Dondi (1961)

Genres - Children's/Family, Drama  |   Run Time - 100 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Nathan Southern

Albert Zugsmith, a hack notorious for drive-in fluff (Sex Kittens Go to College, Confessions of an Opium Eater), spun this god-awful kiddie feature to the public via an enormous media blitz, just prior to its theatrical release in the spring of 1961. The ad campaign shoved Dondi dolls, watches, lunch boxes, and other assorted paraphernalia into the faces of unsuspecting elementary schoolers across Middle America -- thus attempting to pay for the Wonder Bread and instant coffee of its journeyman actors with marketing tie-ins. A year or so prior, Allied Artists had launched a well-publicized, coast-to-coast talent search for the lead, and execs somehow landed on young David Kory as their star. As a film historian later wrote, "One cannot even begin to imagine what the losers were like." Kory wins his laurels as one of the most irritating performers in movie history, in an unbearable role. As Dondi, an Italian war orphan who hides in the knapsack of a serviceman boat-bound for New York, Kory's lines consist of referring to God as "Mr. Big Buddy" and exclaiming repeatedly, "Oh, goshers!" The picture's ham-handed attempts at humor fare no better (one of its highlights has a sailor irritating his fellow crewmen by crunching loudly on a stalk of celery) and its emotional cues feel treacly -- such as the "heartbreaking" sequence where young Dondi accidentally becomes separated from his soldier friends via a clamoring mob in Manhattan. Zugsmith's decision to enlist Patti Page for a few musical numbers beside the piano also smacks of clever commercializing. (How better to persuade parents to tote their small fries to this film?) That said, during and immediately following its initial release, Dondi did draw enthusiasm from many young children, who were less attuned to the obviousness and artificiality of its manipulations. This reviewer is embarrassed to admit that he found it enchanting at five years old, and there now exists a broad cult following of "Dondi loyalists" who also saw the picture when they were tykes and will forever retain a soft spot for it in their hearts. One wonders if today's youngsters would react to Dondi with equal enthusiasm, given the technological innovations that have raised the bar on family entertainment.