Going to the Dogs
Who let the dogs loose? This year already we've seen Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Hotel for Dogs and Bolt, all aimed primarily at the pre-teen crowd. This week sees the release of Marley and Me, with Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and a tearaway Labrador with the appetite of a giant goat (not sure who the target audience is for this, possibly other Labs). There's even the indie equivalent, Wendy and Lucy, a kind of love story between Michelle Williams and her mutt. (And no, we won't mention those Oscar-winning Slumdogs.)
Man's best friend has been a mainstay of film entertainment ever since Rescued by Rover, the 1905 British film about a collie who rescues a stolen baby from a beggar woman. Made for the princely sum of 7 pounds thirteen shillings and sixpence, and running just five minutes, Rescued by Rover was such a hit that some historians consider Rover the first British movie star. Producer Cecil Hepworth was compelled to make not one, but two shot-for-shot remakes when he wore out the initial negative duping as many as 400 prints. (Rover's return in Dumb Sagacity was also popular, despite the title.)
Where Rover led, Rin Tin Tin and Lassie followed. Known as the dog that saved Warner Bros because of the success of his debut feature Where the North Begins (1923), Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd who starred in 26 features before he passed away in 1932. Although most of his films were silent, he was also the star of a popular radio show (!). Three quarters of a century later, his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson Rin Tin Tin X continues the family tradition with public appearances and media guest spots.
Hollywood's most famous collie, Lassie (real name Pal) has also spawned many generations of star-clones, though the role was played by a non-relative, Mason, in the excellent 2005 British remake Lassie Come Home.
These canine action stars – and copycats like Benjy, and Old Yeller – get the lion's share of limelight, along with the obvious dog flicks like K-9, Cujo and Beethoven. But spare a thought for some of the, mostly anonymous, supporting hounds who have scratched the surface of cinematic history over the years.
I'm thinking of the St Bernard with a flask of booze on his collar in Laurel & Hardy's classic Swiss Miss… Porthos, the dog who turns into a bear in Finding Neverland… The terrifying dog who comes so close to Josh Brolin in No Country For Old Men and the quizzical mutt who looks askance at the corpse of Rug Daniels in Miller's Crossing… The mongrels who pad by with disembodied hands in their mouths in Kurosawa's Yojimbo and David Lynch's Wild at Heart… Or more affectionately, Michael Powell's two golden cocker spaniels Erik and Spangle, who crop up in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I'm Going and A Matter of Life and Death (Powell loved dogs – in fact his dogs contribute passages to his autobiography).
All time best dog movies? There's a cult adaptation of Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog, with Don Johnson as the boy and Tiger as his dog Blood, which may or may not have influenced Will Smith's relationship with his dog in I Am Legend. Sam Fuller's provocative race allegory White Dog. The Mask, with Jim Carrey and Max as Milo, his Jack Russell. The John Wayne western Hondo, with his 3D dog, Sam. And I think we have to acknowledge Disney's 101 Dalmations and Lady and the Tramp.
But for my money, the best four-legged actor in the movies was Skippy, the wire-haired fox terrier who found fame as Asta, the pet dog of married sleuths in the Thin Man films. He was also great as George, Katharine Hepburn's dog in Bringing Up Baby, especially the scene when he buries Cary Grant's intercostal clavicle. Apparently Skippy was paid $200 for his trouble, while his trainer earned just $60. Now that's what I'd call a dog's life.
Tom Charity firstname.lastname@example.org