‘Won Ton Ton’: A Dog of a Picture, but What a Cast

Have you ever seen Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood?

Kahn, and the gun was to keep people in their seats (Image via Paramount)

The 1976 film is ostensibly a comedy, but there is precious little joy in it — just a lot of celebrity cameos that would have been even more priceless were they each granted a couple more seconds of screen time.

Poster art of Kahn, the dog & Dern (Image via Paramount)

It wound up being a film of lasts, adding to its mirthless — yet oddly absorbing — quality.

It was the last produced screenplay by Cy Howard (1915-1993), known for writing My Friend Irma (1949) and directing Lovers and Other Strangers (1970).

Originally entitled Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Warner Bros. — a title that didn't work once it was bounced from that studio — it was conceived as a send-up of '20s Hollywood, particularly the craze surrounding wonder dog Rin Tin Tin (1918-1932).

In the film, aspiring starlet Estie Del Ruth (Madeline Kahn, 1942-1999) meets up with a wayward German shepherd whose propensity for tricks makes him a silent-movie star ... but whose reluctance to comply for anyone but Estie makes her a hot, if secret, commodity.

Her love interest is Grayson Potchuck (Bruce Dern, b. 1936), who uses the dog to talk his way into a directorial career under the auspices of jaded studio head J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney, 1918-2003).

As Won Ton Ton's star rises, Estie becomes morose, realizing she will never get her own big break. Her luck seems to be turning when she happens to meet silver-screen romeo Rudy Montague (Ron Leibman, b. 1937), a broadly feminized and blatantly homophobic pastiche of Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926).

Montague — who dresses as a woman to enjoy watching his own films — becomes enamored of Estie, insisting that she be his next leading lady, in a film directed by Grayson. Sadly, the resulting film is a flop, and Estie and her roomie (Teri Garr, b. 1944-1947) are reduced to turning tricks (or attempting to) and starring in Mexican porn loops. Won is given away to a kindly animal trainer — who turns out to be an abusive monster.

Eventually, Estie's legendary flop attracts the attention of a director who feels she would be a great physical comedian. Her comeback, in the style of Harold Lloyd (1893-1971), is a smash, Estie and Grayson become the new Hollywood power couple, and they announce they will wed — if only they can find Won.

Won makes his way back home just in the nick of time in a scene reminiscent of A Star Is Born (1954).

Dog rescued, day saved. The end.

What doesn't work about the film, which — like the imaginary silent that initially sinks Estie's career before it has a chance to sail — is a turkey, is that it has an overall bubbly innocence that is degraded at every turn by director Michael Winner (1935-2013), who is more famous for his decidedly unfunny Death Wish (1974), and for his other turgid bombs, The Sentinel (1977) and The Big Sleep (1978).

At this presser in the film, Montague kisses a woman, a man and a dog (Image via Paramount)

The film's homophobia comes not only in Leibman's grotesque characterization of Rudy Montague, but in asides by Victor Mature (1913-1999) and Carney, who sneer at the character, calling him a "fag" and "faggot," respectively. Then there are the sequences that were edgy in the '70s but that come across as zanily nasty today, such as when Won Ton Ton attempts suicide or when Kahn has to shriek, "I'm a prostitute!" or the numerous leering asides alluding to the casting-couch system and even rape.

Kahn is the only truly good thing in the film; she gamely tries to uplift, even as the leaden film around her sinks.

Augustus, the dog who played Won (Image via Paramount)

So many of the names in the film are now history. Stars Bruce Dern, 83, Rob Leibman, 81, and Teri Garr, 72-75, are still living; Kres Mersky, 70, and Toni Basil, 75, are still with us — they had bit parts but were not celebs at the time of filming; and Gary Bankel, Robert Buckingham and Brian Gusse, all uncredited, are either alive or their status is unknown.

The only people with celebrity cameos in the film who are still alive are: Dean Stockwell, 83 — his Oscar-losing speech at the expense of the dog ("Lucky son of a bitch!") is one of the only truly funny moments in the film; comic Shecky Greene, 93 — he plays a man on the tour of celebrity homes; and Rhonda Fleming, 95, who has one of the only named parts, "Rhoda Flaming," a ditzy "young" starlet (she was over 50 at the time) who announces the winner of Best Actor.

The film's cameos gave stars from the '20s through the '60s a rare opportunity to appear on-screen. Check out the full list of stars who appeared in the film, and note which ones never worked again:

Robert Alda (1914-1986)

Morey Amsterdam (1908-1996)

Army Archerd (1922-2009)

Richard Arlen (1899-1976)

Edward Ashley (1904-2000)

Billy Barty (1924-2000)

William "Billy" Benedict (1917-1999)

Edgar Bergen (1903-1978) — LAST GIG

Milton Berle (1908-2002)

Jack Bernardi (1909-1994)

Janet Blair (1921-2007)

Joan Blondell (1906-1979)

James Brodhead (1932-2012)

Rory Calhoun (1922-1999)

Art Carney (1918-2003)

John Carradine (1906-1988)

Jack Carter (1922-2015)

Cyd Charisse (1922-2008)

Jane Connell (1925-2013)

Jackie Coogan (1914-1984)

Broderick Crawford (1911-1986)

Yvonne De Carlo (1922-2007)

Dennis Day (1916-1988)

Gloria DeHaven (1925-2016)

William Demarest (1892-1983)

Andy Devine (1905-1977)

Alice Faye (1915-1998)

Fritz Feld (1900-1993)

Stepin Fetchit (1902-1985) — LAST GIG

Eddie Foy Jr. (1905-1983)

Zsa Zsa Gabor (1917-2016)

Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (1925-2006)

Ronny Graham (1919-1999)

Dorothy Gulliver (1908-1997) — LAST GIG

Huntz Hall (1920-1999)

Dick Haymes (1918-1980)

Holloway, in one of his later roles (Image via Paramount)

Sterling Holloway (1905-1992)

Tab Hunter (1931-2018)

George Jessel (1898-1981)

Jack La Rue (1902-1984) — LAST GIG

Fernando Lamas (1916-1982)

Road to nowhere with Dorothy Lamour (Image via Paramount)

Dorothy Lamour (1914-1996)

Peter Lawford (1923-1984)

Edward Le Vecque (1896-1989) — LAST GIG

Phil Leeds (1916-1998)

Keye Luke (1904-1991)

Guy Madison (1922-1996)

Victor Mature (1913-1999)

Virginia Mayo (1920-2005)

Mike Mazurki (1907-1990)

Ethel Merman (1908-1984)

Ann Miller (1923-2004)

Eli Mintz (1904-1988)

Ricardo Montalban (1920-2009)

Dennis Morgan (1908-1994)

Patricia Morison (1915-2018)

Ken Murray (1903-1988) — LAST GIG

Carmel Myers (1899-1980) — LAST GIG

Barbara Nichols (1928-1976) — LAST GIG

Cliff Norton (1918-2003)

Louis Nye (1913-2005)

Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984)

Aldo Ray (1926-1991)

Harry Ritz (1907-1986)

Jimmy Ritz (1904-1985) — LAST GIG

Ann Rutherford (1917-2011) — LAST GIG

Phil Silvers (1911-1985)

Regis Toomey (1898-1991)

Rudy Vallee (1901-1986)

Romo Vincent (1908-1989)

Nancy Walker (1922-1992)

Doodles Weaver (1912-1983)

Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984)

Jesse White (1917-1997)

Henry Wilcoxon (1905-1984)

Henny Youngman (1906-1998)

Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood tanked at the box office, and rightfully so. It is the exact opposite of Singin' in the Rain (1952), when it comes to playful send-ups of bygone eras, but it is — if very little else — a last gasp for a slew of greats and near-greats, even if the vessel isn't nearly great at all.

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