When widower Hugh Mitchell takes a new bride, his young son Danny worries that she´ll compete with him for dad´s attention. As if this weren´t enough, Danny´s loyal dog Skipper is run over by a truck, leaving the boy feeling suddenly all alone in the world. Only when Danny meets and befriends Rusty, an ill-tempered German Shepherd brought back from the war by a neighbor, does he begin to adjust to the changes in his life. But Rusty, trained for police work by the Nazis, is unaccustomed to affection and only responds to commands spoken in his native language. As Danny struggles to break through to his new friend, his father´s new wife experiences a similar challenge with her stepson. Both seek the aid of a local psychiatrist, who offers very similar advice to mother and son. Meanwhile, two German spies come ashore and set up camp in the neighboring woods...
THE ADVENTURES OF RUSTY was the first of eight films showcasing the titular German Shepherd, all produced by Columbia Pictures between 1945 and 1949. All are modest programmers aimed primarily at children, but the initial installment is, as the above plot synopsis indicates, notable because of a handful of rather unusual plot elements. No matter the context, it´s just a little disconcerting to watch a young boy in rural America giving sharp commands to a Nazi canine in German. One also has to question the credentials of any learned man of medicine who would tell a struggling parent to treat her alienated stepchild in the same way he advised the child to treat a vicious pet. Finally, the appearance of Nazi agents in a backwater community, apparently with no agenda beyond stealing a few chickens from local farms, is both puzzling and far-fetched - especially in light of the fact that the very first living thing they encounter upon arrival is a hound from the Fatherland.
These incredible contrivances might have been easier to swallow if the film had been a lighthearted comedy, like most of the subsequent Rusty adventures. Unfortunately, director Paul Burnford and writers Al Martin and Aubrey Wisberg chose to present the material as straight melodrama, the end result playing like a maudlin, muddled combination of LASSIE COME HOME (the film this was clearly plagiarizing) and a 1940s G-men serial. When the principals are wrestling with their emotional problems, the movie is sappy and pedestrian. When Danny and the neighborhood kids (carrying ropes and looking for all the world like the noose-toting redneck ghost children in Herschell Gordon Lewis´ TWO THOUSAND MANIACS) are apprehending the intruding SS spies with the help of the reformed Rusty and two sailors (who appear seemingly out of thin air), it´s cheap-looking and ridiculous. In neither instance is it much fun.
Ted Donaldson appeared as Danny in every one of the Rusty films, though the character grew into adolescence very quickly and was frequently retooled to fit the various plotlines. Here, Donaldson is unpolished and unconvincing, doing little to overcome the script´s numerous flaws. Margaret Lindsey doesn´t fare much better as the well-meaning but frustrated stepmother, since she is saddled with some truly awful dialogue throughout. Both actors, however, escape with more dignity than Conrad Nagel, who plays the utterly clueless, ineffectual dad. Not only is this character completely out of touch with his son´s needs and feelings, but in most scenes he acts as if he´s wandered in off the street and doesn´t quite know who or where he is. After Danny talks back one time to his new mom, Hugh is ready to ship the kid off to military school. Fearing they won´t let him keep the dog, Danny misleads his parents into thinking his new "German-speaking" friend is actually a refugee boy, prompting Hugh to insist that the immigrant is "going to have to learn to love apple pie" if he´s going to live in America. After he and Ann have a falling out and she leaves, Hugh just mopes around the house for days, letting his marriage fall apart and leaving the reconciliation entirely up to Danny. If the psychiatrist had taken the time to interview this "Father of the Year" candidate, he might have been able to pinpoint the real problem plaguing the troubled Mitchell household.
Some of the subsequent Rusty films are light, engaging family fare. The first film in the series, however, is a clunky, illogical mess that is too dreary for kids and too ludicrous for adults. Rusty himself often takes a backseat to the rest of the narrative, which might be a good thing considering he´s a pretty unpleasant pooch through much of the film. Still, when one sits down to watch a movie about a boy and his dog, one does expect the dog to play a bigger role in the proceedings. Like every other character arc and plot turn in THE ADVENTURES OF RUSTY, the former Nazi hound´s transition from ferocious attack dog to faithful wonder mutt is abrupt and somewhat less than credible. Thankfully, this lesser-known cinematic canine was able to put his embarrassing Third Reich roots - and his sub par first outing - behind him for the rest of the series.