During the 1940s, prolific Hollywood screenwriter Lillie Hayward would power the decade with rich and compelling films that varied in theme and tone. From shadowy and complex Westerns such as Blood on the Moon (1948), to introducing new dimensions to the werewolf subgenre with The Undying Monster (1942) and also scaring the Production Code with her electric take on the horrors of suicide in the noir thriller Strange Bargain (1949), Hayward would deliver a wide range of film output. However, Hayward’s number one love in regards to her writing and what she revelled in exploring onscreen was the loving relationship shared between people and animals – most notably, children and beloved critters such as dogs and horses. In the forties, Hayward penned the screenplays for two horse-centric movies: My Friend Flicka (1943) and Black Beauty (1946) and opened the decade with a dog movie entitled The Biscuit Eater (1940), which would get a seventies remake from Disney, thankfully completely capturing the heart and soul of Hayward’s originally conceived tear jerker. In 1944, she would bring together one of the decade’s busiest child stars Sharyn Moffett and a German Shepherd for My Pal Wolf, a sentimental outing that pitted the vivacious little girl against the US government in an endless quest to get back the dog she loves. But it would be a follow up film a few years later that would truly showcase Moffett’s incredible acting abilities and also highlight Hayward’s excellent delivery of complicated and multi-dimensional woman protagonists. Banjo (1947) would ultimately be a pure love letter to little girls and their beloved pet pooches everywhere; a sweet tale of unconditional love and the power of learning to open up one’s heart.
Sharyn Moffett would be quite the accomplished child actor during the forties, but would fade into obscurity at the decade’s end – she would wow critics and audiences alike in the magnificent flashback-fuelled noir The Locket (1946) and force the nation to question the ethics behind domestic separation in Child of Divorce (1946 also), but here in Banjo, the strong minded, independent and tough little cookie would come to represent a whole slew of fascinating women and girls created by super talented writer Lillie Hayward. Hayward would write a wonderful array of females for the screen; from pioneer women in more dog-centric movies such as The Proud Rebel (1958) starring Olivia de Havilland as a woman who “mans the fort”, and in the aforementioned The Undying Monster, actress Heather Angel plays a stoic aristocrat Helga Hammond who is worried about a family curse while a dotty but highly accomplished scholar played by Heather Thatcher is called upon to study the long legacy of lycanthropy in the Hammond history. Here, Moffett as spunky little Patricia Warren (known as Pat) is joined by fellow “Hayward women and girls” that represent a big stretch of diverse images of captivating characters – the film is steadily held up by the likes of great talents such as Una O’Connor, Louise Beavers and Jacqueline White.
As young Pat, Sharyn Moffett is a pioneer woman waiting to happen. She is resourceful, resilient, intelligent and passionate, however being a child (and one without a mother), she is also lost in direction. Her one true “guide” is her much loved dog Banjo (who also starred as Fred McMurray and Claudette Colbert’s dog in The Egg and I (1947)), who is a bird dog in the making, but a pooch who also needs guidance. The two are a mischievous pair, always up to something and in need of a gun in order to complete their “training”. Since the death of her mother, Pat’s father has sunk into a deep depression and become an alcoholic, and after a fatal accident that leaves poor Pat an orphan, she is whisked away to her estranged aunt’s abode where she and Banjo find it hard to fit in.
Her aunt Elizabeth (Jacqueline White) is a Hayward “modern woman”, however, in saying that, the trappings of modern thinking and calculative thought has rendered the woman bitter, cold and self-centred. The film establishes Elizabeth as an unsympathetic neurotic, terrified of love and unwilling to be kind to Pat and her best buddy Banjo. In Lillie Hayward’s works, dogs and children are pure, innocent, uncorrupted by the cynicism of the world and devoted to one another, and here in Banjo, the earthy spirited Pat is in love with her canine companion to the point where the humans around her become invisible – after all, it is Banjo who is always there for her.
The world of “polite society” is also addressed in the film, where the down to earth maid Harriet (Una O’Connor) joins in with Pat’s “rip snorting”, instantly dismissing the stuffiness of a world without children and dogs, which distresses the uppity Elizabeth. Also, Pat continually is forced to protest the treatment of Banjo by her aunt (“Banjo’s always been in the house” et al) which in turn leads to the dog being separated from her, causing the final act of the film to push the canine into “hero mode” in order to win the heart of the once unfeeling Elizabeth. However, before all of the high drama that folds into the climax of the film, there is a lot of sweetness and fun. The film reads like a Selznick production in many ways (although this was a low budget RKO venture) in that it carries that wonderful tradition of his films where the mood and tone would stay light for a while, until the final act where the darkness hits and plots become dire for the characters that exist within them. Another factor that links Pat to Banjo is a scene where she itches like a dog, suggesting that Pat is more like the pup then the adults that are forced into her world, and with that, there is a subtle commentary on the lyrical angle that binds animals and wide-eyed kids happy to roam free within the wilderness. Elizabeth’s coldness towards her romantic “sometimes” love interest Dr. Hartley (Walter Reed) is the counter to all of Pat’s openness, and her rejection of Banjo is mirrored in the failed attempts at an affair with the busy but good hearted doctor.
Pat wanting her aunt to hear her prayers (which was something that she did with her friend Lindy (Louise Beavers), the housekeeper from her old home) is a touching scene, and the first time we see Elizabeth smile when Pat happily includes her in her laundry of people and animals for God to bless. In Banjo, the promise of enlightenment is always there, and this promise comes in many shapes and forms – both human and animal. It also makes a social commentary on the necessity of being a true “community” – one that does not see gender, race or class. The secured or blossoming friendships that power through the film are fine examples of Hayward’s devotion to bridging worlds together through her superlative writing – whether they be gender based (Elizabeth and her beau), concerning race (the white children and the black children) or a sweet homage to interspecies connection (Pat and her dog), Hayward plants as much as she can in a film that centres around the love a child has for their dog. As housekeeper and confidant Lindy, Louise Beavers delivers a solid performance that embodies the seldom discussed aspect of black/white friendships in cinema of the forties. As an actress who worked endlessly for many years, and for the most part playing mammies and domestics, Beavers would make a heart wrenching impression in Imitation of Life (1934) alongside Claudette Colbert, but also make wonderful marks in film history as a black woman who had loving friendships with white gal pals such as Carole Lombard in Made For Each Other (1939). Here she plays a woman devoted to young Moffett, who in turn absolutely loves her as a substitute mother. Little Pat refers to Beavers’s character as “aunt” and admires her in every way, from her strength, talents and beauty. In what is a very progressive and beautiful moment in the film, young Pat watches her blonde and white biological aunt study her face in a mirror (carrying the burden of worry and repression) which prompts the intuitive little girl to comment on her appearance in order to cheer her up. She says, “You are just about as beautiful as Aunt Lindy”. Here, screenwriter Lillie Hayward is making a profound statement, that this little white girl does not see race whatsoever, what she does see however is pure beauty (her black “aunt” Lindy) and potential beauty (her white biological aunt Elizabeth) which can be channelled if one’s heart opens and lets love in. Race is something that the film examines without even bringing it to attention, and one of the most endearing aspects of the film is Pat’s wonderful kinship with not only Lindy, but her two sons Exodus (Theron Jackson) and Genesis (Howard McNeely). In some of the loveliest sequences in the film, the white Pat and her white pal Ned (Lanny Rees) are joined by the black Exodus and Genesis and the four play and have adventures with Banjo the dog without any one of them even bringing up the issue of color. This is pure childhood innocence that is cemented by an unpretentious tenderness, a purity of friendship that knows no restraints. Even when Pat meets new friends (all white), there is no issue of intolerance or disrespect; in this film, unity belongs to children and animals – youngsters, dogs, cats and other critters understand one another and the importance of togetherness.
Pat protects Banjo from the coldness of the world and most of this comes from the unenlightened Elizabeth (“I can’t hear anymore nonsense about that dog!”) who lacks warmth and sentimentality. The world of the independent woman is complicated by shrewish coldness and intolerance in this film, and it takes the kind message of “All you gotta do is love dogs” (which is the heart of the film) to eventually stop Elizabeth’s oppression and internalised, secretive sadness. Pat’s open heart dictates an ethos where she feels that everyone in the world deserves happiness, and this is because she honestly believes that deep down everybody is nice if they are given a chance. The film’s magic lies in the absolute truth that dogs have the ability to bring people together and evoke joy, happiness, adventure and fun to even the most hardened of cynical human beings. When Elizabeth lightens up and learns to love Banjo (and in turn opens her arms and heart to Dr. Hartley) she also understands the importance of compassion and empathy. From the remarkably wise-beyond-her-years Pat, Elizabeth puts down the guard and rejects her pent-up frustrations and anxieties and responds in an enlightened manner. Her resistance to happiness is akin to the film’s “natural” and “obvious” enemy, which would be the malevolent swamp cat (a wild cougar that haunts the marshlands of rural Georgia). If Elizabeth’s quiet storm comes from sexual hang ups, the fear of responsibility and the inability to connect, then the cougar is a reflection of this in the most primal and primitive of manners. In Hayward’s worlds, animals and people are likened to one another, and that may be positive (Pat and Banjo being rascals, always getting into mischief) or ambiguous parallels that draw quietly repressed “spinsters” in the same light as savage wild cats who live on the fringes of nature and civility. Boasting some great animal action, including Banjo chasing birds, getting into a rumble with the cougar, chasing a neighbourhood cat and interacting with children who are drawn to him like a messiah, Banjo is an excellent entry in dog-centric cinema of the late forties that reads as a simple “kids as heroes” story, but has a lot more to say about being open to chance and personal fortune.