Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Greyfriars Bobby
Everybody knows that dogs are the most faithful and loyal companions in the animal kingdom. There is no better illustration of this than the Scottish legend of Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye Terrier who kept vigil at the grave of his deceased master for more than a decade. It’s an irresistible story that seems tailor-made for a sentimental dog-lover like Walt Disney.
As is the case with many stories in the oral tradition, the details in the real Greyfriars Bobby story vary depending on who’s telling the tale. Walt decided to base his version on the novel by Eleanor Atkinson, an American writer who took the broad strokes of the story and filled in the rest herself. Atkinson’s book had already been filmed once before, as the 1949 Lassie vehicle Challenge To Lassie. That version doesn’t sound all that different from the Disney movie. The only way you could argue that Walt’s version is more faithful is that he got the dog’s breed right.
Robert Westerby, a British novelist and screenwriter, was hired to write the script. Westerby will be back in this column but unfortunately, one of his best Disney projects will not. In 1963, he wrote The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh (released theatrically overseas as Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow) for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. Scarecrow became a legitimate cult favorite, one of Disney’s best-remembered TV productions, and I’m sorely disappointed that it falls outside the purview of this column.
The director was Don Chaffey, another British talent who will continue to appear in this column. Chaffey started as an art director before working his way up to directing a number of crime pictures and television episodes. Greyfriars Bobby was his first Disney project but it would not be his last. It would also not be his last dog movie. In the 1970s, he’d direct the Lassie comeback movie The Magic Of Lassie, as well as the ludicrous Hanna-Barbera production C.H.O.M.P.S. about a robot dog.
Chaffey isn’t the only one in Greyfriars Bobby with a Lassie connection. Donald Crisp (last seen in this column as the mayor in Pollyanna) had previously starred in several Lassie features, including Challenge To Lassie. In that earlier telling of the story, Crisp played Auld Jock, Lassie/Bobby’s beloved master. Here, he’s James Brown, caretaker of Greyfriars Kirkyard and Bobby’s nemesis.
Alex Mackenzie takes over as Auld Jock, a much kinder and gentler role than his previous Disney appearance as the Ferryman in Kidnapped. As the story opens, Jock is being let go from his longtime post as a shepherd on a family farm. Jock tries to make Bobby understand that he must stay with the family but the little dog is so devoted to Jock that he escapes, hurrying after him to Edinburgh. He manages to find Jock, who smuggles him into the most ramshackle flophouse in the city. Sadly, Jock isn’t well and he dies in his sleep, a victim of pneumonia.
When Jock’s body is discovered, he has enough money on him to pay for a decent burial in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Bobby follows, only to be shooed away by James Brown, strictly obeying his own no-dogs-allowed rule. Bobby heads over to a nearby restaurant run by Mr. Traill (Laurence Naismith, previously seen in Third Man On The Mountain). Jock had taken his meals at Traill’s place and Traill feeds the dog, sneaking him back into the cemetery at night to sleep atop his master’s grave.
Brown continues to want Bobby gone but after his wife sees that the dog is a skilled rat-killer, she wants to adopt him as their own. Brown reluctantly agrees but Bobby has other ideas. He continues to go back and forth between Greyfriars and Traill’s place, acknowledging no one as a master except Jock.
Eventually the police get involved, charging Traill with harboring an unlicensed animal. Traill is dragged in front of the magistrate and refuses to pay the licensing fee, arguing that Bobby really isn’t his dog. Brown turns up and volunteers to pay but Traill won’t let him. As far as Traill’s concerned, it’s a matter of principle since Bobby isn’t his dog, either. Word gets around and a scruffy band of orphans takes up a collection, scraping together the fee penny by penny. The Magistrate is so moved by this demonstration that he declares Bobby a Freeman of the City, given permission to roam wherever he may please. Even Traill and Brown put aside their differences. Edinburgh is happy at last.
Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story Of A Dog (to use the film’s complete on-screen title) is a pleasant enough little movie. The exteriors were all filmed on location in Scotland, giving the movie an authentic atmosphere. Some critics and American audiences at the time complained that the actors’ thick accents were borderline impenetrable but they really aren’t that bad. If you can make it through the first ten minutes without subtitles, you should be fine.
The cast is uniformly excellent with Crisp and Naismith playing nicely off each other. Mackenzie brings real pathos to Auld Jock. Even though you know his days are numbered from the first frame, his death still carries genuine weight. As for Bobby, he earns his place in the pantheon of put-upon Disney dogs like Old Yeller and Nikki. He mercifully isn’t put in as much physical danger as his predecessors but he definitely conveys the emotional trauma of losing a loved one. He’s an easy little dog to love.
All that being said, Greyfriars Bobby is a far cry from being an upper-echelon Disney classic. The movie has two big problems that go hand-in-hand: nothing much actually happens and what little does happen gets repeated over and over. The opening narration pretty much tells us the entire story but it’s still a good 20 minutes or so before the movie starts climbing that hill. We spend a fair amount of time with the family that ostensibly owns Bobby, including Gordon Jackson as the farmer, Rosalie Crutchley as his wife and Gennie Nevinson as their daughter (there's also a son but he barely registers at all). But Bobby only has eyes for Jock, so all this really does is make us feel bad for the little girl whose love for this dog is so clearly not reciprocated.
Somewhere in the middle of Bobby’s Edinburgh adventures, the farmer comes back to Edinburgh looking for Bobby. He takes him back home, only to have the dog escape yet again and head back. That’s no less than four trips back and forth between Edinburgh and the farm in a 90-minute movie. We get it, the dog misses the old man.
It also doesn’t help that the movie, like Atkinson’s book, is told primarily from Bobby’s perspective. This means that the audience is frequently several steps ahead of the characters in the movie. We know all about what happens to Jock, from his backstory to his death to his funeral. But when Brown buries Jock, he has no idea who it is. When Bobby goes back to Traill, he knows Jock but doesn’t know that he’s dead. So we’re left impatiently waiting for everyone to catch up to where we are.
Still, Greyfriars Bobby has enough going for it to make it worth a look. It’s a sad and sweet little story, expertly performed by a cast of old pros and centered around a very cute and scrappy little dog. Is it going to change your life? Absolutely not. But it’s a nice rainy afternoon movie that won’t insult your intelligence. And, unlike some other movies we’ve seen in this column, it won’t make you unduly concerned over its canine star’s welfare.
VERDICT: It’s just diverting enough to earn a low Disney Plus.