We’re not saying yesterday’s dog actors are better than today’s. Not from a technical standpoint, at least. We’re aware of the versatility most canines learn these days, in prestigious acting schools that didn’t really exist for movie actors 75 or 100 years ago. We understand these professionals’ dedication to their craft. And we admire their ability to play a variety of roles. Really, we do.
We’re just saying there was something about yesterday’s dogs, something intangible. They were stars, they had the élan vital — they knew how to fill a tight close-up with both charisma (the sniff from a wet nose) and mystique (how’d that nose get so wet in the first place?). We think it’s time we look at some of these dogs from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
In 1918, Charlie Chaplin, after screen-testing a Dachshund, a Pomeranian, a Poodle, a Boston Terrier, and an English Bulldog, realized the obvious companion for his Little Tramp was a mongrel.
Mutt appeared in one Chaplin production, A Dog’s Life. But after the film’s completion, Chaplin adopted Mutt and curiously (which likely means for tax purposes) put him on the payroll of his studio.
2. Rin Tin Tin
As vividly illustrated in Susan Orlean’s recent biography of the famed German Shepherd, Rin Tin Tin’s meteoric rise from World War I refugee to bankable silent film star to Depression-era radio personality cuts a fascinating swath through a transitional time in world history.
The original Rinty was, at his peak, a global celebrity in a time when this was still a brand-new and hysteria-inducing phenomenon.
3. Pal the Wonder Dog
Pal is best known as the first actor to play Pete the Pup, the Pit Bull in Our Gang.
He was cast for the memorable ring around his right eye. The mark required only a little Max Factor makeup to complete the ragamuffin look befitting his rascal clique.
It’s fitting that the Cocker Spaniel who appears in The Gold Diggers of 1933 is named Fluffy.
This musical announced the arrival of a new talent in Hollywood, one who helped evolve the film musical into the kind of spangled spectacle that perhaps best represents the studio age.
5. Skippy (or “Asta”)
Perhaps the canine with the most impressive list of Hollywood credits is Skippy, the Wire Fox Terrier best known for playing Nick and Nora’s pooch in the first two Thin Man films.
But Skippy had prominent roles in two other screwball classics, The Awful Truth (starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant) and Bringing Up Baby (with Grant and Katharine Hepburn).
6. Terry (or “Toto”)
As the Cairn Terrier who played Toto in The Wizard of Oz, Terry has gone down in Hollywood history as arguably the dog whose work has been seen by the most people.
During the long and laborious filming of Oz, Judy Garland became so attached to Terry she offered to buy him from his owner, Carl Spitz. The German expat, who at the time owned the most prestigious dog training school in Hollywood, refused.
7. Pal (aka the original Lassie)
Lassie entered the world through a short story published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1938.
By the time the tale was adapted into the 1943 film Lassie Come Home — and after years of Hollywood using canines primarily for comic relief in its products — the Collie had come to symbolize a revival of the 19th-century habit of sentimentalizing the unwavering, almost telekinetic, bond between boys and their dogs. Pal was the first of many Collies to play the role.
Do you think any other classic Hollywood dogs should make our list? Let us know in the comments!