Film: Call of the Yukon
Director: B. Reeves Easton, John T. Coyle
Performers: Richard Arlen, Beverly Roberts, Lyle Talbot, Firefly (Collie), Swift Lightning (wolf dog), Buck (St. Bernard)
Production Info: Republic Pictures (USA), 1938
Breeds featured: Collie, wolf hybrid, Saint Bernard, various sled dogs
From the vaults of yesteryear, we have a story of a glamorous writer, Jean, camped out in the Yukon wilderness armed with her Fifth Avenue furs, her typewriter, and a ridiculous talking raven. At the peak of winter, a crew of new arrivals passes through, bringing along the corpse of the would-be game warden who unfortunately died en route. The warden’s loyal Collie, Firefly, is among the crew sent by the American government to quell the packs of wild dogs whom are said to go on killing sprees in times of famine. When they start to overrun the village, a rogue trapper Gaston takes it upon himself to guide Jean to safer quarters.
Meanwhile, Firefly is convinced to break her vigil at her dead master’s grave by a handsome wolf-dog, Swift Lightning. Hedging their bets with the humans, Firefly and Swift Lightning follow and eventually gain the acceptance of Jean and Gaston, despite the latter’s prejudices against Swift Lightning’s wild blood.
Call of the Yukon delivers pretty standard action adventure fare with a cast that’s (barely) a notch above mediocre, a few impressive on-location sequences that are otherwise bogged down by the usual dull studio fakery, and generous amounts of highly anthropomorphized canine screen time. One notable early scene has Gaston teaming up with the locals to frantically cordon off a bunch of reindeer from a large pack of attacking wolf-dogs; some dogs actually appear to be shot in the process, leading me to wonder how much of this fictional production was riding alongside real government programs to eradicate wolves.
Is it notable for its time that Swift Lightning, the wolf hybrid who is more or less the “star” of the film, comes to a favorable conclusion? Probably not, since his symbolic value as a rather unsubtle stand-in for race and class issues plays to standard discourses that abound in early melodrama. At one point, a hotshot fur trader and rival for Jean’s attentions flies in with his Saint Bernard to help the stranded travelers. The trader, Hugo, seems intent on pairing his dog Buck with Firefly. Gaston, however, is suddenly ready to stand up for the wolf-dog whom he’s been pelting with objects for half the film. “Y’know, it’d be pretty raw if the Collie were to quit Swift Lightning now,” he says. “If he want her, why should he give her up?”
“Because he’s not her kind,” rebuts Hugo. “And the lady knows it. He’s a wolf dog, and she’s a thoroughbred.”
“Buck isn’t her breed either.”
And that’s about as zippy as it gets. For diehard dog movie lovers, the film’s worth seeing for some cute and totally staged moments of Collie-Wolfdog bonding. Otherwise, it’s pretty forgettable. Luckily you don’t have to go out of your way to catch it on archive.org. Otherwise, you can find it on DVD as part of the Canine Collection.