In honor of a year of great canine performances, here is a list of distinguished movie stars — who just happen to be dogs.
It’s been a year of great performances by dogs: Uggie in “The Artist,” Cosmo in “Beginners,” Blackie in “Hugo,” and others. While none of them, alas, are competing for an Academy Award, they join a long tradition of famous movie dogs. Here, in the spirit of this year’s nostalgia-flavored Oscars, are five barks from the past (see film clips with this story on seattletimes.com):
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Rin Tin Tin
The first great movie dog had a personal story that seemed made for the silver screen: The handsome German shepherd was one of a litter of puppies found on a battlefield in France in 1918 by a young American soldier. Brought home to California, he was filmed at a dog show for a newsreel and quickly caught the eye of Warner Bros., where he became one of the biggest stars of the 1920s in such silent films as “Where the North Begins,” “Shadows of the North,” “Clash of the Wolves” and “A Dog of the Regiment.” In his prime, he received thousands of fan letters a week. In her book “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” Susan Orlean writes that Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for the Oscar for best actor in the ceremony’s inaugural year, but that “the Academy, anxious to establish the new awards as serious and important, decided that giving an Oscar to a dog did not serve that end.” Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, and his marker in Paris’ Le Cimetière des Chiens reads “Rin Tin Tin / Le Grande Vedette Du Cinema” (The Great Film Star).
Trained by the famed Hollywood animal trainer Frank Weatherwax (whose brother Rudd would later introduce a dog named Pal, renamed Lassie), Skippy was a pert wire-haired fox terrier who shot to fame as Asta, the famously scene-stealing dog belonging to Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) in the “Thin Man” movies. Though Loy noted in her autobiography that Skippy “bit me once, so our relationship was hardly idyllic,” his character was enormously popular, causing the breed’s popularity to surge. Skippy — whose name was changed to Asta — appeared in the first two “Thin Man” movies; look-alike substitutes then took over the role. He later appeared as Mr. Smith in “The Awful Truth” (in which he was the subject of a custody dispute between Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) and as Katharine Hepburn’s aunt’s dog in “Bringing Up Baby,” and retired in the late 1930s.
Watch a clip of Asta, played by Skippy, coming home to a big surprise in the 1936 sequel, “After the Thin Man.”
Terry, a female cairn terrier, appeared in a handful of films before being cast in surely the greatest movie-dog role ever: Toto, in 1939’s ‘The Wizard of Oz.” She was found after a lengthy search by MGM, which was seeking a dog who looked exactly like the original drawings in L. Frank Baum’s book. Though paid the princely sum of $125 a week (more, reportedly, than many of the Munchkins got), it was not an easy shoot: Terry had to be replaced by a look-alike for a few weeks after one of the Wicked Witch’s soldiers accidentally stepped on her foot, spraining it. Owner/trainer Carl Spitz renamed her Toto after the film. She died in 1945, and is now memorialized by a statue erected last year at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. The inscription on its base reads, in part, “There’s no place like home.”
Though many generations of collies would play Lassie on film and television, the first was Pal, an elegant male trained by Rudd Weatherwax. Legend has it that Pal was not originally cast to star in 1943’s “Lassie Come Home,” with Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor, but was signed as a stunt dog. Pal, making his film debut, nonetheless so impressed director Fred M. Wilcox in an early stunt (crossing a raging river) that he was given the lead role. The film was a big hit, and the dog, renamed Lassie, went on to star in a series of “Lassie” films. He also performed in the first two episodes of the 1950s TV series “Lassie,” before handing the role to his son, Lassie Junior. Pal died in 1958; nearly all of the many dogs who have played Lassie in decades of the TV show and subsequent movies were his descendants.
Spike (Old Yeller)
Ask a baby boomer to name their favorite weepie, and you just might hear the title “Old Yeller,” a 1957 Disney film about a farm boy (Tommy Kirk, who later went on to play a dog himself in “The Shaggy Dog”) and his dog in 1860s Texas. The heroic title character was played by a Labrador retriever/mastiff mix named Spike, a former L.A. shelter pup trained by Frank Weatherwax. Like Pal, Spike didn’t get the part at first; producers thought he was too friendly and playful to play a scrappy stray. Weatherwax brought him back for a second audition (after giving him, presumably, some lessons in acting tough) and he got the part. Spike later appeared in the 1959 version of “A Dog in Flanders” and several television shows.