“Never fear, Prov. is here!”

Rhode Island State House (as Providence City Hall) with non-Providence buildings photoshopped in. (howcoolisit.com)

Rhode Island State House (as City Hall) with buildings not from Providence photoshopped in. (howcoolisit.com)

Apropos of apparently nothing in particular beyond the sheer deliciousness of it, the Providence Journal’s longtime food critic Gail Ciampa wrote a piece in today’s paper on movies where Rhode Island scenery shines. “Check it out: Five Hollywood movies that capture Rhode Island’s spendor” even quotes yours truly in its description of the film Underdog.

Being quoted in my old paper lifts my spirits on a day when I am under the weather and disinclined to add anything the least bit difficult to my blog. So I’m reprinting my old column that Gail quoted. The superhero’s refrain, “Never fear! Underdog is here!,” bid me call it “Never fear, Providence is here.” [Trigger warning: There is some thoroughly gooey stuff near the end having to do with my own latter-day Sweet Polly Purebred.]

So here is the Underdog column Gail quoted from:


Never fear, Providence is here!
August 30, 2007

UNDERDOG, the movie, is a rollercoaster ride through Providence. The critics made much of its location, but few noted its true character as a cinematic paean to Rhode Island’s capital. The city and its buildings, streets, parks and even alleyways careen across a celloid kaleidoscope of Providence, mostly at warp speed to keep pace with the movie’s star, the canine caped crusader Underdog. [The Disney film is based on the 1964-73 NBC cartoon.]

In the film, a beagle named Leo plays Underdog and his Clark Kentish alter ego Shoeshine (a shoe-shine dog in the 1960s cartoon, in the movie he is a disgraced bomb-sniffing police dog). Leo had three stand-ins, doggy-doubles and stunt-mutts. His most undoglike powers, such as speaking English, were performed by the special-effects crew. Leo’s voice, Jason Lee, is no Wally Cox, who was the voice of the original Underdog. And never mind that the plot line is (surprise!) cartoonish, or that the movie was panned by most critics. The real star of this film is the setting, called “Capital City,” aka Providence.

Much was made of buildings and skylines spliced in from bigger cities to give Providence a more metropolitan feel. But our city needs no such civic steroids. Most of the movie’s outdoor scenes were of Providence, and most of those shots were unadulterated by imported architecture. Even the indoor scenes were filmed in Providence, at the Cranston Street Armory, fitted out as a sound stage.

The film was directed by Frederick Du Chau. His feel for the most lovely and evocative buildings and vistas of Providence was unerring. The scene where Underdog discovers that he can fly has him zooming along Washington Street, and at one point the camera halts long enough for the eye to be enchanted by the view down Washington Street across Kennedy Plaza and up College Hill. A dramatic rescue unfolds at the Turk’s Head Building, whose rounded corner is upwardly caressed by the camera. In the climax, Simon Bar Sinister’s three German shepherds chase Underdog around the mural inside the dome of the State House [Charles McKim, 1901], which in the film is City Hall. The cross-axial marble staircase under the rotunda, where so many Rhode Islanders have stood gazing upward in awe, gets special attention.

(Curiously, for all its allusions to the superhero called Superman, the film has few if any shots of our Industrial Trust Bank, which is often called the Superman Building here, and no scene of its own.)

The skyline of downtown Providence backdrops a scene at Prospect Terrace, with Disco Roger (Williams) presiding. [The statue, by Leo Friedlander, looks as if it is dancing disco.] The scene in which the newly empowered Underdog chases after a frisbee with such speed that he can stop for Chinese on the other side of the world takes place in Roger Williams Memorial Park. The scene in which Underdog foils a cat burglary takes place on the exuberant façade of the Union Trust Building. A kidnapping takes place at the Arcade. Westminster Street, Weybosset Street, Washington Street and Benefit Street get their own star turns. Hope High School is featured as Capital City Middle School. A scene in which Shoeshine changes into his Underdog outfit takes place in a telephone booth next to the College Street Bridge at Market Square. Bar Sinister’s lab is in the basement of Citizens Plaza, but the shot that sets the scene focuses on its lavish lobby, not its clunky exterior. The filmmakers are unerring in their good taste for which buildings and places to include.

At last, though it may strain good taste to mention it, Underdog has a love interest, a cocker spaniel called Sweet Polly Purebred, whom he finally rescues from Bar Sinister and takes on a flight around the world – which reminds me that a friend says that my own soon-to-be-ex-fiancée, Victoria, reminds him of Sweet Polly Purebred. I assume he means the sweeter Polly of the cartoon. Tomorrow, I will, at long last, be marrying Victoria for real at the real City Hall, Judge John Martinelli presiding. At this modest affair, I will not play Tennessee Tuxedo (voice of Don “Get Smart” Adams), the wisecracking penguin who shared Sunday mornings with Underdog and Klondike Kat. On Saturday morning, Victoria and I will fly to Quebec City (in an airplane).

Another friend has urged me to see the Showtime series Brotherhood for its rendition of Providence, but he’s less interested in the look of the city than in its peculiar social, political and ethnic cachet. Years ago, I wrote a column, “The Providence of Providence” (Jan. 14, 1999), about the locational splendors of that NBC show. Unlike the soft-focus languor of Providence‘s Providence, the shots of Underdog‘s Providence shoot out at you with rat-a-tat velocity. I think we get more Providence in 84 minutes of Underdog than in a whole season of Providence. The executive producer of Underdog, Todd Arnow, told ComingSoon.net/SuperheroHype: “I don’t think anything’s been done on this level in Providence.” He is correct. I must get the DVD so I can luxuriate, frame by frame, in Walt Disney’s Providence.

This reviewer truly believes that he got his state Hollywood tax credits’ worth out of Underdog.


Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
Copyright © 2007. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_419384

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Architecture History, Art and design, Blast from past, Book/Film Reviews, Humor, Providence, Providence Journal, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “Never fear, Prov. is here!”

  1. Pingback: Tenn. Tuxedo & P. Purebred | Architecture Here and There

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