This was the title of an illustrated talk that I gave at the Cinema Museum in London in November 2011. Since when I watch films on DVD or the TV I am accompanied by my Border collie, Dusty, this is an area of significant interest to both of us. Of course, there are thousands of dogs across cinema, and this is especially true of the early years of the medium, when any cameraman setting up in the street was sure to record at least one of our canine friends. But as a narrative cinema developed dogs became a frequent and often conventionalised character in stories. D. W. Griffith set the tone for Hollywood when in The Birth of a Nation he showed one of the Southern belles with her dog and a little later had the chief villain kicking a dog. So I based the selected clips in a series of extracts that seemed to equate to the most common canine characters and their roles.
Importantly though I first explained one of the basic maxims that apply to dogs in film. This was an early lesson given by my friend Sue to her scriptwriting class at the Leeds-based film school – ‘Never kill the dog! Especially if it is a golden retriever’. There is an example of the latter part of this maxim in Independence Day (USA 1996). However, a more effective example can be found in The Day After Tomorrow (USA 2004). As the world freezes a group. including the young hero and heroine, take shelter in the New York Public Library. Along with them is an African-American hobo with his dog, a Border collie. Temperatures drop everything freezes – but the hero’s dad, a meteorologist, struggle through ice and snow to rescue him and his companions. To my consternation when the rescue was effected there was no sign of the dog? However, when the rescue helicopters arrive at the film’s ending the hobo and his dog re-appeared. There was clearly some continuity problems here. But on the Internet I found an explanation. A provisional cut of the film, including the poor collie being frozen to death, was screened for preview audiences. Almost to a woman and a man they complained on their cards – ‘You killed the dog!’ So some last-minute additions had to be made to the film. Fortunately this sort of error is relatively rare in the movies.
The illustrations included both silent and sound films [the latter dealt with here]. The first set of clips was under the heading Thy Friend the Dog. These included two of the most famous cinematic characters, Lassie and Uggie. Since Lassie has had possibly the longest career of any canine star we started with the first – Lassie Come Home (1943). This is set in one of the idealised Hollywood landscapes, not exactly like the Yorkshire where I walk my own dog.
The second set of clips was under the heading of To the Rescue. This must be the most common action taken by dogs in relation to human film characters. We had Toto from The Wizard of Oz (USA 1939) dragooning the three companions into a saving Dorothy from the Wicked Witch of the East. But the most exciting clip was the second episode of a Rin Tin Tin serial, The Lone Defender (1930). This has a cliff-hanger ending which provided the question for a competition – the winning entry was more imaginative than the original film.
We also paid a short tribute to a couple of humans – auteur directors with empathy for dogs. One was Alfred Hitchcock; dogs are very common in his films. A typical example is in Strangers on a Train (1951). Guy breaks into Bruno’s mansion, but his errand is to warn Bruno’s father about his psychotic son. The guard dog’s moral sense tells him Guy is a friend. The other notable director was Luchino Visconti, another dog lover. The favourite of his sequences with dogs is in Ludwig (Italy, France, and West Germany 1972) where Trevor Howard as Richard Wagner wrestles on the floor with a white Pyrenean mountain dog.
The next category was In the Pack In the Wild, with dogs reverting to nature or at least to type. This commenced with a musical ensemble from an MGM sound film, Dogway Melody , which offered a canine pastiche of the studio musicals. The climax is a really well executed chorus and soloist rendering Singin’ in the Rain to an enthusiastic doggy audience. The skills in the next clip earned a round of applause as Owd Bob (1938), the sheep dog demonstrated his skills at rounding up sheep at a Lakeland trial. This set ended with a specially requested clip, Old Yeller defending his master from a black bear.
Four Legs was concerned with the major pre-occupations for dogs food, food, food and sex. The clip featuring Pluto was concerned with food but made really nice use of mirrors. Lady & the Tramp was concerned with romanceand featured the famous spaghetti meal accompanied by the equally famous song. Whilst Bonbón el perro (Argentina 2004) was devoted to the most basic instinct.
Two Legs Good Four Legs Better demonstrated the superiority of the canine species. We had Asta in a Thin Man feature. And then rounded off the topic with the Italian part documentary, part-feature Le Quattro Volte (2010). This has an ingenious sequence with a sheep dog, a block of wood and a van – it is very slow but worth the wait. [Note the film is as much about the dog as it is about the much-hyped goats].
The final category was Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow. This is a somewhat downbeat subject but the films have a high quotient of emotion. There was Umberto D (Italy, 1952) and the final slightly traumatic but ultimately upbeat ending. Then we had the penultimate sequence from the 2005 Lassie, beautifully shot and set in the real Yorkshire. The final clip was from Hachi (1987). This Japanese film recounts the story of a faithful dog who accompanied his master every day to the Station and then met him on his return. One day the master failed to return. So the faithful dog waited morning and evening at the Station year on year. This is a sad ending but beautifully achieved with a reassuring sense of renewal.
There was deserved applause for David Locke and his assistant who juggled 16 mm, Blu-Ray and DVD in screening the programme of film clips. Also a thank you to the Cinema Museum for hosting the event. They were happy enough to organise a follow-up, coming on Thursday April 24th. The illustrated talk will follow the example of the Golden Collar Awards. Setting right over 80 years of the Hollywood Academy [and the BAFTA’s] failing to recognise the important contribution of canine actors – The Award Goes To ….