Stars of the big screen

Dogs have appeared in movies almost since the birth of cinema. In the early 20th century, dogs played small parts in several silent films. One of the most memorable was Charlie Chaplin’s canine companion in misery in The Kid in 1921. Just a year later, a dog played the starring role in Hollywood’s Rin Tin Tin.

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Loyal companions

What could be more natural than acting for a dog whose past was far from the peaceful existence of a farm dog? Rin Tin Tin served as a messenger to the Germans during World War I and was found by an American aviator who brought him back to the United States after the war. When the American veteran discovered how quickly his canine companion could learn, he decided to make him a show dog. From 1922 to 1932, Rin Tin Tin appeared in 22 films, always in the role of an honourable and fearless hero who would do anything to defend the innocent, as the companion of Rusty the soldier in a 19th century U.S. cavalry regiment. His popularity spread all over the world, making him a true movie star. Rin Tin Tin had his own dressing room, “signed” his own contracts and chose his own co-stars! When Rin Tin Tin eventually died, his character was played by his pups and grand-pups; and in fact, Rin Tin Tin’s fourth-generation descendants brought the character to television. In 2007, a movie written by Danny Lerner traced the history of this famous dog and his master.

Another dog superstar was the famous Lassie. Purchased for five dollars by an animal trainer, this Collie launched her career in 1943 in Lassie Come Home. (In fact, the dog was actually a male called Pal). While Rin Tin Tin tore after the bad guys and leapt across chasms, Lassie exemplified the loyalty and unconditional love of a dog for her master, a child. Like Rin Tin Tin, Lassie enjoyed worldwide popularity. Her trainer and agent demanded astronomical salaries — 50,000 dollars a year and 4,000 dollars per commercial appearance – as well as a dressing room, a private secretary and even paid holidays! Through the third generation, Lassie’s descendants made films; then her legacy was brought to television.

The stories of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie are unique in the history of cinema. Both dogs had talented trainers who helped them gain recognition as actors in their own right and who had the business sense to manage their career and earnings.


The 2009 movie Marley and Me by David Frankel tells the tale of a Labrador adopted by a young couple. The guy buys the dog hoping that it will satisfy his partner’s maternal instincts for a while, but Marley ends up running amok in their home. Above all, though, he becomes an unwavering friend, helping the couple and their family through some difficult times.

Friend and guardian

After Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, the presence of dogs in cinema declined. Before the 1980s, a few books by Jack London were made into films, but none featured dogs as developed characters. Instead, dogs usually served as sidekicks for their co-stars, as in Call of the Wild with Charlton Heston.


Not until the 1970s did Walt Disney Studios make another push for canine films. They needed to find a suitable dog that was, of course, extremely loyal and had a friendly face with star quality — in short, a kid’s best friend. Into the studios trotted Benji, a little Pyrenean Shepherd cross. For the first time, casting directors chose not a big, proud sheepdog but a spunky ball of fur. Disney made five movies about Benji’s adventures before launching a television series. With an annual salary of a million and a half dollars by 1974, Benji was certainly expensive to produce. Several films pairing the police with dogs were also released but had little success. Around 1990, the dog hero for kids was a big, fat Saint Bernard named Beethoven, whose films were successful worldwide. The legendary White Fang was also honoured with a new Disney adaptation of Jack London’s novel.


The thinking dog

Dogs are often given human qualities in movieland. Obelix’s faithful companion Dogmatix can think, although he cannot talk. As a nature-lover, this little dog is broken-hearted when someone cuts down a tree, and can even give his master the cold shoulder.

Dogs in the 2000’s can both talk and think. In 2009, the Disney animated film Bolt is about a canine TV star which escapes from the studio only to discover that the outside world is full of danger. He meets other anthropomorphised animals on his many adventures on the “outside”

Specialised training schools

Today’s dog actors are graduates of professional training schools where they learn everything from barking and whining on command to playing dead, as part of a genuine drama course. The result of all this effort does pay off for trainers; only one of their “students” needs to be picked for them to make a fortune.

Animal health organisations are present whenever dogs are used in films to ensure that they are not mistreated.

As long as films with dogs are successful, Hollywood will continue to make them. Of course, not all aspects of this success have been positive. Certain films that feature a specific breed have triggered considerable demand for that breed, resulting in the subsequent overbreeding of puppies of poorer quality by some breeders. These films must not lose sight of the fact that, while the dog is a wonderful companion, it needs daily care throughout its life. While both children and grownups fall for them, it is important that adults don’t buy a dog without understanding that a child is not always able to look after it and that they will have to take their responsibilities, too. Let’s hope that cinema is not afraid to show the dog as it really is, an animal that gives so much to humans.

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Stars of the big screen
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