Revisiting Rover Dangerfield – a truly weird Hollywood star vehicle

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One of Rodney Dangerfield’s stranger film projects was the animated musical comedy Rover Dangerfield – Mark looks back at an obscure childhood favourite.

It’s true what they say – you can never go home, but you can always rewatch the mad straight-to-video “Rodney Dangerfield is a singing, talking dog who wears a tie” movie you loved when you were five years old. I know Film Stories is a broad church, but it feels like I might be out on a limb with this one.

In the 1980s, stand-up comic and actor Rodney Dangerfield was suddenly propelled to the comedy A-list by roles in films like Caddyshack, Easy Money, and Back To School. On stage, Dangerfield was most famous for his one-liners, his red necktie, and his catchphrase “I get no respect”.

His newfound movie fame provided a new avenue for that persona, as the decade went on, Dangerfield had a few ideas about how to diversify in other mediums too. One of them was an R-rated animated musical comedy project in which he’d play a dog called Rover, a big-city hound who survives an attempted whacking by his owner’s heel boyfriend and washes up on a farm.

I reckon I’ve seen Rover Dangerfield more times than most people alive and even I think it would be weird if the dog had a surname. But Rover’s character design, voice, sense of humour, and red necktie are all so obviously Dangerfield that it would be a bit of a hat on a hat, or a necktie on a dog if you will.

The problem is that Rover Dangerfield isn’t an R-rated movie – it got a G rating for general audiences in America and a U certificate from the BBFC when it came straight to video here in the UK in 1992. I firmly believe that “what if Jerry Seinfeld was a bee” is a weirder sell than this, but at least Bee Movie is designed for its target audience, whoever the heck they are.

Beyond my story, (which really is as simple as being so obsessed with the film when I was five years old that my dad eventually bought the VHS from Blockbuster because we’d rented it enough times to pay for the thing already) a lot went on between that original idea and the (sort of) family-friendly Christmas movie that Warner Bros (sort of) released in summer 1991.

Dog days


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Interestingly, Dangerfield had enough interest in this project that he funded all of the early stages of development himself. He worked on the story with his friend and collaborator Harold Ramis, who had also co-written Caddyshack and Back To School, and commissioned character and production designs from Hyperion Pictures Animation, a studio that had previously made 1987’s The Brave Little Toaster. He also co-wrote songs with composer Billy Tragesser.

All of this got Warner Bros to back the project, but there was another film that the studio wanted the star for. Caddyshack was a big box-office hit that didn’t cost much to make and armed only with a tagline – “The shack is back!” – Warner executives were eager to put a sequel together.

The problem was that Ramis (who made his directorial debut with the first film) and most of the cast were reluctant to return for a sequel that was intended to have a more commercially friendly PG rating.

However, after negotiating a tidy $7m payday to return, (the entire first film only cost $4.8m to make) Dangerfield boarded the sequel and helped the studio persuade Ramis to write a script centring around his character Al Czervik. With a star attached and Back To School’s Alan Metter signed up to direct, Caddyshack II looked ready to tee off at the end of 1987.

But Ramis had taken on the project against his better judgement, and neither he nor Dangerfield were especially satisfied with the screenplay. Indeed, a month before principal photography was due to start, Dangerfield exited the project, leaving Warner Bros $2 million deep into pre-production on a film with no star.

Warner sacked Metter and cast Jackie Mason in the rewritten Caddyshack II, which bombed in cinemas and is nowadays widely regarded as one of the poorest sequels ever made. The studio sued Dangerfield for $10 million, but when the suit came to court, they were unable to produce a signed contract as evidence and the case was thrown out, forming an oft-cited precedent for such disputes in the process.

The Caddyshack debacle may provide some context for Warner’s subsequent treatment of Rover Dangerfield, which had originally been set to hit cinemas in December 1988. When it didn’t make that release date, the film press started churning out negative stories about the project’s fortunes.

In his autobiography, It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime Of No Respect But Plenty Of Sex And Drugs, Dangerfield briefly references the studio’s treatment of the film: “I put some of my own money into an animated movie about dogs. It had some songs, which I wrote, and I even sang a few.

“I thought it was a funny movie, but I had some trouble with the studio, and they buried it like a bone.”

Over the next couple of years, the film was extensively reworked to take out the R-rated elements and make it more family-friendly, adding on more post-production time. Unavoidably, the family-unfriendly Las Vegas setting remains early on, with its gambling dogs, violent gangsters, and buxom chorus girls. It also proved difficult to mitigate darker touches, such as the moment where Rover tries to beat the life back into a dead turkey, alternately working it like a puppet or causing its limp head to loll around sickeningly.

Also, during this extended period of production, it emerged that Ramis hadn’t been compensated for his work on the story, resulting in another legal case in 1990. The credits on the finished film say “Story By Rodney Dangerfield And Harold Ramis, Based On An Idea By Rodney Dangerfield”, which doubles down on one side of the credit while conceding the other.

After all of this, the film got a very limited release when it finally landed in US cinemas in August 1991. Around the same time, a re-release of another animated dog movie, Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, was cleaning up at the US box office, but Rover Dangerfield's theatrical run was so fleeting that there are no box office figures available. The film quietly went to a video release domestically and internationally the following year.

No respect

It all adds up to a quite obscure entry in Hollywood’s animated canon. Let’s just say that Rover Dangerfield didn’t turn up among the vast array of Warner’s characters featured in this year’s Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Looking back at the film 30 years on, it’s not difficult to tell it was changed quite late in the day, caught as it is between audiences who are either much too young for Dangerfield’s usual comedy or much too mature for a fish-out-of-water cartoon about a dog learning the value of the simple life. It’s an all-singing, all-joking, no-business-being-pitched-to-kids oddity.

Aside from the inciting incident of world’s worst dogsitter Rocky (design-wise, think Robert Mitchum at his sleaziest and add a 30-day hangover) throwing Rover off the Hoover Dam, the film repeatedly recalls Old Yeller by having farmer Cal continually threaten to put the tubby basset hound to sleep if he doesn’t pull his weight. There’s also a horn-dog romance with demure collie Daisy, one of many other dogs who are in this movie to be foils to Rover.

There’s also a large part of the film set at Christmas, which ranges from to the aforementioned dead turkey bit to one of the film’s catchier musical numbers, “I’d Never Do It On A Christmas Tree”, about Rover’s indignation at the idea that he’d mark his territory on some festive foliage.

It’s probably the most memorable and least bawdy of all the songs (“I’m never lonely, I’ve got girls galore, I just got rid of three and now I’m down to four”, goes the opening number) and it’s nice to have something for the kids in this bowdlerised comedy.

Even though Dangerfield is far from the most natural singer, the entire film is, for better or worse, tailored to him completely. This was a year or so before Robin Williams changed the game for movie stars in voice roles as the Genie in Aladdin, (who at one point does Dangerfield as one of his anachronistic celebrity impressions) and it’s a true star vehicle, with his name all over the credits.

The jokes are hit-and-miss, either because of the film being sanitised or simply being a bit precious about the riffs that Dangerfield spun out in the recording booth. It’s definitely the sort of film where a scene won’t have just one good gag where eight variable ones will do.

There are certainly cheaper and nastier star vehicles than this out there and Dangerfield clearly got his money’s worth on the design and quality of Hyperion’s animation. It’s not ground-breaking and though it was apparently a formative comedy for 5-year-old Mark, it has no loftier goal than nailing the essential assignment of “what if Rodney Dangerfield was a dog” and running with it.

And just in case you’re not convinced this one’s real, it’s about the time of year where we can close on this…

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