Thursday, April 13, 2023

Sign of the Wolf (1941)

After an unsuccessful contest, dog trainer Judy takes her misbehaving pooch Shadow and newly acquired Smokey on a flight to a prospective buyer. Things go awry when bad weather forces the plane down. While Smokey runs away, Shadow is able to find help from friendly ranch owner Rod, and his little brother Billy. Judy and co. settle down as she recovers from her injuries, but the question of Smokey's whereabouts remain. Unknown to them, a pair of conniving fox thieves have found him, and begin their own plan...

Sign of the Wolf is a rural adventure, based on a story by Jack London. But its biggest claim to fame today is the presence of classic comedy great Mantan Moreland! And not an inconsiderable role either! Although I am disappointed it doesn't feature him fighting werewolves. I mean, he's met zombies and ghosts, so it's not an unreasonable expectation!

The film gets off to an adorable start with a dog show, full of varied breeds. We see them doing neat tricks before the story starts, and it's kinda a shame the whole movie couldn't be set here! Once the plot kicks in, the film works well, cliches and all . There's plenty going on, and the hour long runtime makes it a breezy watch!

It's a bit awkward watching all the facts turn against Shadow, and everyone think he's the culprit! There's even a posse formed, and when they see the good boy bring evidence of fox thievery, they assume the worst and try and shoot him!

Everything all resolves well in a fun climax though, with enough fists and fur to entertain. The ending's a little abrupt, but not too much, and wraps everything up. There are some interesting motion credits, with Billy running out on the mushy stuff, and the movie just stops and follows him.

Judy's a nice enough gal, and same goes for simple but handsome rancher Rod. Ben is the best character. Fun, perceptive, and has a nice connection with his hound. At one point he even almost works out what's going on, but Beulah shushes him! Billy is alright, and a bit whiny, but he's a good kid, especially when he takes a bullet defending Shadow! Beulah is a fun maid, somewhat sassy with Ben. Although she can be a bit of a wet blanket at times. And lastly, the villains are an alright bunch. Nothing much to them, but they get the job done.

Sign of the Wolf doesn't really have any one main character. Is it Judy? But she spends half the movie laid up in bed. Ben the trainer has more screen time than her, but isn't as prominent in some spots. How about Hollywood stud Rod, or little Billy? Or are the dogs the true leads? Overall, everyone shares screentime pretty equally, making it feel like an effective ensemble piece.

The acting here is a high point. Mantan Moreland has a nice juicy role, and performs well! Just like in King of the Zombies, he may technically be the sidekick, but this is much more his film. Grace Bradley and Michael Whalen are fairly standard Hollywood leads (though Bradley has a distinct husky voice, reminiscent of Leah Remini), and Darryl Hickman is your typical Aww gee whillikers kid, to the point that I kept calling him Timmy. Louise Beavers has a fun supporting role and comedic foil to Mantan. And special mention must go the pooches of course.

The dog tricks here are all cute. There's an animal fight during the climax, but shot in a safe way. Some creative obscuring of the action, and dubbing makes two dogs presumably playing like a convincing enough fight, without looking too fake, or too real!

The music here is fairly traditional 1940s adventure tunes. There are some nice wintery percussions in some scenes! And last up, the scenery here is convincing all round. It's heartening to see the production wasn't too lazy to go up to Alaska (or thereabouts) for filming, and it's always clear the movie's not just shot on cheap soundstages the whole time.

Sign of the Wolf is a pretty neat film. It's nothing amazing, nor a hidden classic, but it's a perfectly watchable adventure. And at only 67 minutes, and with two great black leads, plus many adorable dogs, what's the harm in checking it out?...

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