough. In fact, it has been said that director William A. Wellman, Oscar-nominated just two years earlier and with just two more movies to go in his prolific 35-year career, was reportedly upset (following accolades from professional family groups) that his 1956 adaptation of Mississippi writer James Street’s novel about a boy and his basenji was such a bust at the box office. In my own hometown, the film booker for its first-run engagement probably wouldn’t even have played it had a print not been available to become a subordinate feature with Irwin Allen’s dino-documentary The Animal World (which itself probably needed some commercial fortification).

Truth is, Lady (produced by John Wayne’s Batjac company) is never as good as one would like it to be, though it has an appealing story and a most interesting cast. It’s a little pokey, takes a while to get rolling, overdoes its harmonica backing and is obviously shot on a set — yet the basenji dog who’s its centerpiece is extraordinarily lovable (if I had a dog, this is the one I want), and the cast is never less than intriguing.

The movie also captures its actors at interesting stages of their careers. Lead Walter Brennan was already long in possession of his then record-setting three acting Oscars, but his two most prominent career benchmarks were yet to come: as star of TV’s "The Real McCoys" (which became a surprise hit a year later when ABC didn’t have many) and as the decrepit “Stumpy” who helped Wayne battle outlaw scum and nursed Dean Martin’s hangovers in Howard Hawks’ immortal Rio Bravo. Playing his nephew was young Brandon de Wilde — who at 13 or 14 was still in that uncomfortable baby-fat era of early adolescence and with Blue Denim (the definitive teen-pregnancy movie of its day) still three years away.

Brennan plays a dentures-bereft old codger raising his nephew in marshy Mississippi, living in a modest hovel that probably utilizes an outhouse (though we’re spared this). They first hear the title stray crying or singing (which is what basenjis do in lieu of conventional barking), and the two aren’t quite sure what they have once this female is captured. At first, they think she stalks rats and then, chickens — but it turns out that this is one first-rate hunting dog, which renders the local general storekeeper dumbstruck.

The latter is played, in rural duds, by the great Phil Harris — who later became a staple on TV’s "The American Sportsman" (very much in keeping with the milieu of this movie) and lining up putts on Palm Springs golf courses (which wasn’t). Harris had scored heavily a couple years earlier as one of the passengers in the Wayne-Wellman The High and the Mighty, so his casting here was in keeping with the rest. But in a nice accident of screen history, a neighbor who helps break some bad news to de Wilde is played by Sidney Poitier — here in that period of limited acting employment between his breakout role in 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle and the beginning of his superstardom in 1957. The racial mixing here is handled notably naturally for the time, and it’s interesting to see that Poitier’s character can read when Brennan’s can’t.

Warner’s “on-demand” DVD is letterboxed (which even the old laserdisc wasn’t) and has been remastered — though here and there, the print shows some minor wear. The ending is sad (though hardly to the degree of Old Yeller’s two years later), and Lady is a hard movie to watch without feeling at least a passing tingle of lament. My personal involvement with the breed is limited to a single family story. My father, captivated in theory by basenjis despite no firsthand interaction, learned that neighbors across the street had just bought one. With great enthusiasm, he welcomed the dog into the house — whereupon it made a beeline up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom, leapt on their king-sized bed and whizzed all over it. Even so, he still liked this movie.

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