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If dog is man's best friend, then who is dog's best friend? According to the 1959 film, A Dog's Best Friend, it's a young hellion! Billed as a story to "warm your heart. . . chill it with suspense!" A Dog's Best Friend introduces us to Pip Wheeler, a problematic orphan causing his newly adoptive parents a lot of grief. Things change, however, when he befriends King, a wounded German Shepherd with a dark secret. The children's drama pic stars B-movie star Bill Williams and Marcia Henderson as the new parents of Pip, played by Disney kid Roger Mobley.
Williams, a professional swimmer-turned-actor, had limited success in films-mostly Westerns-and nominally more on the small screen with such series as the lead in The Adventures of Kit Carson (1951-5). He got hitched to Barbara Hale, better known as Della Street from the long-running Perry Mason (1957-66) series and countless TV movies, in 1946. Hale claimed, "It took me two years to talk him into marrying me!" One of their children became an actor as well: William Katt, a dead ringer for his dad, is best known for his roles as the doomed Tommy in the horror flick Carrie (1976) and the bumbling hero from the cult TV series, The Greatest American Hero (1981-3).
Marcia Henderson earned a Theatre World Award in 1950 for her role as Wendy in the Broadway revival of Peter Pan starring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff as Hook. She retired from show business shortly after her marriage to fellow actor Bob Ivers in 1961. Mobley, who began his acting career at the tender age of 6, is fondly remembered as Packy from the Peter Graves series Fury (1955-60). Mobley was picked up by the Mouse to star in the "Gallegher" series of Wonderful World of Disney television specials, even returning to Disney films in the late 70s and early 80s in nostalgic bit parts.
The most standout cast member of A Dog's Best Friend, however, is undoubtedly the iconic character actor Harry Dean Stanton. Only two years into his now-prolific film career, Stanton would cultivate his distinctive hang-dog face and understated intensity in over 100 films to date, with highlights including Cool Hand Luke (1967), Alien (1979), and Paris, Texas (1984). In Paris, he played the lead-an anomaly for Stanton, who recalled of the experience, ""The whole film evolved on a very organic level. It almost had a documentary feel to it. It wasn't odd to be in the lead, I took the same approach as I would to any other part. I play myself as totally as I possibly can. My own Harry Dean Stanton act... I don't know whatever happened to Travis. I'd say...it's me. Still searching for liberation, or enlightenment, for lack of a better way to put it, and realizing that it might happen, it might not." Children of the 80s will forever associate him as the lovable loser father of Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink (1986). Although lacking formal validation of his talents-he was included in the SAG Award ensemble nomination for The Green Mile (1999) cast-he is revered by many in the industry, including film critic Roger Ebert. Out of admiration, Ebert famously invented the Stanton-Walsh rule, which states that, "no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad."
There was considerable talent behind the camera as well: from director Edward L. Cahn, to his cinematographer Kenneth Peach, and even the film scorers, composing team Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter. All four men are best known for their contributions to sci-fi and horror flicks, genres that had a heyday in the 50s. Cahn was one of Hollywood's top editors before moving over to helming films starting with Law and Order (1932) starring Walter Huston. He later gained a reputation as an efficient movie-making machine, churning out several successful B-pictures yearly, such as The She-Creature (1956) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). The latter film was one of the inspirations for Alien, which coincidentally also starred Harry Dean Stanton.
Cahn and Peach collaborated on 6 films in total, including A Dog's Best Friend and It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Peach spent most of the 1930s shooting many of the Hal Roach comedy shorts, but had moved largely into television by the 50s; coincidentally, he shot a few of the Fury episodes a few years before working with Mobley on Dog and later went on to film episodes of Sea Hunt (1958-61), a series that became a hit for Lloyd Bridges after Bill Williams turned it down! Small world.
Composers Sawtell and Shefter had a lengthy relationship with Irwin Allen, the king of the disaster pics, scoring The Big Circus (1959), The Lost World (1960), and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for the producer/director. Their distinctive sci-fi sensibilities were put to good use on Cahn's It! and their keen ability to aurally convey suspense was not wasted in A Dog's Best Friend.
Producer: Robert E. Kent
Director: Edward L. Cahn
Screenplay: Orville H. Hampton
Cinematography: Kenneth Peach
Music: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Cast: Bill Williams (Wes Thurman), Marcia Henderson (Millie Thurman), Roger Mobley (Pip Wheeler), Charles Cooper (Bill Beamer), Roy Engel (Sheriff Dan Murdock), Jimmy Baird (Jimmy Thurman).
by Eleanor Quin