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The Barking Stars of the Big-Screen: Dogs on Film

THE long history of dogs on film reaches all the way back to the 1920s.

Rin Tin Tin, a German Sheppard with a remarkable story, was cinema’s first canine star. Rescued from a World War One battlefield in France and smuggled Stateside, Rin Tin Tin went on to feature in well over twenty Hollywood films. In doing so, he acted as an unlikely driving force behind the early success of Warner Bros. Studios.

To appreciate the talents and on-screen appeal of Rin Tin Tin, one only has to look back at 1925 silent film Clash of the Wolves. In one sequence, he darts across the screen in a chase scene to rival Baby Driver (at least by the standards of the time) before climbing a tree with the agility of a jaguar.

When the time then comes to slow the action and draw the audiences’ sympathy, Rin Tin Tin switches from high temp action to wounded hero as he limps with the heart-wrenching appeal of Michelle Williams in Manchester By The Sea.

Rin Tin Tin was the Sylvester Stallone of his day – but on four legs and capable of a wider range of emotions.


Show Dogs

THE four-legged path blazed by Rin Tin Tin opened the door for a plethora of canine-centric films. Some that cleverly tap into our undying love for dogs and others even the most ardent dog lover would find tail-tuggingly bad.

Yet in this time, only a few dogs reached the tree-scaling heights of individual stardom of Rin Tin Tin.

Uggie, the show-stealing Jack Russell in Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011), is one of those to do so, displaying the type of presence and skill to overshadow most of the industry’s human stars. His adroit charm not only made him the unlikely star of the Oscar-winning silent film, but also earnt him a paw print on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

However impressive the dazzling feats of Rin Tin Tin and Uggie, the dog most synonymous with big-screen stunts is Lassie. Most famously played by Pal in the 1940s and 1950s, Lassie had the smarts to dig her way out of trouble, as well as the bravery to take on armed trouble-makers.

A Child’s Best Friend

ON top of these attributes, Lassie was inspired by her unbreakable loyalty to a young boy. A relationship to bring emotional weight to Lassie’s marvellous capabilities.

This type of devoted bond between a child and a dog has also been the focus of films such as Bingo, Shilo and Because of Winn-Dixie.

In Kornél Mundruczó’s White Dog, the connection between a young girl and her dog – who, like Lassie and Joe in Lassie Comes Home (1943), are cruelly separated by circumstances out of their control – is so strong that it helps inspire a city-wide dog revolt.

In most of these tales, the dog acts to help heal personal trauma in a child’s life. A ­­­­theme that can be traced back to Robert Stevenson’s classic Old Yeller (1957).

Brought to life by a Mastiff-Labrador Retriever mix named Spike, Yeller shows up in young Travis’ life just as the young boy’s father has left the home to drive cattle. The once-stray dog becomes a fixture of the family, providing safety and care in the harsh post-Civil War setting. Yeller repays the family’s love and shelter by standing in for an absent father and teaching little Travis important life lessons.


All Dogs Go To Heaven

THE most important – and devastating – lesson occurs when Yeller sacrifices himself for the family.

One of cinema’s most memorable tear-jerkers, the death of Yeller showed what a powerful punch the death of a such a luciferous and loyal dog can pull. A punch that even holds true in Francis Lawrence’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi film I Am Legend.

Amidst the zombie chaos, the death of Robert’s doggie companion serves as a crushing 2nd act hurdle. It also has echoes of Old Yeller as the dog shows signs of infection (from a zombie bite rather than Yeller’s rabies) after saving her owner from peril. The dog’s wordless way of showing its unremitting dedication and love.

David Frankel’s Marley and Me (2008) culminates in a dog’s death in a more homely, cosy setting than Old Yeller and I Am Legend. While Lasse Hallström’s Hachi: A Dog’s tale, based on a true-story like Marley and Me, sees a dog wait nine years for the return of his deceased owner. Hachi’s eventual death is quiet and would be somewhat lonely if not for the memories of his beloved owner.


Horror Dogs

HAD Stephen King got his hands on Old Yeller, the story would possibly have taken a much darker path. Picture young Travis being chased around the farm by a frothy-mouthed Yeller.

The disturbing scenario of once-friendly dog, turned killer-dog is imagined in Lewis Teague’s 1983 horror Cujo. Based on a book by King, a rabid bat bites Cujo turning him into a menacing killer. Cujo goes from man’s best friend to man’s biggest threat and subverts our trust of dogs with his murderous actions.

Of course, dogs capacity for aggression, best displayed in barks and snarling teeth, make them a useful tool of danger when necessary – as seen in the closing moments of 2016 horror Don’t Breathe.

Another King-inspired film, John Carpenters’ The Thing (1982), finds horror in a different kind of doggie transformation. On this occasion, a dog is turned inside out by the unforgiving alien force that picks off a group of scientists isolated in the Antarctic. A forewarning of the body horror to come.

Dogs undergo slightly less disgusting transformations in The Mask (1994), Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World (1973) and Shaggy the Dog (2006).


Who Let The Dogs Out?

WHEN dogs have not been distorted for unsettling means, they have made for trusted partners on some of film’s wildest adventures.

Pete the Pup was one of film’s earliest adventuring dogs. An American bulldog with a distinctive ring around his eye, Pete was part of the Our Gang short films in the 1930s and fit perfectly with his mischievous, rough-round-the-edges young cast mates. He would sit at the bar next to Stymie (Matthew Beard Jr) and Spanky (George McFarland), licking his lips at the mention of pork chops before chasing after the evil dog catcher (The Pooch, 1932).

Toto (played by a Cairn Terrier named Terry) was another early adventurer, accompanying Dorothy on her trip to the Land of Oz. 70 years later, an animated dog called Dug would leave his pack to join forces with unlikely duo Carl and Russell as they navigate strange surroundings in UP.

Fellow Disney films, The Fox and the Hound (1981) and Lady and the Tramp (1954), also saw unlikely, anthropomorphic doggie friendships formed over unexpected journeys. The latter, of course, led to some iconic spaghetti-inspired puppy love.

In The Incredible Journey, Homeward Bound, Isle of Dogs and 101 Dalmatians dogs have trekked long, arduous journeys in search of love ones and home comforts.


Our love for our canine friends remains undimmed. It probably explains why they will remain a key cinematic ingredient – even if our four-legged film stars are not always portrayed as the idyllic pets we perceive them to be.


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