Hollywood has cashed in on America’s love affair with dogs from the beginning. In 1918, during the silent era, Charlie Chaplin, co-starred with a mongrel named Scraps in “A Dog’s Life.” At the first Academy Awards in 1929, canine film star Rin Tin Tin won more votes for Best Actor than the actual winner. He was the highest paid film star at the time, earning $6,000 per week, more than $100,000 by today’s standards. He is credited with saving then struggling Warner Brothers Studios and making German Shepherds the most popular breed in the country.
Toto, the scrappy Terrier in “The Wizard of Oz” outsmarts the villains in both Kansas and Oz. In Kansas, Toto escapes from mean Ms. Mulch’s basket to return to the distraught Dorothy. In Oz, Toto summons help when Dorothy is kidnapped by The Wicked Witch of the West and later reveals the Wizard as a fraud. The dog’s real name was Terry, and he was quite the star, acting in 16 different movies.
Beginning in 1943, the famous Collie Lassie epitomized courage, loyalty, and utter selflessness. Roddy McDowall, who played the boy Joe in “Lassie Comes Home” said, ““Lassie is a star on the level of a Bette Davis or a Katharine Hepburn.” Ironically, Lassie was a male Collie named “Pal” who played in 7 movies and whose descendants continue to represent the heroic pet. Pal was trained by the legendary Frank Weathermax, who later trained Spike, aka “Old Yeller”, a Mastiff/Lab mix who repeatedly saves his master before contracting rabies, requiring a heartbreaking euthanasia.
Dogs have been featured in hundreds of movies and continue to play iconic roles. Benji was a universally loved Terrier in the 1970s. Stephen King transformed a loving St. Bernard into a rabid murderer in “Cujo.” Frank, a talking pug, was actually an alien in “Men in Black” and the Norwich Terrier Winky wins Westminster’s highest prize, led by Eugene Levy in the over-the-top mockumentary “Best in Show.”
With more than 80 million dogs in the US, it is inevitable that Hollywood will continue to feature our canine companions, but none will have the impact they did during Hollywood’s Golden Era