Greyfriars Bobby (1961)
“The true story of a dog.”
Greyfriars Bobby (1961)
Director: Don Chaffey
Cast: Donald Crisp, Laurence Naismith, Alex Mackenzie
Synopsis: Scotland 1865. An old shepherd and his little Skye terrier go to Edinburgh. But when the shepherd dies of pneumonia, the dog remains faithful to his master.
Life was harsh back in the mid-18th Century and, perhaps unexpected considering Greyfriars Bobby is a Disney movie, we’re given occasional indications of just how difficult life could be for those grown too old to earn a wage and therefore be of useful service. And I’m not talking about an old dog here; no, this Disney kiddies flick spends a good third of its running time concentrating on the fate of Auld Jock (Alex Mackenzie), a shepherd grown too old and ill to tend the flock for his employer (Gordon Jackson – Against the Wind, The Quatermass Xperiment). Having been dumped in Edinburgh by his somewhat insensitive boss, Jock tries snoozing upright in a barrow, but is woken by Bobby, his faithful Skye terrier who has trekked twenty miles to be with him. It’s a journey Bobby will undertake twice, the second time after Jock’s death of pneumonia in a flop house. Discovering that his human has passed on, Bobby takes to sleeping on his grave, much to the annoyance of James Brown (Donald Crisp – Broken Blossoms, How Green Was My Valley), the keeper of the kirkyard.
Although it’s inspired by a true story – and is refreshingly free of the Disney studios tendency to ladle on the saccharine – there’s little doubt that the details of the story have been invented to make a more acceptable entertainment for its audience. Much of the plot is taken up by a simmering feud between Brown and Mr. Traill (Laurence Naismith – Kind Hearts and Coronets, Mogambo), the mutton-chopped proprietor of a nearby inn who takes to feeding the little scamp, but there’s also a sub-plot involving the waif-like children of the neighbourhood, who all take Bobby to their hearts. One of these kids hobbles around on crutches for no apparent reason other than Disney knew that crippled children immediately lay claim to an audience’s sympathy, and they all live in this strange, cosy poverty. The streets of Edinburgh – an elaborate set in the shadow of the famous castle – are cluttered but clean; people stand around reading books outside book shops, and life unfolds at a sluggard’s pace. When Bobby’s liberty is in jeopardy, these impoverished kids raise the seven shillings needed to acquire a licence with little apparent difficulty.
The film is beautifully shot (by Paul Beason) and filled with rich colours that soften further the borderline poverty. The pace is sedate, which is a pleasant respite from the hectic pace of today’s movies, but which kids today might find hard going. For those of us old enough to remember first seeing Greyfriars Bobby as a kid back in the Sixties, it provides a welcomingly nostalgic hour-and-a-half. And the dog is as cute as a button.
(Reviewed 15th March 2015)