"White Dog" (1981)
Repeat | Sep 28, 2016 | Carlos Castillo
Ever see a multi-million dollar paperweight? Lots of them in vaults all over Hollywood. I saw one this past weekend.
Samuel Fuller’s “White Dog” was shown at The Rafael Saturday night. The movie spent decades on a shelf at Paramount, the studio that commissioned its creation. (To be fair, the movie received a theatrical release in a few foreign countries.) The legacy of “White Dog” is like a game of Clue: Who killed the release of “White Dog” and why? After seeing the movie, I have a few suspects.
First, a little background. The movie was directed by Fuller, a guy who made relatively low-budget films about controversial topics such as war (“Steel Helmet” and “The Big Red One”) and mental illness (“Shock Corridor”). His autobiography, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking,” is excellent and very much recommended.
I first heard about “White Dog” when I was a teenager. Back then, I read this magazine on horror movies called Fangoria. I remember reading about “White Dog” but then never seeing the movie at theaters. Because of my youthful ignorance, I didn’t know Samuel Fuller from the Fuller Brush Man. I just figured it was such a bad movie, it didn’t warrant a theatrical release.
When I finally saw a scratchy 35mm print of “White Dog” on Saturday, I realized the film deserved much better. In a nutshell, “White Dog” tells the story of a dog rescue gone horribly wrong. A struggling actress (Kristy McNichol) realizes the white German shepherd she adopted has been trained to attack black people. The only person willing to try and deprogram the dog is Keys (Paul Winfield), an animal trainer who happens to be African-American.
Fuller’s widow, Christa Lang-Fuller, and daughter, Samantha Fuller, were both in attendance at the screening Saturday night. (They were also in the movie in bit parts.) They were there in part to address rumors that Paramount, the owner of the film, got cold feet because “White Dog” was a racist film. Indeed, it is not. It is about the destructive power of racism and how it’s manipulated to wreak havoc, obviously a topic that’s as much a problem today as when the film was completed in 1981.
After watching "White Dog," I came up with a couple of theories of why “White Dog” was shelved by Paramount:
The “Star Wars” theory: A scene early in the movie has an old curmudgeon, Carruthers (Burl Ives), literally throwing darts at a poster of R2-D2, railing about how movies like “Star Wars” were upsetting his applecart (Carruthers is an animal trainer for the movie industry). Let’s face it: this could have been the movie’s kiss of death. What studio in the early 1980s would dare invite the wrath of George Lucas by this type of public criticism?
Another problem for Paramount: If you refuse to release the movie and the “Star Wars” theory starts making the rounds, this could cause issues, too. What if people start speculating that Lucas was behind the kibosh? Assuming that Lucas had no part in this (I don’t think he would do such a thing to another person’s movie), this implication would really piss Lucas off. So maybe the studio decided to throw “White Dog” under the bus instead. By the way: In 1981, the year “White Dog” was scheduled to be released, Paramount’s biggest grosser was “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which was produced by George Lucas’ company.
Then why not just get Fuller to cut this scene from the movie? First of all, Fuller was no shrinking violet. I don’t think he would have tolerated this meddling and probably wouldn’t have kept it on the down low. I feel bad for Fuller. Not only did his movie not see the light of day in the United States for decades, he never made another movie in Hollywood. He moved to France after the debacle and died in 1997. And because of the rumor about the film being racist, he was unfairly maligned. How would you like it if your film was dubbed “racist” and not being able to screen it and prove otherwise? How frustrating that must’ve been.
The “Jaws with Paws” theory: Per Sam Fuller’s wife, Paramount was looking for “White Dog" to play up the story’s mass-market appeal (killer dog running amok), not unlike the way sharks were portrayed in “Jaws.” (This approach would appear a few years later with “Cujo,” distributed by Warner Bros.). Maybe when Fuller delivered a much more thought-provoking film with an unsettling, ambiguous ending, the studio bailed on the project.
Post “Jaws,” Hollywood came out with a whole host of like-minded thrillers. Remember “Orca,” “Tentacles” and “Grizzly”? But then why hire a director like Sam Fuller? He wasn’t a schlock guy. Maybe they thought his world-shaking days were behind him, and he would be content to do as he was told and collect a paycheck. Obviously, they didn’t know Fuller.
The fact that “White Dog” was in my Fangoria magazine all those years ago also lends credence to the “Jaws with Paws” theory. The studio was looking to sell the movie to horror fans, so it reached out early in the game to get the ball rolling. Then Fuller delivered a treatise on the destructiveness of racism, which put a stake in the horror strategy. There’s a huge distinction between a movie about your neighbor being an ax murderer and a movie about your neighbor being a racist. You can’t just kill racism with a souped-up gun. It’s everywhere.
One estimate has the “White Dog” budget at $8 million, but based on seeing the movie, I sure don’t see that amount on the screen in 1981 dollars. Fuller’s widow did say the elaborate animal training cage used in the movie cost $750,000 alone. Hollywood isn’t averse to wasting money. You can see plenty of that even today. But maybe Paramount didn’t want to throw good money after bad by trying to sell the movie as a more serious drama. It usually costs just as much money to promote a movie as it does to produce one. And remember: this was in the early 1980s, when popcorn movies such as “E.T.” were ruling the roost (and still do to this day).
If I had to choose between the two theories, I’d pick the “Star Wars” one. Even if the movie wasn’t “Jaws with Paws,” the studio could have repackaged “White Dog” and released it as an anti-racism film. Hollywood is one of the greatest marketing machines in the history of the world. It can sell anything if it really wants to.
I believe that the possibility of pissing off one of the most successful producers in the history of motion pictures (George Lucas) could have forced Paramount’s hand, especially since “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was a Paramount release. That’s understandable. What’s wrong is when a strategy leads—even if it wasn’t intended—to the impugning of a man’s character. Fuller didn’t deserve that fallout.
I will say that the one thing that gave me pause upon seeing “White Dog” was it could have prompted copycats to go out, buy white German shepherds and try and train them to attack black people (in the movie, the Keys character even explains how it was likely done). I can see a racist ignoramus (Is that redundant?) trying something mean-spirited like this. A similar thing happened when Paris Hilton made her Yorkie a fashion accessory. That’s why so many of this breed ended up in animal shelters. But I don’t see this becoming a huge issue if the movie had been released as more of an arthouse product than a drive-in flick.
Based on what I saw Saturday, “White Dog” definitely deserved an audience and it took too long to get one.
Keywords: White Dog, Sam Fuller