Saturday, November 21, 2009

Favorite Film: "Harry and Tonto", 1974


Sending out thoughts of comfort tonight for a friend who is nursing his poor beloved cat...and anyone else who may be struggling with the loss of a pet... A review of a lovely little film from 1974, "Harry and Tonto".

Our local PBS station showed this tonight, and I am always happy to revisit it.

This has been a favorite since my first viewing in its initial release.  As much as I admired Jack Nicholson's performance that year in "Chinatown", I was thrilled that Art Carney took home Oscar gold for his portrayal of the spunky and courageous Harry Coombs, who travels on a wonderful odyssey across America with his companion, Tonto, an orange cat.

It is dated, yes.... its dialog and vernacular, its cast, its color scheme, its pseudo-documentary "look", and its observations of American culture, are all rooted firmly in the 1970's; yet the sweetness of the relationship between Art Carney's Harry, and his beloved orange cat Tonto,  is timeless. In an opening scene, Harry talks to Tonto about the past....and Tonto does what cats do, wandering from room to room, scratching at the litter box, eventually nuzzling Harry's hand, while Harry talks himself to sleep. The scene, with its tender, sad piano score, nostalgic monologue, and simple direction, moves me to tears....

Harry, after being evicted from his condemned New York apartment, travels to visit his three children, in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It is a funny, touching and wise road picture, a mild take on Shakespeare's King Lear (which Harry references as he begins his journey.)

Tonto is Harry's dependent as well as confidante. It is to the film's credit that the Tonto does not dominate the picture, yet we, like Harry, are always aware of his presence.

Along the way, Harry meets with some unforgettable characters: a gruff but kind-hearted Italian who shares a hero sandwich with Tonto on a bus; a teenage girl, warm and wise beyond her years, who is hitchhiking with Harry's grandson, as they all drive through Arizona; a Native American medicine man who cures Harry's bursitis from inside their jail cell; and various cab drivers, car dealers, hookers, and old friends, while Harry dispenses common sense and ribald tales alike.  I won't give away the film's many small and soaring pleasures. But I will wager that when Harry reunites with an old flame in a nursing home, you'll not mind shedding a few sentimental tears, for the romance and the nostalgia of the scene, for the beauty of the details as they are observed, and for the perfection of the performances.

I am reminded of my grandfather...about cats I have known and loved...and I am thinking of all of you pet owners and animal lovers. Those of you who have sick pets should talk to these creatures, in an intimate, personal way. Remind them of those things you did together that gave them pleasure. They will respond to your tone, and it will comfort them, and it will comfort you too.

I see Tonto as a part of Harry's soul...his inner youth and strength....his curiosity about life....So that later, when he loses Tonto, it seems fitting, although we can't explain why, that Harry finds a woman who attracts cats by the dozens....[just as the little boy in "The Red Balloon", after the death of his beloved companion, is visited---and literally carried off---by "all the balloons of Paris".]  

In his final road trip, Harry reinvents himself.  Although we are spared any scene of his death, Harry ends up on the beach at the ocean, a Felliniesque symbol of the end of Harry's road. He gets there by following a renegade cat, and we leave him in the company of a young girl, as he helps her to build a sand castle.


(*NOTE ON THE ODDNESS OF THE MPAA RATING SYSTEM:  Movie ratings have kept many of us scratching our heads for years.  Although there is adult material in "Harry and Tonto", there was nothing in the film that would have warranted more than a PG rating in 1974 (maybe PG-13 today).  Why was it rated R?  For the use of one four-letter word, a vulgar term beginning with the letter C, used to describe a part of the female anatomy.  In versions I have seen since, this word has been overdubbed by the more "family-friendly", TV-acceptable, "bitch".  Go figure. )


  1. Your post brought back old memories of this film that made me smile. We have two cats and both communicate with us in ways that most people would find impossible. But just as telling as Maggie's head tilts or imploring eyes are those cues that cat owners know so well. My mom once said about her cat Lucky "you can tell she wants to say something, but she just can't make out the words." Another great post, Tom.

  2. Tom, do your cats and dogs get along well? Kudos to you for socializing them well.
    I'm glad you were familiar with this film. If it has been a while since you have seen it, try to watch it again may find even more in it to enjoy now.