The short is set on a college campus in the 1950s ("It was the cleanest of times, it was the dirtiest of times..."), with all of the young men in jackets and ties. It's pounded in via a slightly rumpled female coed (whose hair, I suppose, would have looked a lot more shocking back then) that to be well-groomed is to be acceptable or normal or something ("Expressing individualism is just plain wrong!"), and then we get to the tips on how to wash. The short by itself happens to be one of the earliest bits of Mystery Science Theater I managed to see, and perhaps that gives me an extra feeling of fondness towards it; I suppose I felt encouraged by "getting" the reference where, as a well-groomed young man gets into his plain dormitory bed, we hear the "riff" "Thus ends a day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch!"
As for the movie, it begins with the faithful (and well-groomed) border collie Shep digging the grizzled prospector Jonathan Harvey out of a somewhat unimpressive landslide. ("Hey, Grampa did fall down the well!" "He had sand on his lap and he needed help?") Jonathan decides to catch up with a friend of some sort, returning through an Indian settlement ("Thanks for the treaty, mister!" "Thanks for the continent!") only to discover the friend is now dead, with Lin Taylor hanging around the widow Martha and young Tommy Blake disconsolate. Jonathan tries to hand Shep over to Tommy as a Christmas present ("She's got mange, distemper, and lots of ticks.") but Shep starts to waste away ("Oh man, shouldn't have eaten all those socks!") and Tommy heads over to Jonathan's cabin with Taylor escorting him. They get there just in time to help the ill Jonathan ("I just got into a bad deer carcass."), and then everyone decides to work together and search for the mother lode. ("First thing I'm gonna do is buy me a montage!")
The little gold sacks pile up under a floorboard, and Taylor starts to crack, assaulting another grizzled man poking around the cabin until Jonathan explains that Pilot Pete ("Pile On Pete?") is a travelling preacher. Things go from bad to worse between the two adult prospectors ("Let's not fight in front of the collie."), and then Taylor heads up into the treacherous mountains ("Oh, he's gotta be careful, or he's going to fall right into that matte painting.") and returns with a promising story for Jonathan with Tommy off filing the claim. ("Come on! How stupid are you today?" "Man, he's really making him work for his death.") Eventually, Taylor just shoves Jonathan down the cliff face, but it happens that Shep was watching... ("How'm I going to explain this in just barks!")
Now, things start getting tense between the man and the dog, but Taylor does eventually manage to feed Shep some food that he took down from a high shelf next to a bottle marked "Poison." Shep staggers away, but gets just far enough to be found by the Indian children who'd translated for the native veterinarian before, and Tommy is reunited with the faithful collie. Tommy heads for the cabin in all innocence, sorts things out once Shep has led him to the shallow grave at the bottom of the cliff, and tries to flee only to fall off his horse. Perhaps feeling genuine remorse by this point, Taylor takes care of him but also tries to say it was all a misunderstanding. Then, "Pile On" Pete arrives with some not quite as grizzled friends in tow, and after properly burying Jonathan ("Now, the jets will fly in the missing man formation!") Tommy tries to jump on a throwaway comment of Taylor's and tell the truth only to be tripped up when most of the gold sacks have been moved. In all the confusion, Taylor starts pursuing Shep with a gun up into the snowy mountains. ("The Most Tedious Game.") Eventually, Taylor's hand somehow freezes solid around his gun, and Shep turns the tables on him, backing him off the edge of a mountain, then reunites with Tommy. ("And so the little fellow found the murderous collie.") Whether Shep helps find the missing gold sacks isn't part of the movie.
While I've seen comments about whether this movie is "too good" for the series, its rich vein of sentimentalism, intermingled with a more troubling edge, does seem good enough for me. The "riffing" seems entertaining even if it might not be quite as "quotable" as some other examples; some of its cultural references I don't get, but others I do (including some references to more famous Westerns). The "host segments" are also entertaining, the standout perhaps being a thrown-together report by Crow on Rutherford B. Hayes. I did take note, though, of the final discussion between Joel and the bots over Shep's culpability in taking the law into her own paws getting sort of heated; normally, I don't pay much attention to suggestions that "tension" was building up over Joel's impending departure from the series, but here I could at least see how the impression might have formed.