Dondi (1961) – “Goshers GI Buddies, I can be American now?”
Oh yes. It’s Dondi! That wide eyed orphaned scamp from war torn Italy! A popular staple in newspapers comic pages from 1955 to 1986, Dondi was brought to the big screen in 1961 by director Albert Zugsmith who directrf such crowd pleasers as Sex Kittens Go to College and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve. Oh yeah. This is going to be a wild ride. Lets go….
On Christmas Eve a group of American soldiers waiting to get notification to return home, including leading man David Janssen and character actors Arnold Stang and Robert Strauss, receive a strange visitor when a small nameless street urchin, played by first time (and last time) child actor David Kory, lets himself into their quarters to look at the Christmas tree. After some “hijinks” the soldiers befriend the boy and name him Dondi, but moments later the soldiers are sent home leaving Dondi standing alone as the truck pulls away. But days later the troops realize that they aren’t yet finished with Dondi when they find that he has stowed away on their boat headed for New York!. Once in America, the soldiers quickly lose Dondi, who wanders around New York City while a campaign to find him, and allow him to stay in America, is lead in the media spearheaded by Janssen’s singing girlfriend played by Patti Page. Will they find Dondi? Will Dondi be shipped back to Italy? Will Dondi ever learn to speak proper English? Goshers buddies, I hopes this movie is overs soon!
Dondi has gone into the history books as being called one of Hollywood’s truly terrible films and no matter how much optimism you go into watching it, finding the silver linings in this film is difficult. While the original comic strip has been widely forgotten by the mass public today, thus questioning the impact that it had on the history of comics, during the mid 1950’s the strip was immensely popular. Created by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen, Dondi was a sort of male version of Orphan Annie, and the strip won a handful of major publishing awards. In its early weeks Dondi was actually a well crafted strip, with a mixture of sentimentality, pathos and patriotism which appealed to post war America. The first three years of the strip were collected in 2007 by Classic Comics Press and makes a fantastic impulse buy for fans of classic comics. Despite discarding with all of the strip’s supporting character, the film manages to follow the story fairly closely, with many of the scenes from the film were lifted directly from the pages of the comic. In fact, Edson and Hanson make clever cameos in the film as a police sergeant and sketch artist, with Hasen drawing the comic strip image of Dondi on camera as he does police sketch. Even Dondi’s broken speech, which has been criticized by many critics, was taken from the original comic strip, and the dialect that David Kory speaks is pretty much how Dondi spoke in the early years of the comic. So the plus side of Dondi is the fact that fans of the comic strip will recognize the story and the character. However, considering that there aren’t probably many fans of the comic strip left in the world, that plus point might be moot…and then there is the rest of the film to contend with.
Possibly the most obvious flaw with Dondi comes from the fact that they cast a child who couldn’t act and put him in nearly every single scene. When the studio pitched Dondi a nation wide contest to cast the title role was placed in newspapers, encouraging hopeful parents to send photos of their youngsters hoping that they resembled a war torn orphan. However, this proved to be merely a publicity stunt and the casting department had two kids to choose from – Damon Lanza, who was the son of Mario Lanza, and David Kory, who was the son of a Rockette named Diane Kory. Now Lanza’s kid must have either been a really terrible actor, or Kory must have looked more like the comic character, because somehow Kory got the part. Now there is no denying that David Kory is the splitting image of the cartoon character, but unfortunately that is not enough to get him through the film. Speaking in the broken dialect of the comic character, Kory’s speech is so garbled that often the audience can’t make out any words he’s saying at all. I mean, it sounds like words, but it comes out like gibberish. Kory goes from scene to scene with an expression on his face that either looks like wide eyed innocence, or that he’s a deer in headlights, as he takes off screen direction….but poorly. Even to child actor standards, Kory’s performance is pitiful, and it is a blessing, to him and us, that he never appeared in anything everb again.
But Kory isn’t the only one who gives a lackluster performance in the film. David Janssen, who proved his dramatic chops on The Fugitive, seems to be in constant pain as playboy soldier Dealey. Its anybody’s guess how he got roped into the film. Did he lose a bet? Played a bad hand of poker? Seemed like a good idea at the time? Who knows, but everyone watching can tell via his awkward performance that Janssen is not having the time of his life. Perhaps with a better script or director or kid to work opposite of Jansen would have pulled this film off, but he really has little to work with. Meanwhile Patti Page’s talents go wasted, and she was basically hired to sing a number called, you guessed it, Dondi, which is actually a pretty cruddy song and possibly one of the worst of her career. The only half decent performances are given by Stang and Strauss who play tough GI Sammy Boy and meek corporal Pee Wee. Fantastic character actors, they descend into the stock characters that they often played in every film, and as a result are actually fun to watch. Unfortunately both actors are basically discarded in the second half of the film when they have nothing to do once the action is moved to America.
In all honestly, Dondi should have had everything going. The comic was a decent property with a compelling story, the cast was made up of talented and likeable actors and Kory, for better or for worse, has a likeable presence on the screen. So why did it all go wrong? The answer lies in the sloppy second half of the script and terrible direction. Albert Zugsmith is an uneven director at best. Although directing great films such as A Touch of Evil and The Incredible Shrinking Man, most of Zugsmith films are so thrown together that it looks like he was asleep in his chair as the camera’s rolled. The actors lack in direction or motivation, and the result is a lacklustre and dull final presentation. But while the first half of the film manages to keep the interest of even the most cynical viewer, the second half of the film falls apart. Instead of referring back to the original source material as they did in the first half of the film, the writers don’t seem to know quite what to do with the entire cast once they get to New York. As Dondi wanders through New York, a terrible series of unfunny vignettes where people are encouraged to “write their congressman” insults the intelligence of the viewer. It also seems that a major chunk of film was cut out near the end, and the search for Dondi ends with no dramatic resolution, ending to a completely anti-climatic ending leaving viewers feeling hollow and that their time has been wasted. Oh Dondi…..
So why watch Dondi? At best Dondi is a curiosity piece about how time can often erode a franchise. It is a film without an audience. The comic strip has been off the public radar for so long that modern audiences don’t remember it. In today’s world of technical savvy kids, Dondi will bore the original intended audiences, and not even the smallest tyke or most innocent youngster will be charmed by it. Adults will find it trite and insipid. For fans of terrible cinema, it’s not even bad enough to be good. It’s just dull and poorly executed. This film is only recommended to Dondi fans, but considering that there probably not very many Dondi fans out there either, than just don’t bother. It’s any wonder the film was even ever released on DVD.