From Lassie to Beethoven: Dogs on film

As Lassie bounds back into our cinemas, David Thomson - with a little help from a Boxer named Basil - looks back at Hollywood's love affair with all things canine
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The Independent Culture

My boxer, Basil, hauled himself up on the sofa beside me - I was watching Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon - and rather surprised me with the bitterness of his attitude. On the whole, he's content with the man's best friend role - indeed, most of the time he regards talk as a failing to which dogs don't and shouldn't succumb. But this time he gave one of his world-weary sighs (better than the release of air at his other end) and said: "Tell me, boss-fellow, is there so much as a mongrel in this picture about New York, this Dog Day Afternoon?"

"I have never noticed one," I said.

"And in the notorious Dogville, by Lars Von Trier," he said, "do we meet a canine, a cur, a wolf or a hyena?"

I reflected. "No," I admitted, "all the dogs in Dogville are two-legged." I began to sympathise. "What you mean to say," I said, "is that it's a dog's dinner at the movies?"

"You said it, repository of wisdom."

"The Dogs of War?" I tried - vaguely I remembered a British picture about mercenaries.

"It's a dog," said Basil.

The next day I was affected by the look of deep melancholy on Basil's face, and if you've ever had a boxer you know what I mean. So, just to cheer him up, I got out the newspaper and almost yelled with excitement.

"Lassie's back!" I cried out, waving the pictures under his cool nose.

"No need to shout!" said Basil. But he did amble over to look at the paper, and I thought I saw one look of wistful pride. Not that he was prepared to give me any comfort.

"Lassie was never much appreciated by dogs," he said.

"But Lassie is the most famous of all movie dogs," I said. "Lassie Come Home in 1943, with Donald Crisp, Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor. I can remember shots of Taylor's face buried in the collie's mane. And so many other Lassie films. Thirty years of them!"

"Have you ever known a collie with an atom of amiable personality?" asked Basil. "The poor things have been entirely spoiled by the company of sheep. Need I say more? Moreover, collies in life frequently show little touches of spite, not to say bite, that are again the only thing sheep understand."

"But, Basil," I tried to remonstrate, "everyone knows Lassie."

"Did you know that the bitch was always played by a male dog?" asked Basil.

"I didn't," I said.

"The males are said to be more photogenic. And Pal, the original Lassie, was not just a gender thief, he was a very vain dog. He demanded his own hotel room. And then he got lazy so the part went over to many other collies and no one ever complained, because all collies look alike - haughty and stuffed."

"Well!" I said, rather flummoxed by all this reference book stuff.

"After all," Basil drawled - and I knew I was going to get it now. "Your own fat book, oh shepherd of the sheep dogs, does not include Lassie."

"But I do have Rin Tin Tin!" I crowed.

"Ah," said Basil, at last appeased. "I was wondering when you'd remember him. Now you are talking."

And then, with me plodding along behind him, there he was off on a scamper through woods alive with smells, recalling the great alsatian, known as Rinty - rescued from the trenches of the First World War by a soldier, brought back to Los Angeles, and a true star of the 1920s - nimble, brave, loyal, honest, and content to live in a kennel. No less than Darryl F Zanuck had written the scripts for Rinty's pictures. And just the one dog had played Rin Tin Tin. When he died, in 1932, the story goes, his head was cradled in Jean Harlow's satin lap ("Not the first dog to be seen there," sniffed Basil), the franchise was retired out of respect.

We went to expert video stores and very soon we were side-by-side on the sofa, rejoicing at Rinty's Fairbanksian agility and chuckling at the woofs of open jaws without an accompanying sound. Here was a dog that dogs could honour and enjoy.

As you may imagine, over the succeeding days, Basil and I could not take a walk without getting into the matter of dogs in movies over the years. I recounted the perky adventures and rather aggressive personality of the fox terrier, Asta, in all the Thin Man pictures from the 1930s. But Basil was able to convince me that Asta had probably been lapping up the cocktails set aside by William Powell and Myrna Loy so that they could finish their work. The terrier was a lush, he said, and could actually be seen a few years later in the background of an alcoholic hospital in some Susan Hayward picture.

But even Basil admitted that the very ugly bull terrier that David Lean had found to be Bill Sikes' abused dog in Oliver Twist was not just credible but as fascinating as Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past. "There was a dog with attitude," said Basil. "Frankly, lord of the night, I regret that film noir didn't believe enough in a solitary, moody dog - a hard-boiled dog - one that lives by night and falls for some cheap poodle looking like Jane Greer."

"Basil!" I said. "I never knew you nursed this kind of romantic soul!"

"A dog can dream," he said.

As you may imagine, we were quickly into the pack of animated dogs, though as Basil pointed out, dogs were not thick on that ground. Goofy, after all, had been changed by Disney from a dog to a - well, what creature is Goofy really? And while Pluto is a dog, he could pass for nearly anything.

"Lady and the Tramp!" I announced - with a case-closed grin on my face.

"Touché," said Basil, closing his eyes in rapture as he re-ran that lovely story of the mongrel and the pedigree, with songs by Peggy Lee no less.

I felt on a winning streak, so I simply said: "May I add, 101 Dalmatians?"

Basil said: "Hmm, yes, I suppose so, though I'm bound to say that I think it's rather a puppyish film. It appeals most to the immature dog."

"Why not?" I said. "There should be entertainment for young dogs beyond balls that squeak."

"I know," said Basil. "But Dalmatians is just a touch cosy for me. Give me a White Fang every day - a dog in the wilderness, saving an idiot human."

"Basil," I said, "I have to tell you, if you want more dogs in pictures - and I am prepared to concede that you have a case - I think you should be very careful not to discriminate against obedient dogs, reliable dogs, and so on. Humans have a very limited point of view in this sort of thing. I mean, they can go to sleep on Old Yeller and that sort of thing till the end of time."

"Like black people having rhythm?" said Basil.

"But black people do have rhythm!" I protested.

"Except the ones who don't," said Basil.

We were determined to make our list full, so we had Benjy, Beethoven and Strongellow (another hero from the early days of film). Nevertheless, as Basil said to me one day: "Of course, you know that you'll have readers e-mailing in about dogs we've forgotten."

"Like the mastiff guarding the staircase in Strangers on a Train," I said. "The one who licks Farley Granger's hand instead of biting it."

"The Hound of the Baskervilles," said Basil.

"Oh, please!" I said, and he snuffled in good humour.

"Exactly," he said. "Dr Watson is dog enough! Still, it would be nice to have a chien de resistance, as it were."

"Lassie fights the Nazis in one picture," I remembered.

"No, I meant a topper," he said, patiently. Whereupon, he sat up very quickly, as if he had heard a distant call.

"Do you know White Dog?" he asked.

"The very thing!" I yelled. In a trice, we had it on video, the superb 1982 fable, written by Curtis Hanson and directed by Sam Fuller, in which a handsome white alsatian has been trained to attack black people. It came from a novel by Romain Gary, a rather high-minded piece of anthropological self-reflection, but in Fuller's tabloid grasp it became a ravishing story of racism today in which the dog has a truly complex role. We were exultant: here was the proper closing night film for our dog film festival.

Did we relax? By no means. To have an enquiring dog in the house is an endless festival. You have to be dogged. Our current sport is a reappraisal of great literature as seen through the dog's eyes. For instance, we have "Barty", the story of a dog that decided one day he would prefer not to go for a walk. We have "Hamlet's Hound", in which Hamlet's and Ophelia's dogs (a dobermann and a pomeranian) have a happier fate than their owners.

At the same time, we are rejoicing over the way in which handsome dogs - retrievers, spaniels and labradors - are often featured in portrait and landscape painting. Basil can go into ecstasies over the way Gainsborough paints a red setter.

But darker days are ahead. It was only as I puzzled over why a St Bernard should be called Beethoven, that Basil realised there was a world known as "music".

He had been deaf to it before. But I experimented with Carnival of the Animals at an unusually high volume to alert him to a fresh world of the inner life. And I know it won't be long before he remarks on the grim shortage of dogs in opera. God help me when he discovers that there was even a great composer named... Bach!