Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)

We live in a magical reality, the kind of place where Michael Winner, the same man who made some of the roughest films ever — Death WishDeath Wish 2Death Wish 3The MechanicThe Sentinel — made this movie that’s a kind of, sort of biography of Hollywood star dog Rin Tin Tin.

It was originally called Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Warner Bros. before Paramount bought the film and, well, the movie had to change its name, right?

Estie Del Ruth (Madeline Kahn) has made her way to Hollywood, followed by a dog named Won Ton Ton. While she has dreams of being a star — and a director who continually and unsuccessfully pitches movies that will be made many years later named Grayson Potchuck (Bruce Dern) tries to help — the truth is that the dog has all the talent.

This is less a film than a collection of vignettes about the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as Ron Leibman’s effeminate take on Rudolph Valentino and Art Carney, Phil Silvers and Teri Garr as players in the tale of Estie and Won Ton Ton.

The draw for me — beyond how strange it is that Winner directed this comedy misfire — is the huge cast of Hollywood legends, many of whom made this movie their final role. Here are as many as I could remember:

Dorothy Lamour: One-time star of the Hope and Crosby Road movies, she shows up here as a visiting film star.

Joan Blondell: Often cast as a gold digger, Blondell’s career stretched back to vaudeville. She’d appear in two more movies after this: The Champ and Grease.

Virginia Mayo: Warner Brothers’ biggest box-office money-maker in the late 1940s, Mayo continued acting until 1997. She was one of the first actresses to be awarded a star on the Walk of Fame.

Henny Youngman: The rapid-fire standup who would always say, “Take my wife…please.”

Rory Calhoun: Readers of this site will definitely know Calhoun, as he reinvented himself in the 80’s, appearing in genre films like Motel HellHell Comes to Frogtown and the first two Angel films.

Aldo Ray: Much like Calhoun, Ray appeared in just about every genre film he could in the later part of his career. Shock ‘Em DeadHuman ExperimentsThe GloveDon’t Go Near the ParkHaunts…I can and will go on.

Nancy Walker: This star of Rhoda would go on to direct an even bigger bomb than this: Can’t Stop the Music, the unreal story of the Village People.

Ethel Merman: Playing Hedda Parsons here, Merman was considered the First Lady of musical comedy.

Rhonda Fleming: Her name in this movie is Rhoda Flaming, which is…par for the course of this film. She was known as the Queen of Technicolor for how well she filmed.

Dean Stockwell: If you only know him from Quantum Leap, I’d recommend you check out his roles in To Live and Die in L.A. and Married to the Mob.

Tab Hunter: Known for his clean-cut, boy next door looks, his later years are marked by interesting turns, such as playing Mary Hartman’s dad on the spin-off Forever Fernwood and appearing Divine in Polyester (1981) and Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust.

Dick Haymes: This big band vocalist sang in the session where Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters recorded both “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).”

Robert Alda: Yes, he’s Alan’s dad. But you knew that. And you also knew that he played Father Michael in Mario Bava’s House of Exorcism.

Victor Mature: This would be the actor’s last major role; he also shows up in a cameo at the end of Winner’s film Firepower.

Edgar Bergen: As Professor Quicksand, this is one of his few roles not holding one of his trademark partners like Charlie McCarthy or Mortimer Snerd. He’s also in The Phynx, which still blows my mind.

Henry Wilcoxon: You may not know that he was very involved with the films of Cecil B. DeMille, but you do know him as the priest caught in a rainstorm in Caddyshack.

Yvonne DeCarlo: In 1950, the Camera Club of America voted her “Sexnicolor Queen of the Screen.” You know those guys — the pre-Internet creeps that’d hire women to pose for them as they stood around en masse. DeCarlo is better known as Lily Munster, she also appears in the kind of movies that this creep enjoys, namely Satan’s CheerleadersSilent ScreamPlay DeadGuyana: Cult of the DamnedAmerican Gothic and Mirror, Mirror.

There are literally dozens and dozens of stars here, so get ready…

Edward Le Veque (the last surviving member of The Keystone Kops); William Benedict (Whitey of The Bowery Boys); Huntz Hall of The Dead End Kids; silent stars Carmel Myers, Dorothy Gulliver, Maytag repairman Jesse White; comedians Jack Carter and Shecky Greene; Marilyn Monroe rival Barbara Nichols; Variety columnist Army Archerd; Fernando Lamas; Zsa Zsa Gabor; Cyd Charisse, whose legs were once insured for $5 million dollars; Doodles Weaver (who also shows up in plenty of insane movies like The Zodiac Killer); cowboy actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez; Dick Van Dyke Show co-star Morey Amsterdam; Monroe/JFK scandal magnet Peter Lawford; Eddie Foy Jr.; Patricia Morison; The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok star Guy Madison; John Carradine as a drunk (yes, I realize that this is an easy target; I also realize that I watch at least one movie with Carradine in it a day); Regis Toomey, who is also in another dog of a film C.H.O.M.P.S.; Ann Rutherford (Gone with the Wind); Milton Berle (once perhaps the most famous person in entertainment); Keye Luke (a founding member of the Screen Actors’ Guild as well as the original Brak on Space Ghost and Mr. Wing from Gremlins); Walter Pidgeon (he’d be in one more movie, the Mae West vehicle Sextette); character actors Phil Leeds and Cliff Norton as dogcatchers; Winnie the Pooh’s original voice Sterling Holloway; two of the Ritz brothers; Edward Ashley (Professor Sutherland from Waxwork); Fritz Feld (who is also in The Phynx); George Jessel; Ken Murray; Stepin Fetchit (considered to be the first African-American to have a successful acting career, now seen as an example of how Hollywood treated minorities); Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller; Louis Nye; Dennis Morgan; William Demarest (Uncle Charley from My Three Sons); Billy Barty who plays an assistant director; Ricardo Montalban; Jackie Coogan; Roy Rogers’ sidekick Andy Devine; Broderick Crawford (of his many movies, I’ll let on that Harlequin is one of my favorites); Richard Arlan; Jack La Rue; former pro wrestler “Iron” Mike Mazurki; as well as singers Dennis Day, Janet Blair, Jane Connell, Ann Miller, Rudy Vallee and Gloria DeHaven.

When Augustus von Schumacher attended the premiere — he was the dog who played the lead role — he walked in with Mae West. Now that’s how you become a star.

As for the movie — unless you’re someone like me that gets excited about cameos, you’re going to hate it.

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