This curious short film (15 minutes) is one of a series of nine “shorts” made between 1929-1931 known as the “Dogville Comedies”, or “barkies”. They have no actors per se; the cast is made up entirely of trained dogs, who are dressed in human clothes and walk on their hind legs, with a dubbed sound track of human speech. The subtitle for this film is “An all barkie murder mystery”.
“Shorts” were meant to fill out a programme at movie theatres; before the format shifted to the “double feature” (see Wikipedia’s entry here) the presentation model was
- One or more live acts
- An animated cartoon
- One or more live-action comedy shorts
- One or more novelty shorts
- A newsreel
- The main feature film
Who Killed Rover? would qualify as either a live-action comedy short or a novelty short.
(added 24 hours after publication) I am grateful to my friend Jamie Bernthal, my fellow blogger, for providing a link directly to the film on-line. You can watch it here.
The Dogville shorts were intended to be parodies of popular movies (other titles include So Quiet on the Canine Front and Love Tails of Morocco). In contemporary terms, they were wildly popular and very expensive to produce.
Here, the story concerns Phido Vance, amateur detective, whose help is requested by a young bride, Zelda Rover. Her new husband, John Rover, has inherited a large fortune from his late uncle and, during their wedding earlier that day, someone has fired a shot that missed. Then someone kidnaps Rover. Phido assists the police and foils the plot of the villain, who ties Rover to a chair and arranges an elaborate death trap involving a cuckoo clock set to go off at midnight. The day is saved and everyone is wagging their tails at the end.
Frankly, fifteen minutes is more than enough to grasp the entirety of what’s going on here. The script, such as it is, is a series of set-pieces that are meant to sketch out the activities of the plot. All that’s of interest here is the idea that someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to create dog-sized props and sets, sew costumes and fit them to the dogs, and put peanut butter in their mouths to make them smack their lips and counterfeit speech. The voice-over is fitted to the dogs’ movements as best it can be, and it seems as though the editors had a lot of footage with which to work. Unfortunately the novelty of this palls rather quickly, especially if you are a dog-lover wondering at what those poor dogs had to undergo in order to make this film. (They do an amazing amount of hopping around on their hind legs, dressed in elaborate costumes.) The Rube Goldbergian death trap at the end is amusing, and there are a few funny moments, but by and large this is nothing remotely resembling a mystery. It’s just a joke that goes on about 10 minutes longer than it ought to. There are snide characterizations — blacks, gays, Asians, and what might be either a lesbian or Marie Dressler LOL. It has effectively zero to do with any Philo Vance story; this is not a parody of anything identifiable. Just a bunch of jokes on a “mystery” theme.
I recorded a copy of this quite by accident some years ago; TCM used it to fill in some time after a film in which I was interested. I’ve always found it fascinating to speculate about exactly what prompted this and the other Dogville comedies to be made. At some point there must have been a group of people sitting around a table at MGM who put up the money to make this film; I wish we could have heard that conversation.
There’s a long essay about the origins of the Dogville comedies here; I can’t be sure whether it’s accurate or not, but there’s nothing unreasonable here. You can actually order a DVD collection containing the entirety of the Dogville oeuvre here; it’s US$21.99. I’ve included some still photographs for your edification but, frankly, I cannot identify any as belonging specifically to Who Killed Rover?