Man’s best friend has been a favorite movie subject since the early years of cinema. From legends like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie to David DeCoteau talking animal joints, put a dog in a movie and some sucker will watch it, no matter how good it may be. Lost among these faithful animals is the series of German shepherds that played Hobo, a wandering hero that starred in two different Canadian television series. You can stream full episodes of the 1979-1985 series (one episode of which starred a young pre-”SNL” Mike Meyers) on YouTube, but more elusive is the 1958 American movie that launched this underdog franchise. Now available from Warner Archive, The Littlest Hobo–at times noirish, at times neorealist—is an unjustly forgotten animal movie.

Director Charles R. Rondeau opens the film with one of the most iconic images in cinema: the locomotive. Hobo, as we come to call the dog, rides the rails with no master, but when a human hobo hops off a freight car, the dog follows him through what looks like a rough part of town.

This is a children’s movie that paints a bleak, unsentimental picture of poverty. Shot on location around Los Angeles, Hobo travels in a poor black neighborhood, a junkyard stacked with abandoned train cars and a main street where a barefoot young boy desperate for change carries a shoeshine kit. In both iterations of the television show that was based on the movie, Hobo picks one or two people to help for the duration of an episode before he hits the road again. In L.A., there are hundreds of thousands of people he could help.

Still, his charge for most of the film is a no doubt symbolic lamb. Hobo follows young orphan Tommy (Buddy Hart, who went on to a long career as adult character actor Buddy Lee Hooker) on a tearful mission. The priest in charge of the orphanage won’t let Tommy keep his pet lamb, so the boy takes it to sell to a butcher.

The German shepherd watches this childhood tragedy unfold with uncanny understanding. Hobo rescues the lamb from the slaughterhouse, knocking over the butcher, who calls the police to report a mad dog on the loose. This turns the movie into a kind of film noir with a dog on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. It also introduces a recurring joke that the L.A. cops who respond to the call have nothing better to do than to chase down a stray dog leading a lamb around town by a rope.

The film’s chase scenes between man and dog take place in nearly wordless sequences that hearken back to silent film. It’s a seemingly trivial subject elevated by striking black and white photography (credited to Perry Finnerman and Walter Strenge). The film’s dramatic visuals are another noirish touch, as when Hobo leads the cops down a tunnel where the fugitive (and the movie not incidentally suggests a canine version of the 1953 film The Little Fugitive) and his pursuers are reflected in water.

Hobo hopes to reunite the orphan boy with his pet lamb and tracks Tommy down at the orphanage, but the boy doesn’t understand why this stray dog is bothering him. The movie’s final act introduces a strange mixed message. The film’s first hour is a sensitive observation of the poor, from orphan boys to lost souls at a church mission where Hobo takes the lamb for rest and sustenance. Yet the movie reaches its somewhat unsatisfying conclusion among the rich. On the lam, Hobo stumbles upon Molly (Wendy Stuart), the paraplegic daughter of Governor Malloy (Carlyle Mitchell). The Governor tries to get his daughter to walk again by luring her with a frightening talking doll. This fails, but in an unsettling scene, Hobo pretends to attack the lamb in front of Molly, and this outrageous animal pantomime miraculously gets her on her feet.

Soon the police catch up with Hobo and the lamb and send the latter back to the slaughterhouse. However, the now-walking governor’s daughter wants to keep the lamb as a pet, so the Governor, in a gross abuse of power, calls on the police force to hurry down to the slaughterhouse to save the lamb.

What is an orphan boy to do? Hobo returns to the orphanage to show Tommy what has become of his lamb, and the orphan resignedly admits that the lamb is better off living at the Governor’s mansion than at a home for boys anyway. But just when you think Tommy has found a new and sanctioned pet in Hobo, the human vagrant who rode into town with him reappears at the orphanage gates, with a curiously sinister look on his face. Hobo hits the road again, as he does time and again in the television series. It’s an unusual message for kids: don’t form attachments, Hobo seems to say, after he changes their lives forever. While production values for The Littlest Hobo television programs, particularly the ’70s series, leans to the shoestring, this 1958 movie is one of the most artfully produced animal movies you’ll see – and one of the most unusual: it’s ending doesn’t seem particularly happy. But, imagine a dog like Hobo coming to your town and saving a life, and you will realize that Hobo belongs not to one master, but to the people.

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