From the highest highs of "The Buddy Holly Story" and "Cotton Candy" (both 1978), we descend to the lowest low: the mind-bogglingly awful "A Dog's Life" AKA "McGurk" is the first flat-out stinker in the Charles Martin Smith filmography. Aired only once on ABC (June 15, 1979), this is another pilot for a TV show that never developed beyond the initial episode. Supposedly a comedy, I suspect that the only laughter you will experience watching this will come from a place of incredulity. If you're a glutton for punishment, you can see for yourself here. It's only 25 minutes long, but I suspect you won't make it very far. The first ambush of awfulness you encounter is merely seconds in, when the main character McGurk (Barney Martin) runs up to the camera. Before he even says one word, you cannot help but cringe when you see the horrendous mess of fabric the costume designers tried to pass off as dog suits. Oh, did I mention? All the characters are dogs, as in actual animal dogs. But played by humans. In really cheap & ugly looking dog costumes. Then comes the first "joke" as McGurk is speaking directly into the camera telling us about how he woke up this morning at the usual time: "I guess it was the usual time. I don't know for sure. I can't tell time. I'm a dog!" The canned laughter kicks in, trying to trick you into laughing with some sort of artificial peer pressure, but it doesn't work. Not in the face of this tired humor.
Then there's the theme song, a dreadful ditty performed by the four main actors called "We're Your Dogs" that I am going to hate for one reason more than any other. I blame this moment right here for single-handedly derailing the musical career of Charles Martin Smith. His last two film projects had allowed him to display his fabulous talents singing and playing rock 'n' roll, and he really could have had a great future in the world of music. But then this monstrosity came along. As far as I know, this is the very last time we will ever see or hear CMS in a music number from this point on. I hope I am wrong, as I see in the show's opening credits I was mistaken about Charles never being credited under the name Charlie anymore. Look, it's the more casual name right there (listed first among the four leads despite not playing the main character). So much for leaving it behind back in 1977 in "The Curious Case of the Campus Corpse"... So maybe I am wrong about this too, and I will see/hear Charles singing or playing a song again in a future film or TV role. But until then, I am holding "We're Your Dogs" responsible for destroying the musical future of Charles Martin Smith. Grrr!
It's not just Charlie that suffers here, as the whole group looks awkward and embarrassed. But it's not their fault. There's nothing you can you do with lousy lyrics like this: "Owning a dog is where it's at / Whoever heard of Pavlov's cat? / However you want us, we will be / Remember, dog spelled backwards is G-O-D!"
One thing I won't let these guys off the hook for is the half-assed execution of the choreography. Everyone's moves are pretty off, and they never manage to pull it together and quite dance in synch for the whole intro. CMS tries to cover up his mistakes with some of his trademark enthusiasm (work those spirit fingers!), but there's not enough plucky eagerness in the world to get you through a sloppy number like this without looking like a klutz. Nice try though, Charlie...
McGurk has been the only dog in the household for 11 years, but the arrival of a new puppy (CMS) throws his whole sense of security into the shredder. Observing the new doggy's hyperactive antics through a window, one of McGurk's friends offers this observation: "He thinks he's in a Disney movie." I should only be so lucky, because if this really were a Disney movie, then at least Charlie would be sexier in this. I've already pointed out his appearance in his first Walt Disney film (1976's "No Deposit, No Return") as being what I'd consider the starting point for his hunky hotness. And he's even hotter in his next two for Disney Studios, looking absolutely mouthwatering in his roles in "Herbie Goes Bananas" (1980) and "Never Cry Wolf" (1983). However, there's no way he can look good here in this unflattering brown bodysuit and wonky wig. He tries his darndest to be as adorable as he can, but he's fighting a losing battle that just cannot be won.
The new pup is named Tucker, and he tries to be friendly and start off on the right foot (right paw?) with McGurk, but is met initially with cold silence from the older mutt. The bitch from next door, Iris (Beej Johnson), is more receptive to Tucker's energetic friendliness. She goes all soft and girly when he calls her pretty and licks her paw as he shakes it (and it looks like CMS really licks her hand too, that's how much of a thorough professional he is). As she runs next door to fetch her younger daughter, perky bitch-in-heat Camille (Sherry Lynn), Tucker continues his efforts to win over his new canine housemate.
When McGurk suggests that the only reason their owners took Tucker in was because they're suckers who took pity on a stray mutt, the puppy suddenly switches from genial to offended. "I am not a mutt!" he insists indignantly. "I am a Rodesian Ridgeback!" he proclaims, and he strikes a presumably proper pose for such a pedigreed pup, bragging that he was not a rescued stray but a $500 purchase from a fancy kennel. This unnerves McGurk, who heads outside by himself to seek comfort and reassurance from Iris. "There's only one answer," he tells her. "They think I'm getting old. They want a younger dog in the house." When he notices the freshly dug hole in the yard and combines that with a suspicious discussion the owners had with the veterinarian the other week, McGurk concludes that the hole in the ground will actually be his grave and that he's a dying dog.
Hearing McGurk's sad whimpers, Tucker comes out into the yard and is very sympathetic when he's told the bad news. Before the conversation can get more serious, Camille shows up to check out the new dog. Distracted and horny, the two young'uns circle around each other but manage to avoid sniffing each other's assholes like I would expect them to. Iris ruins their frisky mood by informing her aroused daughter of McGurk's impending death. "You can't die," she gasps in surprise. "You're too young! It's not fair!"
"I don't want to die, I don't wanna!" McGurk howls, as Tucker rushes over to try to calm the doomed dog down. But he remains inconsolable, asking the pup to help him inside where he can lay in his bed and wait for the end to come. Gosh, what a despairing doggy! Wanting to be helpful and consoling, the other dogs take McGurk back into the house.
Tucker tries to keep a more positive perspective, insisting that the pained pooch really has nothing to worry about. This is all a misunderstanding, the hole in the yard really isn't there to serve as his burial place, and McGurk is going to live on to enjoy many more days to come. But the miserable mutt isn't listening, swiftly sinking into a somber state of sheer sorrow.
The two potentially passionate pups quickly forget about McGurk's morose musings on mortality and resume their fiery flirtations. Normally I would be all for seeing CMS get to play another romantic part, having enjoyed the few times he had the opportunity to get amorous with another character. But the awkward awfulness of the whole affair kills any potential puppy passion as far as I am concerned. It's all so unbearably unattractive. I suspect that even if I was into being aroused by anthropomorphics, I would still have trouble stirring up much enthusiasm for these furry fools in their atrocious animal apparel. Although in Sherry Lynn's defense, she is the least lame-looking of the group, managing to be sort of cute and appealing despite being dressed up in these dreadful dog duds. So it does make some sense for CMS to zero in on her.
It's hard to remain upbeat when they eavesdrop on their human owner talking to the vet on the phone. What's that they overhear? It's "curtains for McGurk"? Oh no, maybe he really is dying. The two bitches begin blubbering and leave Tucker alone with the doomed doggy. "I'm not going to let you give up," he says stubbornly, but McGurk remains inconsolable. Wanting to cheer him up, the young pup goes to get him a bowl of fresh water to drink.
He soon returns with a dish of Perrier. "You deserve it," he smiles, as be places the drink bowl at McGurk's feet. "I don't want to be here alone without you," he continues. "I wanted you to be my friend." Awwww.... That's the closest this whole show has come to a genuine moment, and of course it came to us courtesy of Charlie's sincerity. "I don't want to die," McGurk confides to his canine companion. "I'm afraid. I don't know what it will be like." Confronted with such existential despair, Tucker's optimistic facade starts to crumble, his sunny sensibility suddenly starting to slip away.
"Pull yourself together, dog!" McGurk growls as he leaps to his feet. "Remember, you are a rare breed: a $500 Rodesian Ridgeback!" Tucker shakes his head. "No I'm not," he confesses. "I lied about that. I made up that whole story because you had me so scared when I got here." So he's just a common mutt after all, a stray found in a supermarket parking lot. "I don't even know who my father was," he confesses. "Who does?" McGurk replies.
The bitches suddenly rush into the room. Guess what? It really is all just a misunderstanding. When the owners talked about "curtains" for McGurk, they were talking literally, wanting to get curtains to put on the windows to block the morning sun so the old pooch could sleep in. "It's a miracle!" Tucker shouts. "You've cheated death!" And look outside: the hole they assumed was meant to be a grave has been filled back in.
Oof! What a contrived mess, spectacularly unfunny too. Even the desperate attempts at pathos rubbed me the wrong way. Oh, Charles... How did you get yourself involved with this turkey? I'm glad you were able to get back on track after this career misstep. I've found something to enjoy in everything CMS-related I have seen so far. Even the lesser ones still had something to offer. But there's nothing good about "A Dog's Life" at all. Even being a fan of so-bad-it's-good entertainment, I had to accept this was just straight-up bad. I hope I never have to suffer through watching CMS in anything this horrible ever again. Oh, the things I do for love...