Broadly speaking, dogs seem to have a bit of a raw deal in films today. They seem to fall into two categories: direct to video fluff similar to Air Buddies, which stars a quintet of golden retriever pups so cute they make you want to puke, or slavering zombie horrors trying to sink their teeth into Milla Jovovich in films like Resident Evil. It’s a far cry from the fame and respect accorded to canine De Niros such as Rin Tin Tin and Lassie.
Many canine film stars owe their careers to Strongheart, a German shepherd who was one of the earliest animal actors. After being trained to be a police dog whilst in Germany, he was brought over to the States by married filmmakers Laurence Trimble and Jane Murfin, who had some experience with canine actors. Strongheart made several popular films, such as White Fang (1925), and did much to popularise the breed in America – his lineage survives even now.
Although many of his films are now lost, he paved the way for many four-legged thesps, which we at Dream Dogs now salute. Bear in mind that we’re only considering the stars of the show, and not side characters; if that were the case, Jed, the wolf/husky cross who stars in John Carpenter’s The Thing, would be first in line for a doggy Oscar.
The Lightning Warrior
Starring Rin Tin Tin, this was a serial that spanned a dozen episodes. The plot is a little thin – the furtive Wolf Man is terrorising a small western town, and apple cheeked Jimmy Carter teams up with Rinty to unmask him and foil his plot, Scooby Doo style. Rin Tin Tin is the dog equivalent of Batman, with several canine actors taking up the mantle in succession, but the original Rinty was found as a shell-shocked young pup in a bombed out dog kennel in France by an American soldier at the end of World War I.
Lassie Come Home
In this flick, Lassie was played by a talented collie called Pal. The Carraclough family are facing tough times, and sell their beloved pet to the Duke of Rudling. However, Lassie doesn’t want to leave the Carraclough’s young son, and sets out on an arduous journey back to the family fold. Eight generations of Pal’s descendants went on to play the heroic collie.
Blimey, this is a tear-jerker and no mistake. Callow youth Travis is left to look after his family and their ranch when his father goes on a cattle drive, and adopt a stray mongrel. After hi-jinks involving a host of other animals, including bears, snakes, raccoons and a rabid cow, Travis grows to love Old Yeller, which makes it all the harder for him when he has to take him out back and shoot him. In the scene with the mental bovine, look out for Old Yeller jumping on its back – he’s clearly been flung on screen by a stagehand standing off-camera.
This is the first of many movies starring the lovable mongrel. Benji is the town stray, but has the affection of people everywhere who give him food and a scratch behind the ear wherever he goes. He loves to play with a pair of children, but their parents disapprove. When the brats are kidnapped, their parents are at a loss and don’t know who to turn to. Can you guess what happens?
Benji was played by Higgins, who was rescued from an animal shelter, and starred in several TV shows, but this film was his last role before he went to the big dog pound in the sky. He would be pleased to know that this film was a guilty pleasure of none other than Alfred Hitchcock.
Turner and Hooch
A fresh faced Tom Hanks plays Scott Turner, an ambitious young cop who’s due to leave his small town police department to get some real cases in the city. Three days before, he’s to leave, he takes on a murder case, and the only witness he has is the dead man’s dog Hooch, a massive, slobbering Dogue de Bordeaux, who he has to look after to avoid it being put down. This film trounced K-9, a movie with a similar premise starring Jim Belushi, at the box office. Henry Winkler was due to direct the film, but was fired as he didn’t get along with Hanks. Guess they weren’t ‘cool little Fonzies‘, hmm?
Cut aaaaand print! That wraps it up for now, but cinema and dogs is such a rich seam to mine that we’ll be revisiting dogs on the silver screen again very soon.