Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians wastes no time in explaining a fundamental truth that a certain segment of dog lovers have already known for quite some time: Dogs are not, as it happens, pets. Rather, humans are the real pets—of dogs. And the occasional cat. It’s a completely understandable misunderstanding: after all, although many dogs can understand Human—or at least most of it—they can’t speak Human, which creates difficulties. And alas, Humans are not quite clever enough to understand Dog.
Although these linguistic barriers and misunderstandings are not always a bad thing—especially if you are two dogs who need to rescue a lot of puppies. And I do mean a lot. 97 of them, to be exact.
Pongo and Missis are, at the beginning of the story, two dogs who have been fortunate enough to find two almost perfect human pets. Almost perfect, because, alas, Mr. and Mrs. Dearly don’t speak Dog, and sometimes—I am very sorry to have to type this—do not realize quite how remarkable their owners are. Mr. and Mrs. Dearly do, however, come with a comfortable income. As Smith explains, not, I must admit, all that convincingly, Mr. Dearly, a math wizard, has saved the British government so much money that they in turn tell him that he doesn’t need to pay income taxes, something that, given the complaints of nearly all British authors of the period about the evils of Inland Revenue, sounds far more like desperate fantasy than anything else. The pets also come with two sturdy servants: Nanny Butler and Nanny Cook, who become, natch, the butler and the cook—something that very much comes in handy when Pongo and Missus, as dogs do, give birth to fifteen puppies. That’s a lot.
In fact, it’s almost too much for Missis, who just doesn’t have enough milk for the little puppies. Fortunately, her pets encounter a third Dalmatian, quickly named Perdita, who has (sniffle) lost her own puppies (it’s a very very sad story) and has been pretty severely abused as well; she starts nursing several of the puppies from pure gratitude.
And here, let’s pause for a bit of a gossipy sidenote. Before turning to writing, Dodie Smith worked as an actress and playwright in London in the early 20th century, and was no stranger to unconventional sexual relationships—she reportedly participated in at least one or two before her marriage. Which makes the way Smith introduces Perdita here quite interesting—Perdita is a younger, less beautiful dog, brought in almost as a co-wife, and certainly a co-mother. Missis is—very slightly—jealous, despite her confidence in her husband, and the text goes out of its way to assure young readers that no, no, Pongo is not interested in Perdita that way. Pongo thinks of Perdita more as a little sister.
But Pongo also realizes that his wife is going to need a bit of reassurance, given that Pongo is spending, let’s be honest, a suspicious amount of time in the kitchen listening to Perdita’s sob stories. Oh, sure, we can all say that this is because Pongo wants to make sure that his little puppies are ok and that Perdita, who is, for all intents and purposes, their mother, is settling in well, but, well. Missis still needs some reassurance.
And after all that reassurance, they all form a nice threesome, except in a sorta sibling sorta way on one side, really.
I bring this up because little me would never have even thought that Pongo would be spending all that time in the kitchen for scandalous reasons had Smith not brought it up. And because, well, Perdita is not that necessary of a character—the animated Disney film edited her (while retaining the name), with barely an impact on the plot. Sure, she’s there partly to add another subplot to the book, partly to bring up issues of puppy mistreatment (a clear concern for Smith, but one her major dog characters couldn’t go through, since they have good human pets), partly to help create a small math puzzle for small attentive readers (and may I just note that small me was among that number) and partly to add yet another happy note to a (SPOILER) already dripping with sappiness happy ending. And she was one of small me’s very favorite characters, so there’s that. But she’s not strictly necessary, which raises the suspicions—just the suspicions—that Smith added this character to open small minds to the possibilities of alternative family relationships.
ANYWAY. Back to the plot, which is about to go to very bad places indeed because—gasp! Cruella de Vil has seen all fifteen adorable little puppies. GASP!
No, wait. We need another sidenote, to discuss Cruella de Vil, arguably the most magnificent villain in children’s literature of all time.
Oh, it’s not that Cruella de Vil doesn’t have—sorta—her sympathetic qualities. She’s always, always cold, for instance—quite possibly thanks to what seems to be a rather demonic heritage that finds anything short of hellfire cold. That in turn means she just has to—has to—wear thick fur and sleep on fur and decorate everything in fur. It’s all very sad. Also, this ongoing cold forces her to put pepper in everything she eats and serves—even, gasp, ice cream—and, well, yes, this discomforts her guests and anyone sitting next to her at dinner, granted, but it does give the food some taste and plus, a lot of pepper can be warming and she’s cold. Really really cold. And some adults may feel slightly sorry that she’s saddled with quite possibly the world’s dullest husband ever. He’s so boring I forgot he was in the book. And after this paragraph ends you can forget about him too; he’s mostly just there as a minor plot point. (Disney eliminated him from the film too.) And, ok, yes, her driving may be a bit reckless, but no one can deny that she drives a magnificent car with a certain style.
Everyone. She hates puppies. And—and—this hurts me to type, but I assume most of you already have at least heard a rumor or two about this—she wants to make fur coats out of adorable little puppies. Adorable little puppies who just want to be left alone so they can watch television. Also, she’s obnoxious, mean to cats, dogs, servants and her husband. And she’s a terrible homeowner, failing to do even the most rudimentary repairs to properties she’s inherited, to the distress of all of her neighbors, Human and Dog and Cat. To the point where it’s rather difficult to disagree with this conclusion:
“Nothing should ever make a dog bite a human,” said Missis in a virtuous voice.
Pongo remembered something. “You said only the night before last that you were going to tear Cruella de Vil to pieces.”
“That is different,” said Missis grimly. “I do not consider Cruella de Vil is human.”
Plus, as we discover, Cruella tastes like pepper.
But what makes Cruella de Vil such a great villain is not any of this, or her black and white hair, or her magnificent overreactions to absolutely everything, or even the strong implication that she is in fact descended from devils, or at least comes from a very warm place. Or even the way she completely takes over the book despite barely being in it (I was stunned during this reread to realize that, yes, actually, the book is about the dogs—who are, alas, less memorable than Cruella, if decidedly cuter). It’s that this over the top character has a very good chance of getting exactly what she wants—97 dead puppies—through very ordinary means.
That is, not just stealing puppies, but buying them.
That full disclosure comes later in the book, but it’s hinted at very early on, in Perdita’s story. Cruella de Vil can gather puppies easily and without anyone noticing this because of the number of puppy farms and terrible human pets out there. It’s something anyone could do, not just fur obsessed women with black and white hair and fancy cars.
And, as it turns out, it’s not overly difficult for her to outright steal puppies either—she only has to wait until Pongo, Missus, and Perdita take their pets out for a nice long walk in the park.
Luckily, Pongo and Missis have secret weapons: their fellow dogs, and the Twilight Bark.
The Twilight Bark, if you don’t know—and you might not, since if you are reading this post, you are probably a Human, not a Dog—is, more or less, the Dog version of Twitter. News is passed on through a rapid series of barks from Dog to Dog—gossip, messages, all that sort of thing. And in this case, the message that fifteen Dalmatian puppies are missing.
It does not take the animals too long to track down to track down the puppies. Especially because—as it turns out—Cruella hasn’t just taken fifteen puppies. She’s taken ninety-seven of them. My sympathy is starting to vanish. I mean, I know Cruella is always feeling cold, to the point of needing a fire in the summer, but really, how many coats of puppy fur does any woman really need?
Apparently quite a lot, since Cruella’s reaction to hearing that all of England is hunting for the 15 little stolen puppies is not to return them, or even free the other puppies, but to announce that all of the puppies have to be killed, immediately. Even her goons are horrified, if only on pragmatic grounds:
“Then you must hit them on the head,” said Cruella.
Saul Baddum had gone pale. “What, hit ninety-seven pups on the head?” he said shakily. “We couldn’t do it. Have pity, Mrs. de Vil. We’d be wore out.”
Cruella de Vil, however, is not the pitying type, and orders them to kill the puppies anyway, even though—and I think many of us can sympathize with this problem—apart from the difficulty of hitting ninety-seven pups without getting completely exhausted, the goons have a television show to watch.
Pongo and Missis, of course, at this point have no sympathy at all. And thus begins their desperate trek across England to free the puppies and bring them back home—even if in a rather sooty condition.
On the surface, at least, this 1950s novel might seem like a work wrapped in comfort and nostalgia for the good old days of English country homes—a spaniel even hints about this when Pongo and Missis shelter in his grand home. Much of the book is focused on respect for the law—the dogs, for instance, hate to leave the house without their proper collars and tags. Partly, they are afraid of getting caught without them and sent to the pound, but also, they hate the thought of being illegal—even though this particular law is enforced by their pets. Other moments, including pretty much everything in the last few pages, focus on and celebrate upper class families and the Anglican church.
But these messages are frequently subverted: with the unorthodox, near group marriage hinted at for Pongo, Missis, Perdita and a surprise fourth character; the fact that the most intelligent and practical characters are all dogs; the way no one hesitates when Nanny Butler takes over the traditionally male role of house butler; a gloriously happy scene towards the end of the book where all 97 puppies (and one cat) gleefully destroy property worth several million—with the complete approval of the text; and another gloriously happy scene that allows one of those expensive English country houses to go, as they say, completely to the dogs. It all adds to the fun.
As do the inventive ways used by the dogs to sneak 97 puppies from a country house back to London. What makes this work is that most of these ways are just plausible enough to be believable—a dog covered in soot is going to have a very different look, for instance. With that said, I must admit, The Hundred and One Dalmatians isn’t always entirely credible. For instance, I have a very hard time believing that the following sentence is completely truthful:
So Mr. Dearly rang up the Splendid Vet, who was delighted to be waked up and called out at nearly midnight on Christmas Eve. He and his wife soon arrived.
I mean, I get that Brits pride themselves on keeping a stiff upper lip and all that, but I can’t completely buy this statement.
And I must admit that large parts of the plot rely upon—how can I put this—rather convenient little coincidences. I’m delighted, of course, that just as the puppies can walk no further (poor puppies), Pongo and Missis just happen to find a van that just happens to have room for 97 very dirty little puppies on a snowy night where realistically, most people would not be driving any vans, empty or not. But it’s a nice thought.
But apart from these quibbles, well—if you need a story where dogs triumph by using their heads (and noses), complete with just a touch of subversion and quite a lot of laughter, this is probably your story. It’s very easy to see why Walt Disney insisted on animating it.
Originally published in July 2015 as part of the Disney Read-Watch.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.