Indefensible as art and pretty dubious as a concept of any kind, Michael Winner’s Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) is nonetheless such a good-natured mess of a movie that it’s hard not to like it. It’s also a prime example of my own belief that Winner’s biggest problem as a filmmaker lies in his complete lack of judgment when picking properties. Watching the film for this review, I kept being reminded of Bob Hope’s remark about Bing Crosby in My Favorite Brunette (1947): “Boy, he’ll take any kind of part.” Well, Winner seemingly will make any kind of film. The truly unfortunate thing in the case of Won Ton Ton is that it’s a movie that might have flown had it been made three or four years earlier when the nostalgia boom was at its height. By 1976, however, nostalgia wasn’t, as they say, what it used to be.
The story is almost exactly what the title promises: a broad spoof on Rin Tin Tin, with a paper-thin rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story. Some of it actually works, mostly thanks to the playing of Madeleine Kahn, Bruce Dern and Art Carney, who handle the silliness with some aplomb. A few of the gags work—like Dern pitching stories that are clearly Jaws and The Exorcist, both of which are shot down by studio head Carney as “uncommercial”—but just as many more don’t. The film’s big nostalgia hook—apart from its period-Hollywood setting—lies in the undeniably impressive array of old movie stars, character actors and personalities Winner assembled for the film. Granted, few of them are well used, and there are some who don’t seem 100 percent sure why they’re there or what they’re doing, but the sheer size of the roster—more than 60 of them—is astonishing in itself. There’s just about everyone you can name, from Robert Alda to Henny Youngman. The downside, of course, is that it’s distracting trying to spot them all (look quick or you’ll miss Rudy Vallee altogether). Then again, with a movie like this, being distracted isn’t necessarily a bad thing.