Monday, February 20, 2012

On what may be the dictionary definition of the Shaggy Dog Story

Second Grade.  The Weekly Reader flier came through, and in it was the novelization for "the major motion picture" Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World.  I got it, and waited patiently for the film to hit theaters in my area.

Well, let's just say I had some time on my hands while waiting.

To most Americans, the film is all but unknown, save for fans of The League of Gentlemen, where it features in a sketch about Kenny Harris' movie theater that features only films featuring dogs.  Here he speaks with his competitor (played by  a pre-Doctor Who Chis Eccleston)

Dougal Siepp: Kenny Harris. As I live and breath. Are you not out of business yet Kenneth?
Kenny Harris: Quit carping Siepp. We do DVD and video rental now. Do you know what my biggest title is?

Dougal: I'm sure you're going to tell me.
Kenny: Digby. "Digby the biggest dog in the world." Can you rememeber what you said about it?

Dougal: Funnily enough, no.

Kenny: You said it were dated. No-one would want to see it in this day and age. 17 rentals in 20 weeks, explain that!
It's rather a national guilty pleasure in England.  It was featured as first day programming on two separate independent television channels, and back in the day, with only one hand's worth of channels, everyone watched.

One of the things that amazes me about the film is the cast - it's a who's who of TV and character actors.  The male lead is Jim Dale, already popular from a run of the Carry On movies, and shortly before his move to America for a series of Disney films and of course, Barnum on Broadway.  The rest of the cast is equally impressive - Spike Milligan, Milo O' Shea are two big names.  The film shares a great number of cast members with Beatles films - Victor Spinetti (In both Hard Day's Night and Help!) plays a scientist, Norman Rossington (their put-upon manager in HDN) and John Bluthal (Bhuta, Klang's assistant in Help!) play a pair of inept burglars, and the film was produced by Walter Shenson, who produced HDN. There's a great many TV actors as well, including Bob Todd and Henry McGee from Benny Hill's repertory company, Frank Thornton (Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served)  All this crossover only serves to support my theory that there are only about 57 actors in all of Britain, which is why everybody gets a chance at anything.  The film was written by Michael Pertwee (Jon's brother) from a novel by Ted Key, creator of the Hazel comic strip.  Ted also wrote three of Disney's live-action films, including Million Dollar Duck, Gus and The Cat from Outer Space.

The plot is rather simple - Billy White (Richard Matheson) adopts Digby, a (normal-sized) English Sheepdog.  His mom (Angela Douglas) is a scientist at a top-secret installation, and when his grandfather refuses to allow the dog in the house, they pawn him off on Jeff Eldon (Dale), a fellow scientist, specializing in animal psychology.  The science team are working on a growth serum to help grow vegetables quickly for manned space flights. It works all too well - the vegetables won't stop growing - a 50-foot long cucumber is paraded by as evidence.  Jeff decides it wouldn't harm anyone if he nicks a bit of the formula to help his roses grow, and wouldn't you know it, the dog ends up eating it instead.

Jeff has to keep the pachydermic puppy a secret from the other scientists and from little Billy, and plans to take him to his Aunt Ina's farm.  Before he can, he attracts the attention of criminals Tom and Jerry who plan to steal him and sell him to a circus.  After a fun scene at a cafe so dodgy the silverware is chained to the table (providing a nice bit of physical comedy for Dale), they succeed. After a photo Digby appears on TV to publicize his appearance, both Jeff and Billy recognize, and both set off to save him.  Digby escapes both their grasp, and he makes his way across the countryside leaving kid-friendly destruction in his wake.

The army is eventually brought in, and Jeff and Billy have only seconds (okay, quite a bit of time, really) to feed Digby a hastily-prepared antidote to bring him back to animal companion size.  Not to ruin the film, but this is a kids' film, and the film does end with a giant-sized animal chasing the romantic antagonist across the British countryside.

The effects for the film are pretty good for the time, a combination of miniature sets and rudimentary matte work.  The main problem the film has is that Digby doesn't actually DO much - he sits about a bit, barks in slow motion, and only nearly causes mayhem when he either sits on a train track for a bit, or quietly ambles across an airport runway.  The animals in the film also don't quite seem that well trained.  Dale has several scenes with a chimp named Clarissa who looks like she's going to reach out and rip his jaw off at any minute.

I hasten to add that some years later, the Weekly Reader offered the novelization for C.H.O.M.P.S., but this time I refrained.  Once bitten and all that.


  1. Vinnie, you had me at "After a fun scene at a cafe so dodgy the silverware is chained to the table..."! I got a kick out of your witty review, as always. All those British comedians and character actors in one film, including the likes of Spike Milligan and so many HARD DAY'S NIGHT/HELP! alumni, are worth checking DIGBY... out!

  2. Vinnie,I saw DIGBY on TV many years ago and then, like so many films from the early 1970s, it vanished from the airwaves. (FYI, I have never forgotten the poster--somehow that picture of the giant pup has stayed with me through the years.) I didn't have a clue about the cast back then, but it's full of recognizable faces (and vocies) now. Lest we forget, Jim Dale provided the narration on the recent TV series (a favorite) PUSHING DAISIES. Thoroughly enjoyed your well-do0ne review!

  3. Holy Magoo . . . The Weekly Reader! I remember it when it was My Weekly Reader, and I was also getting that in second grade (and somewhat beyond) when I was a sprout in Mrs. Murphy's class at Maplewood Elementary (in 1963).

    I also remember DIGBY: THE BIGGEST DOG IN THE WORLD, mainly because of it's commercial ("That's Digby!") which also featured a slice of the theme song ("you're my dog, you're mine"). Being 17 years old at the time, however, my interests in movie subjects were somewhat . . . inscrutable (to put it politely . . . wanna talk about LIVE AND LET DIE?). WHen I was a second grader we saw films like THE SWORD IN THE STONE and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Real Movies for Real Second Graders (march up to the ticket window: "One for THE SWORD IN THE STONE, in a dirty seat!" "Yessir . . . YESSIR!").

    Being the inquisitive soul that I am, upon reading your article I immediately went to YouTube and called up the full theme from the film (which will now probably be running through my head for the rest of the week).

  4. Great review! I've heard of Digby but have not seen it. I'll have to check it out.

  5. Vinnie ~ may I begin by saying how nice it is to see your blog included in this canine themed blogathon. Thank you for a fun and informative review of a film I have yet to watch. Disney made a number of films featuring animals as characters, but “Big Red” was my favorite. However, “Digby” is a story I can relate to from personal experience; we had old English Sheepdogs when I was growing up, and I know firsthand the trials of large breed dogs. Okay, maybe they never reached Digby proportions, they never wandered near airports or train tracks, but you try convincing a sheepdog that he’s better off having a bath. Jim Dale narrated not only my favorite comedy of recent years, “Pushing Daisies,” but he also narrated every “Harry Potter” book in audio format. Thanks again for your review, and for the reminder of many favorites of British cinema.

  6. When I see a big ole lovable sheepdog I always think of "Please Don't Eat The Daisies!".

    This film sounds like a fun little hour and change. I'm a big fan of the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" and the sequels with special effects providing a fun ride with giant insects, plants etc so I think I would get a kick out of Digby from the way you've described it here.

    A fun review of what looks like a must see film. It was a pleasure being introduced to your blog as well. (Blogathons AND Dogathons do have their advantages!)

  7. This was a very informative post. I haven't seen "Digby" but have enjoyed the two Disney sheepie films, "The Shaggy Dog" and "The Shaggy D.A." The plot even sounds like Disney. Great review!

  8. Very entertaining article -- I haven't seen the movie, but it doesn't sound like I missed much. LOL! It makes me think of other stories made into movies that ended up being very disappointing. I like your writing, and especially got a good laugh out of: "All this crossover only serves to support my theory that there are only about 57 actors in all of Britain, which is why everybody gets a chance at anything." Great line!

  9. I have never seen this movie! It's added to the list!

    I have to agree with ClassicBecky-- I got a great laugh at your comment about the number of actors in Britain. I think you're on to something! HA!

    Great post. Really enjoyed it.

    Jill (Kittenbiscuits)
    Sittin' on a Backyard Fence

  10. Loved reading this. Witty and fast-paced - right up my alley. I'd never heard of Digby, though I like the name. Digby's picture reminded me of Hobo from Please Don't Eat the Daisies. Just sharing.

    Glad I visited your site as well. Will be back.


  11. Wonderful review, for a movie that sounds like a very magical film. A "must see" for everyone who loves dogs. I thought all English Sheepdogs were that big. :)