Dogs have been significant players in motion picture industry right from the beginning, and their important contributions are highlighted in Adrienne L. McLean’s collection, Cinematic Canines: Dogs and Their Work in the Fiction Film, published by the Rutgers University Press. The book is a compilation of essays from various authors that cover a range of canine performances, from stars like Asta, Rin Tin Tin, and Lassie, to the anonymous dogs who served as little more than extras, but who were nevertheless, and importantly, present in the frame alongside humans.
The book opens with an introduction by McLean, adding cohesion to the essays that follow, as well as giving the reader a general overview of how dogs participated in the movie industry, and how they were received by audiences. We learn that movie dogs have had an expectedly huge but perhaps unexpectedly quantifiable influence on many elements of our culture; movies were responsible for increased popularity in certain names (“Rescued by Rover,” a 1905 British silent film helped secure that name’s legacy as a standard) as well as causing spikes in the ownership of wire fox terriers, collies, and dalmatians that correlate directly to the releases of popular films featuring the breeds.
The first four essays discuss the canine stars of early Hollywood: Fatty Arbuckle’s costar, and pet, Luke; adventurous German Shepherds Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin; screwball star of The Thin Man series, Asta; and the ultimate All-American hero, Lassie. Each of these dogs became stars because they harnessed a segment of their audience’s imagination, be it for gut-busting comedy or swashbuckling adventure; Luke paired nicely as a partner in crime for Arbuckle’s physical comedy, while Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin were repeatedly compared to human heroes like Errol Flynn.
In the days of silent cinema, dogs and humans were on a relatively even stage, communication-wise—both had to rely on their physical performance, rather than verbal. It’s easy to see how audiences could accept Strongheart as a heroic lead, deftly utilizing the skills they’d developed watching silent human actors, to infer his emotional cues. Dogs could also be used to improve the perception of their costars, such as in films like The Thin Man, where the wealthy Charles are humanized to the audience in part by their kind, equalitarian treatment of their pet. In a narrative sense, dogs were also often used in the screwball era as a kind of stand-in for children, thus avoiding the naughty implications of a married couple having a baby.
Many of the essays also address the training methods used to get these dogs to perform on camera, which were sometimes clever (trainers using mirrors to command dogs while keeping themselves hidden off-camera) but often cruel (electric buzzers, and worse). And this didn’t just occur for the trick handshakes, jumps, and rolls… don’t think too hard about how a canine actor of that era could so convincingly convey a “cowering” or “scared” look on screen.
Additionally there’s a running theme that, especially in these early days, even the most well-known dogs were still treated as property. Several prominent dog actors’ careers were derailed by the divorce of their owners, for instance. Even Skippy, the wire fox terrier who originated the role of Asta, had became such a cog in the machine that his death wasn’t announced publicly until several years after the fact; he’d been replaced almost imperceptibly by an amalgamation of other terriers in the last few Thin Mans.
Being an academic endeavor, the book is full of great, intellectual analysis and observations; this isn’t fluffy beach reading, despite the—at first glance— seemingly light-hearted subject. But it’s also not an impenetrable academic text; on the whole, the writing is engaging, witty, and fun, while also being incredibly well-researched, offering plenty of footnotes to continue your explorations should you so desire.
Much like Hollywood’s human stars, the legends surrounding these early canine actors were full of intrigue and hyperbole. Rin Tin Tin, for instance, supposedly came dangerously close to winning an Oscar (and apparently necessitated an Air-Bud-style update to the Academy rule books), as well as allegedly passing on from this mortal coil while wrapped in Jean Harlow’s tender embrace. According to the book, neither of those facts are true, but sometimes it’s fun to see that dogs, like humans, can inspire a fictional creativity in their fans just the same.
This review is my first entry in Out of the Past’s Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. If I keep up the pace, I’m on track for finishing the challenge! A digital review copy of this book was provided by Edelweiss.