It’s a Dog’s Life

M-G-M’s It’s a Dog’s Life (1955) tells the story of Wildfire, a noble bull terrier who betters the life of the affluent family that adopts him. At the turn of the century, Wildfire and his mother roam the streets of New York for food and shelter. Wildfire soon becomes curious about his past and seeks answers from a knowledgeable old neighborhood dog, who informs him that his father, Champion Regent Royal—supposedly a prize-winning fighter dog—abandoned his mother while she was pregnant. Wildfire resolves to track down his father and kill him, just before discovering that his mother has mysteriously vanished. Now on his own, the determined stray sets out on his quest for honor and winds up in the dangerous Bowery district, where he becomes a successful pit fighter at a saloon. Wildfire flourishes under the expertise of a ruthless hustler named Patch McGill (Jeff Richards), but his winning streak comes to an abrupt end when his master foolishly matches him against a much larger dog; McGill blames Wildfire for the loss, prompting the dog to return to the waterfront.

Fortune strikes when an admirer of Wildfire’s—animal caretaker Jeremiah Nolan (Edmund Gwenn)—brings the dog back to his quarters at a massive countryside estate owned by a self-made millionaire (and dog breeder), Mr. Wyndham (Dean Jagger). Bitter over his own failing health, Wyndham initially opposes the presence of the “mongrel,” but his daughter Dorothy (Sally Fraser) recognizes the dog’s beauty and convinces her father to let him stay if he qualifies for a ribbon at a local dog show. Wildfire falls in love with a fellow contender named Miss Ladyship, and not only qualifies but goes on to win first prize at the competition—it turns out his father was not a fighter but a renowned show dog, and Wildfire is a chip off the old block. Wyndham subsequently warms to the fearless dog, admiring his courage, and learns to enjoy life again by accepting his own mortality.

Dorothy enters Wildfire in the Grand National Championship at Madison Square Garden, where the hero faces his destiny by competing against Regent Royal. Wildfire wins once again, but decides not to kill his father, having been touched by his Regent Royal’s gracious acceptance of defeat. A dog riot breaks out when Wildfire defends his father from heckling canines; thinking he has disgraced the Wyndhams, the hero flees the scene and subsequently becomes trapped by dogcatcher, one who coincidentally has Wildfire’s captured mother in his wagon. Wyndham arrives on the scene and buys Wildfire and his mother from the dogcatcher. Back at the estate, Regent Royal reunites with Wildfire’s mother and escaped pageant contestant Miss Ladyship goes on to give birth to a litter of Wildfire’s puppies.

Adapted from Richard Harding Davis’s beloved novel The Bar Sinister (1903), It’s a Dog’s Life combines wisecracking humor with heartfelt life lessons, never shying away from the darker aspects inherent in the latter. Abandonment, death and forgiveness were unexpectedly weighty topics for a talking-animal picture in 1955; in his directorial debut, Herman Hoffman fashioned a film that both appealed to children and won over critics, many of whom were surprised to be giving the film favorable notices. Key to the success of the film is Vic Morrow’s voiceover narration for Wildfire, delivered with casual charm and sweetness. Wildfire himself does an admirable job conveying human-caliber intelligence, and the supporting human players are nicely restrained, never veering into cartoonish territory.

In addition to Vic Morrow’s work, Elmer Bernstein’s music is a second crucial voice for Wildfire, imbuing the dog with appropriate warmth and dignity. Bernstein’s main theme, “Wildfire’s Song,” is in keeping with the composer’s music for films centering on children: innocent but with an air of sophistication. The inspirational tune—marked by an opening pair of rising fourths—is the malleable crux of the score, a heartbreakingly pure melody in its gentler, contemplative guises, and a rousing, brassy confirmation of Wildfire’s regal heritage when in fanfare mode. The composer also ties the idea to the film’s melting-pot source music, occasionally voicing it on accordion and treating it as a compound-meter circus-style tune. The film’s montage sequences of frolicking and training are propelled by Bernstein’s trademark Americana style, brimming with syncopated brass and earnest string writing. While this score precedes Bernstein’s 1980s comedy period by several decades, the composer’s penchant for effortlessly underlining humor is evident throughout the film. Critics favorably cited the score, with Variety’s reviewer offering: “Elmer Bernstein’s gay score is in perfect keeping with the mood of the story.”

12. Main Title
A brass fanfare version of the main theme underscores the M-G-M lion, followed by a delicate string setting of the melody for a Charles Darwin quote that appears over a portrait of Wildfire: “I agree with Agassie that dogs possess something very like a conscience.” The credits play through an establishing shot of Wildfire’s New York waterfront neighborhood, accompanied by a joyful, circus-like setting of the main theme, capped by a bold brass coda.
Wildfire’s Song
As Wildfire and his mother approach an alley in search of food, a lonesome version of the main theme sounds on accordion and strings. Playful low woodwind accompaniment joins the melody before Wildfire scares away a pack of dogs and claims their food.
13. Wildfire’s Shame
A jolly version of the main theme plays as Wildfire drops off a salami for his old canine friend, Captain. A bittersweet setting of the tune follows for Wildfire and his mother relaxing in a warehouse, with the canine protagonist puzzling over his mother’s sadness. The scene transitions to a nearby street where pampered neighborhood dogs hassle Wildfire about his missing father, Regent Royal, with the orchestra lurching about to underline the taunting. The main theme undergoes a depressed development when Wildfire visits Captain to learn the truth about his father.
As Wildfire soaks in the revelation that his father abandoned his mother while she was pregnant, the score offers a troubled development of the main theme on accordion, with urgent strings and winds building toward an orchestral accent that underlines the hero’s decision to find and kill his father. A dejected accordion version of the main theme sounds when Wildfire returns to the warehouse to find that his mother has disappeared.
14. Fame at Last
Wildfire travels to the Bowery, where Patch McGill (Jeff Richards) trains him to be a fighting dog. After Wildfire wins his first bout, Jeremiah Nolan (Edmund Gwenn) sadly observes the bleeding dog, accompanied by a solo accordion reading of the main theme. A subsequent montage of Wildfire celebrating more victories and relaxing with Patch in between bouts receives an optimistic setting of the theme.
Patch’s girlfriend, Mabel (Jarma Lewis), insults Wildfire, prompting him to go for a walk. A development of the main theme plays on clarinets and strings over pedal point as the dog dreams of a reunion with his mother and of killing his father. The theme sounds off with regal brass for a transition to a portrait of Wildfire’s next opponent, a bull terrier named Masterful.
After Wildfire loses a match to a bigger dog named Destruction, he flees Patch’s wrath. A unison string version of the main theme underscores Wildfire limping back to his old neighborhood. When he reaches the waterfront, the cue reflects his mood with a miserable development of the theme for accordion and strings. The music subsides as a shadowy figure approaches Wildfire from behind.
15. Nolan
Portentous low strings sound as Wildfire awakens in a dark, unfamiliar room. When his host, Mr. Nolan, enters and introduces himself, Bernstein offers a warm development of the main theme.
Getting Acquainted
Nolan shows Wildfire around the property of his employer, Mr. Wyndham (Dean Jagger), accompanied by the main theme. When he warns the dog to stay away from the troubled Wyndham (Dean Jagger), the score offers a full reading of the theme’s development from “Nolan,” alluding to the friendship Wyndham and Wildfire will eventually share. The main theme returns as Nolan points out a cage containing Wyndham’s collection of enormous St. Bernards.
What a St. Bernard
The main theme plays briefly as Nolan brings Wildfire into a stable and introduces him to Wyndham’s spiteful employee, Tom Tattle (Willard Sage).
16. Jocks
Dire strings take up a retrograde variation of the main theme for Tattle advising Nolan to get rid of his new dog, after which Bernstein introduces a lumbering, bass clarinet-driven tune for Wildfire’s new bulldog friend, Jimmy Jocks. Swaying strings sound as Wildfire relaxes in a hammock and recounts Jocks’s dog-centric theories about the world.
In the Hay
The dogs continue to bond during a montage in which they chase chickens, play with a toad, and get squirted by milk from a cow udder. The score mimics the onscreen shenanigans with chaotic material spotlighting piano and xylophone as well as a robust brass rendition of the hammock music from “Jocks.” As the dogs rest in a strawberry field, the cue winds down with Jocks’s theme and the main theme, underscoring the bulldog informing Wildfire that his father is actually a champion show dog.
Trophy Room
Jocks escorts Wildfire to a room decorated with dog-show trophies; a regal version of the main theme plays on brass and strings for Wildfire admiring the various prizes and thinking of his father. Bernstein continues to develop the theme when Wyndham’s daughter, Dorothy (Sally Fraser), enters and admires Wildfire, until the sound of barking interrupts them. As Wildfire runs outside to rescue Jocks from a group of St. Bernards, the score launches into aggressive chase material for trilling strings and woodwinds, relentless low-end piano and exclamatory brass. Tattle breaks up the ruckus between the dogs, but Wyndham becomes furious and insists that Nolan get rid of Wildfire.
17. After the Fight
The main theme receives a sparse, melancholic treatment as Nolan packs his belongings—he would rather quit than see Wildfire unjustly banished from the premises.
Wyndham’s Story
Coy woodwind material plays as Wildfire marvels over Nolan’s uncanny ability to interpret exactly what he is thinking. Bernstein develops the main theme nostalgically on solo strings when Nolan tells Wildfire of Wyndham’s former happier days, but the cue takes a dire turn when he reveals that the self-made millionaire has become bitter after suffering four heart attacks.
18. Wash Day
Wyndham agrees to a wager proposed by Dorothy—if Wildfire can qualify for a ribbon at an upcoming dog show, both he and Nolan can stay. For a montage of Wildfire being bathed and groomed for the competition, Bernstein contributes a plucky, playful rendition of the main theme, offset by comical low brass; the cue also references “Here We Go ’Round the Mulberry Bush” for Nolan brushing Wildfire’s teeth.
Solo woodwind phrases alternate with the main theme for a scene in which Nolan and Dorothy unsuccessfully attempt to train Wildfire for the competition; the dog misinterprets everything they tell him to do. The main theme closes the cue after the scene transitions to the stable, where Wildfire growls at Tattle.
19. Tattle
When Tattle taunts Nolan about taking over his job if Wildfire does not qualify at the show, the score acknowledges the dog’s displeasure with conflicted descending material; fateful woodwinds sound over shimmering strings for Wildfire noticing a beleaguered Wyndham staring at him.
20. Wyndham Walks and Talks
Wildfire wins first prize at the competition, where he also meets his love interest, a bull terrier named Miss Ladyship. After returning to the estate, Wyndham invites Wildfire to go for a walk and the dog accepts. Delicate woodwind solos alternate with a nurturing variation of the main theme for their tentative interaction by a lake; as Wyndham tries to decide whether to accept the former fighting dog, the score responds with moody writing for strings and woodwinds.
Wyndham’s realization that Wildfire does not fear death helps him come to terms with his own failing health. Yearning, impressionistic material underscores the old man’s epiphany before he and the dog continue their walk, the score perking up with an increasingly rambunctious reprise of the main theme for their bonding. Nocturnal shimmering enters as Wyndham bids Wildfire goodnight outside the mansion, with Tattle jealously observing from the stable.
Going Home
Joyous, fitful developments of the main theme underscore a sequence of Wildfire traveling across the countryside to visit Miss Ladyship at her home; the score spotlights woodwinds for his interaction with her when she plays hard to get. An urgent rendition of the main theme sounds as Wildfire returns home, spurned by Miss Ladyship.
21. Wildfire’s Training
Wildfire becomes visibly depressed—he is lovesick and feels unworthy of partaking in the upcoming Grand National Championship at Madison Square Garden. Forlorn strings give way to a jubilant setting of the main theme once Wildfire learns that he will be competing against his father, whom he still plans to kill. The perky writing continues through a transition to Wyndham playing fetch with the dog, with Tattle once again watching ominously.
An extended stretch of the film plays without score, during which Tattle dognaps Wildfire and gives him to Patch, who holds the hero for ransom. Wyndham’s confirms his love for the dog when he beats up Patch and brings Wildfire back to his estate.
22. Mother
Once again, Wildfire takes first prize at the competition. He decides not to kill his father, having been impressed by the older dog’s gracious acceptance of defeat (plus his desire not to embarrass the Wyndhams). Taking things a step further, when some canines heckle Regent Royal, Wildfire comes to his defense and a dog riot breaks out.
Bernstein intended a propulsive, brassy development of the main theme to play as Wildfire flees the riot and heads into the street, but the finished film dials out this material. A jarring accordion sneer sounds when a dogcatcher traps him with a net, the score trilling doom as he carries Wildfire toward his wagon. Forlorn, overlapping statements of the main theme sound as the hero joins the other captive dogs, with comically dreary material underscoring the bizarre array of prisoners. Wildfire spots his mother in the back of the wagon and licks her head, marked by a bittersweet solo violin, with a final urgent surge of brass acknowledging Wyndham’s arrival on the scene.
23. The End
Wyndham purchases all of the dogs from the dogcatcher and sets most of them free to run through the city; the catcher sarcastically looks forward to the ensuing hunt, marked by brass calling out the main theme, before Bernstein tenderly develops the melody for Wyndham admiring the remaining dogs and acknowledging what a nice family Wildfire, his mother and Miss Ladyship will make. The film transitions to the stable, where Wildfire paces back and forth to a playful setting of “Rock-a-bye Baby,” with all of his dog friends and family—including his father—in attendance. Wyndham emerges carrying a basket of Miss Ladyship’s newborn puppies, and the lullaby builds toward Wildfire’s final line, “How about that?” A bold, brassy statement of the main theme closes the film, while the cast takes its curtain call to a reprise of the circus-like rendition of the main theme.  —