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A Dog of Flanders (1959) tells the classic story of a boy and his dog. The film is based on the 1872 novel by Ouida and is the fourth screen version of the story. The original adaptation was a 1914 short. Next came a 1924 silent starring Jackie Coogan. The first sound treatment of A Dog of Flanders was produced by RKO in 1935 and in 1959, another remake appeared starring David Ladd as the young dog owner Nello. Donald Crisp played his grandfather and Theodore Bikel took the role of reclusive artist Piet. The film was directed by James B. Clark who would go on to direct several other animal pictures such as Misty (1961) and Flipper (1963).
Clark actually got his start as an editor on films such as Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), I Was a Male War Bride (1949) and An Affair to Remember (1957). He was Oscar® nominated for his editing work on 1941's How Green Was My Valley, directed by John Ford and starring Donald Crisp. Clark made the jump to director for the small screen first; he directed a number of television episodes of Lassie and My Friend Flicka. His first feature assignment came in 1957 with the military drama Under Fire starring Rex Reason. Clark's work as a features director was limited; he directed fewer than fifteen films compared with his fifty-plus editing credits. The best of these starred child actors and animals. Along with A Dog of Flanders, Misty and Flipper, he made: The Sad Horse (1959) that told the story of friendship between a horse and a dog; the children's adventure Island of the Blue Dolphins (1964); and My Side of the Mountain (1969) about a thirteen year old naturalist.
A Dog of Flanders was only the fifth film Clark directed and just the second of his animal flicks but already he seemed to have perfected the child-animal formula. The child, in this case, was played by relative newcomer David Ladd. He had appeared in only three films before A Dog of Flanders. Ladd made his debut in the 1957 western The Big Land starring his father, Alan Ladd. For his next film, The Proud Rebel (1958) again with his father, Ladd won a Golden Globe for Best Juvenile Performance. In 1959, he made both The Sad Horse and A Dog of Flanders for Clark. The two would work together again on Misty.
As for the animal star of A Dog of Flanders, he too sported some fairly impressive credentials. Spike the dog was rescued from an animal shelter by Frank Weatherwax (part of the legendary Weatherwax family of animal trainers). Spike would become a star as Old Yeller (1957) but it was a part he almost didn't win. Gentle and used to playing with children, Spike had to be trained to act vicious. He also required some cosmetic work to look the part; there were some dark spots around his nose that had to be lightened before Disney offered him the job as Old Yeller. In addition to A Dog of Flanders, Spike went on to appear in the TV series The Westerner. His son, Rontu, would later find work in Clark's Island of the Blue Dolphins.
The 1959 version of A Dog of Flanders would not be Hollywood's last word on the story. The film was remade for a fifth time in 1999, this time starring Jack Warden as the grandfather and Jon Voight as the artist.
Producer: Robert B. Radnitz
Director: James B. Clark
Screenplay: Ouida, Ted Sherdeman
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Film Editing: Benjamin Laird
Art Direction: Nico Van Baarle
Music: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Cast: David Ladd (Nello Daas), Donald Crisp (Jehan Daas), Theodore Bikel (Piet van Gelder), Max Croiset (Mr. Cogez), Monique Ahrens (Corrie), Siobhan Taylor (Alois).
by Stephanie Thames