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Monday, February 20, 2012

Test Drive for Toby!

This is The Horn Section's offering to the Classic Movie Dogathon, which is hosted by a blog that is one of my frequent online visits, Classic Film and TV Cafe.  We contributing bloggers are paying tribute to our favorite cinematic canines, so if you're a dog lover or a film lover, be sure to check out all the movies featuring memorable moments from man's best friend!

"Peanuts" per the credits, but known and loved to film cultists everywhere as "Toby".
Participating in the Classic Movie Dogathon gives me the opportunity to wax poetic on the film I consider to be the funniest movie ever made.  Yes, my favorite comedy of all time, a film I've watched literally one hundred times without ever getting sick of it. Yet this is the first time I've blogged at length about director Robert Zemeckis' 1980 masterpiece, USED CARS.

Notice I said, "at length".  Long time Horn Section readers (or those scanning "Divvying up the Posts") will notice I did post about the legendary Marshal Lucky commercial in a 2008 post(WARNING: The video clip of said commercial ain't safe for work!) I shouldn't be calling attention to this because I didn't deliver, but I kinda sorta promised a detailed review at the end of that post.  I know you're wondering what excuse I have for not coming through.

Toby wants to know why you didn't write it, don't you Toby?
Well, for one thing, it was available on DVD long before I started blogging in 2006, happily making it unnecessary for me to ask "Why the Hell" it isn't.  For another, I don't think I could improve on the many reviews that are already out there.  Click on these links for two terrific takes on USED CARS: from Marty McKee at Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot and Ivan Shreve of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

Those two reviews pretty much covered most of my thoughts on the greatness that is USED CARS, but I'll add one.  It seems appropriate that a film that repeatedly tweaks the corruption of the political process by money is strengthened by spreading its laughs out so democratically.  Everyone gets multiple punch lines from the uproarious Bob Zemeckis/Bob Gale script.  If it seems like Jack Warden gets a few more, keep in mind that the great character actor was a master improviser, responsible for much of his own dialogue during the "landscaping" scene as well as his true feelings about the camel assisting him with his "good old fashioned, homespun entertainment".

While USED CARS had a highly quotable script, it also had a tremendous contribution from a character with no lines at all.  Unless "woof" counts.  Yes, I'm talking about Toby (credited as "Peanuts"), the beagle owned by the late Lucas Fuchs, proprietor of the New Deal Used Car lot. 

Hitchcock's philosophy is invoked early on in the DVD's commentary track, that being that the audience can identify with any character if he's good at his job.  Well, being a dog, Toby has a built-in lovability already, but he also fits the criteria set forth by the old master of suspense.  In addition to being a damned good watchdog (watch him protect the territory repeatedly from Roy L. Fuchs, the Evil Twin brother), Toby proves himself equally adept at assisting mechanics and car salesmen.

In fact Toby is performing the former duty when we are introduced to him, dutifully responding to Luke's request for a Phillips screwdriver.  The little fella isn't infallible, as he comes back with a flathead on his first trip before correcting his error.  It's still an impressive feat for a pooch, and it took trainer Tony Shields two months of work with Toby before that trick was ready for filming.

After the first of two legendary setpieces involving illegal (and FCC violating) commercials, every available man is needed to help sell cars on the packed lot the following morning,  Toby is ready for action, teaming up with Gerrit Graham to help put a family in their dream station wagon.  Rather than try to describe it, I'll just let you witness Toby's most famous scene:

Of course, no acting animal could possibly play that dead that convincingly without a helping paw, and Zemeckis admitted Toby was lightly sedated for the scene (with the Humane Society monitoring filming and a DVM on set at all times).   Juiced a little, sure, but that hasn't wiped Canseco's home runs or Clemens' K's off the books yet, so it certainly shouldn't negate Toby's spot-on support of Graham's salesmanship.

Other sites identify Graham's superstitious Jeff as Toby's owner instead of my assumption that it is Luke.  Granted, Toby seems to be best buds with Jeff during the bulk of his screen time, but I base my theory on the fact that Toby is with Luke Fuchs at the outset and only bonds with Jeff after Luke demonstrates that $50 (well, that and a perilous ride with his brother's henchman) can kill somebody.  Toby is also noticeably upset later when Luke is truly about to drive over the curb for the last time.

Truthfully it's hard to say who's right on this.  It is never revealed which man is truly Toby's best friend in the Gale-Zemeckis shooting script, and the DVD's otherwise highly informative commentary track is no help either.  It remains one of the mysteries of USED CARS, right up there with the source of Jim the Mechanic's legal expertise ("That's the most blatant case of false advertising I've ever heard!") and how workaholic Roy has the time to follow routine cases like the People v. Billy Joe Washington.

Toby's second most famous scene is the setpiece fight between Roy L. Fuchs and Jeff after "Marshal Lucky" goes huntin' high prices at the lot across the highway.  The surviving Fuchs brother is outraged enough to temporarily overlook his fear of Toby (not to mention the possibility of a trespassing arrest) and invades the New Deal lot.  Unfortunately for Jeff, his loyal four legged friend ends up locked in a room and unable to help while Fuchs completely routs him.  In a display of Toby's extraordinary intelligence that is often overlooked, he manages to open the window.

Jeff is unconscious, Rudy is away, so mechanic Jim (who deals with threats ranging from Roy's henchman to protesting nuns) is the only person to go to for help.  Jim is in the garage sleeping off a bout of post commercial battle fatigue (PCBF?).  Face licking doesn't wake the slumbering giant played by former Chicago Bear DT Frank McRae (48 HRS.) so Toby has to kick it up a notch.  I'll be as tactful as I can:

No, Toby didn't really tee tee on him.  This was another clever trick Shields taught Peanuts, working with him to just stand on one hind leg, then run off.   Zemeckis ran the film in reverse to get the desired effect.  In a subsequent display of more beagle brilliance, check out this reaction shot.  Many human actors can't get the point across as effectively.

Toby consistently exhibits the traits we recognize in all our wonderful dogs.  Loyalty, bravery, affection, communication....but Toby goes above and beyond in all categories, impressing and occasionally amazing with his acumen.  I could go on all day about USED CARS and Toby, but it's about time for me to wrap this up.

I know, I know, but there's only so much time in your day to check out the other posts, right?  And not only do I think you should check out the rest of the films in the Classic Movie Dogathon, but Toby does too, don't you Toby?



Rick29 said...

I haven't seen USED CARS in years and, based on your review, definitely need to check it out again. The clips of Toby are awesome, especially his most famous scene. I love how Toby, while playing dead in his owner’s arms, glances up for a second and then goes back to playing dead. Still, it was somewhat disillusioning to learn that Peanuts was slightly sedated. Jack Warden was a fine actor who could play any role. I think people forget his subtle gifts as a comedian.

Citizen Screen said...

As I read through the Dogathon entries I am compiling a list of all the films I haven't seen. Unfortunately that's the rule so far, rather than the exception. Your pick is yet another. I loved the clips you included and will be sure to watch USED CARS. I can always use a laugh!


toto2 said...

I have not seen "Used Cars" except for one brief clip featuring an excellent canine performance. I love your enthusiasm for this film!

Page said...

I love that you are finally getting to write on your favorite film. I have this kind of love for Bringing Up Baby which I have never reviewed or discussed in depth but that all changes tomorrow. (Loving a film certainly adds to ones enthusiasm)

Believe it or not but my brother in law decided to purchase a beagle after seeing Used Cars late one night on cable to the shock of my sister. He thought they were pretty clever after seeing this canine. Of course he didn't think about all of the 'movie magic' involved in getting the canine to do certain things. Anyway, 10 years later they steal have their beagles (at 3 now)

When reading a review it's always a bonus to get such interesting 'behind the scenes' details. Loved that you've added so many here.

A fantastic write up made even more enjoyable by your personal experiences with the film.

Oh, and I'm glad to have been introduced to your blog. I'll certainly be returning.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...


I didn't get finished with my homework in time to participate in the blogathon but I was thinking about what I would have done had I been able to make time for it...and now I see that you did it already. Magnificent job!

whistlingypsy said...

Thank you for a fun and informative review of a film I have yet to watch. I can only guess this was in regular rotation on cable during my youth or childhood, but I can’t recall the story or the title. I think even fans of the film will agree that Toby, aka Peanut, sounds like the best character in the whole crazy scheme. He seems to be not only an added canine sidekick, but a genuine personality in his own right. Thanks again for your review; Cal Worthington only wishes he had a dog named Toby.

ClassicBecky said...

I am a Used Cars fan too, although I haven't seen it as much as you have! Toby was wonderful, great character, and the movie was just hilarious. Informative and interesting review!

Hal said...

First, thanks to everyone for reading and commenting! I'm enjoying this blogathon a lot and finding several new sites to visit myself.

Rick: I understand somewhat on the disillusionment, but I never thought Toby could have done that (to the point of having his tongue hanging out!) w/o some help. I was glad to hear it was only a "little" help!

Page: many thanks, and I am following your blog as well. I hit the 1930's and 1940's fairly often. :) Another favorite that I considered was WHO'S MINDING THE MINT? and interestingly enough, Walter Brennan's dog Inky was billed as "Peanuts" there too. I have yet to own a beagle, despite my love for USED CARS--we have two chi's and a shi tzu and they're a houseful!

Again, thanks to you all for reading and for the feedback

Dawn said...

After reading your wonderful review. My pocket beagle Winslow and I, will have to get our paws on this film. Winslow, is my first beagle and he is always handing out the smiles..

DorianTB said...

Hal, one of the great things about Blogathons -- or Dogathons, in this case -- is getting a chance to read other blog posts that I don't usually come across, so I'm delighted to be introduced to THE HORN SECTION this way! It's been literally decades since I saw USED CARS, but your love of this early Robert Zemeckis comedy really shines through. Toby/Peanuts is a hilarious scene-stealer, no doubt about it. Thanks for bringing USED CARS to a new audience, and also for giving me a great excuse to watch it again!

kittenbiscuits said...

It has been AGES since I've seen Used Cars. I think it's time for a rewatch. I love how you compare Toby to Canseco and Clemens. HA!


Jill (Kittenbiscuits)
Sittin' on a Backyard Fence