The latter part of William "Wild Bill" Wellman's distinguished career is a little patchy, as much due to studio interference as anything else, but a fair bit of positive attention has focused on Track of the Cat (1954) a sweaty family melodrama about the hunt for a rapacious wildcat in the snowy wilds near Aspen, daringly filmed in color but with almost no actual color (the snow was crucial here).
We've been looking at the wrong film. An almost exact opposite of Track of the Cat exists, one which trades that film's showy ambition for a quieter, but equally radical aesthetic. Where Robert Mitchum and his kin snarl at each other in Track of the Cat, in Good-bye, My Lady all is peaceful between old-timer Walter Brennan and his young nephew Brandon DeWilde (the kid from Shane). Where Track of the Cat uses a daring palette and widescreen compositions, Goodbye, My Lady is in black and white and has a modest, contained feeling, hemmed in by the spooky trees of Florida. Finally, the first film is about a cat, and Lady is a dog.
Young Skeeter, played by the solemn, self-possessed DeWilde hears strange noises in the night: "like a ghost laughing." The culprit proves to be a small, strange dog, which both laughs and weeps, and can outrun the fastest hounds in the territory, owned by grouchy storekeeper Phil Harris (the voice of Baloo the bear in Disney's first Jungle Book). But where pursuit fails, a friendly approach, baited with food, is successful, and Skeeter soon adopts the dog, which he names Lady, in preference to Uncle Walter's first suggestion, Gertrude. "Gertrude's a pretty name."
"I got me a dog," says DeWilde, and Skeeter's pride at the first thing he's ever really owned is a wonder to see. All this stuff is somewhat sentimental to be sure, by its nature, but Wellman, who was a tough bastard, keeps it from getting watery or cloying, and the bayou atmosphere and clearly delineated deprivation add an edge of proper seriousness. Overlaid on this is a remarkable score credited to Laurindo Almeida and George Fields which is gentle and lulling and refuses to behave like a film score. It never seems to respond to anything that happens onscreen, it just murmurs away in the background, but it's never intrusive or inappropriate either. It changes with the story without seeming to. It's subtlety and atmospheric enhancement is part of what makes the film so unusual, the script being the other main factor.
Wellman directs with simplicity, exploiting William Clothier's beautiful location photography, and serving up some of his favorite compositional eccentricities: scenes of violence are frequently occluded by foreground clutter, adding a sense of documentary catch-as-catch-can. This can apply to scenes of emotional violence as well as physical.
Closely based on a magazine story by James Street, the film cheerfully presents us with characters who digress, confuse themselves, repeat one another and themselves, bicker nonsensically but never really engage in any dramatic conflict whatsoever, and generally behave more like people than most movie characters you could see in movies of the time.
Such tension as the film has comes from Lady's uncertain status: finders keepers is the law of the countryside, but as the unique dog, an African Basenji, becomes a local celebrity, the possibility of the original owner showing up becomes ever more likely.
The whole "come to the one you love the most" schtick from Lassie, Come Home is a fine bit of dramatic contrivance and emotional manipulation (of audience and dog, the two being alike in some ways). But this film scores by going in the opposite direction: Skeeter realizes the dog rightfully belongs to someone else. He loves the dog more than anything except maybe his uncle, but he soberly and calmly surrenders to inevitability. There are compensations, but it's heartbreaking.
"I had me a dog."
Extra value comes from brief appearances by Louise Beavers (Beulah to Mae West), who played many dim and anxious maids in the 1930s and here gets to play an actual human, showing what she can do with a less stereotyped role, and a very young Sidney Poitier.
Honorable mention: Stuart Heisler's The Biscuit Eater (1940) is another beautiful dog movie, and it also features an ethnic stereotype player, the legendary "Snowflake" who causes such discomfort in otherwise delightful Preston Sturges films, giving the closest he ever got to a credible, dignified performance. But The Biscuit Eater goes beyond heartbreaking: it's genuinely upsetting, in a way that will make you feel unhappy every time you think of it. Beware of the dog movie.