'Beethoven' has animal doctors howling mad

May 27, 1992|By George Papajohn | George Papajohn,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- And now it's the veterinarians' turn to choke on their popcorn.

For decades, psychiatrists have been portrayed in the movies as evil or ridiculous a pattern that reached a stomach-turning pinnacle when Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," became the first known member of the celluloid medical profession to dine on his patients.

Over the years, movie audiences also have been exposed to a parade of corrupt lawyers, crazy cops, crooked clergy, repulsive reporters and stereotypes of every shade, creed and origin.

Before "Beethoven," a current hit starring a St. Bernard, veterinarians had little to identify with on the silver screen -- and little to complain about. "Turner and Hooch" in 1989, with Mare Winningham as a kind, winsome vet, and "Baby Boom" in 1987, with Sam Shepard as a kind, handsome vet, were inoffensive, even flattering.

You do not have to be a film critic to see that Dean Jones, the animal doctor of "Beethoven," is no Sam Shepard.

Though not quite foaming at the mouth, the American Veterinary Medical Association, based in Schaumburg, Ill., is expressing its deep anger over the movie, as vets around the nation fret about its impact on their image and business.

The veterinary association gave "Beethoven" bad reviews in two letters of protest to the movie's executive producer and to the Motion Picture Association of America, which rates films.

"Artistic license, used responsibly, should not create unreasonable fears or actually cause harm," Dr. Gerald L. Johnson, president of the veterinary group, wrote in a letter to Ivan Reitman, executive producer of "Beethoven."

In the film, Mr. Jones' character schemes to steal dogs for use in medical research. Dr. Johnson wrote that such a scenario "was irresponsible in today's climate of violence against biomedical researchers."

"First-time pet owners," he also pointed out, "may be reluctant to bring their pet in for its annual checkups or leave them overnight at a clinic for treatment." A climate of fear generated by the movie could hurt millions of pets, he said.

To say that the letters are unlikely to provoke a response may be harsh.

When informed of the complaints, "Beethoven" co-producer Joe Medjuck was in fact provoked -- to laugh. The controversy seemed to genuinely tickle his fancy. In between chuckles, he formulated this response:

"It's not an evil vet, it's Dean Jones. I mean, Dean Jones."

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