Humans: who needs them?

Once, animals in the movies were either cute or deadly. Now they're just as likely to be eco-warriors. By Beth Porter
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Ker-splash! Free Willy 2 swims in on a tide of irresistible tosh, latest in a long line of non-human screenstars. Ever since the Vitagraph girl Florence Turner partnered Jean the performing collie in 1914, the movies have recognised the pulling power of a paw. But have films featuring our furry, finny, and feathered friends kept abreast of changing attitudes towards animals or are creatures being exploited on-screen for that box- office quantifiable aahhh-factor?

"If you wanna send a message," snarled Sam Goldwyn, "use Western Union." He might better have said, use an animal. From its infancy, cinema has employed screen beasts to comment on the human condition. Dogs dominate. From his silent debut in 1922 to the sound serials of the 1930s, valiant Rin Tin Tin barked out the value. Rinty's kennel-comrades included Mack Sennett's comedy dog Ben; bronco-riding Tuffy; Pete, the only canine member of Our Gang; Roy Rogers' speeding Bullet; every kid's ideal pet Lassie (played by a dog called Pal who wore a wig on his backside to hide his manhood); Clark Gable's remarkable co-star Buck in The Call of the Wild; detective helper Asta in The Thin Man series; Toto, Judy Garland's companion in The Wizard of Oz; canny Old Yeller and steadfast Greyfriars Bobby.

In the early 1930s, MGM put out a series of short spoofs featuring a veritable Cruft's of terriers and setters, dressed to impersonate such bipedal stars as Marlene Dietrich in Love Tails of Morocco, Bessie Love in Dogway Melody of 1931, and Lew Ayres in So Quiet on the Canine Front.

More recent pooches such as Beethoven or Hooch, Turner's unconventional crimefighting partner in Turner and Hooch, became comedy catalysts for humans with a lesson to learn, while Samuel Fuller's unmuzzled White Fang, trained to attack blacks, growls out a much more brutal theme. Not all canines hail from Hollywood. De Sica's classic Umberto D co-stars the mutt Flike, whose wet-nosed friendship keeps the desperate tramp alive, and The Lady with a Little Dog tells Chekhov's tale of love and loneliness.

Dogs, like most cuddly mammals, make easy heroes. Other creatures have less obvious appeal. On a break from shooting his pot-boiler The Eternal Sacrifice in 1914, the director James Terwillinger watched the actress Ormi Hawley walk over to the animal cages of a circus, reach in and pet a docile 20ft python called Fido. Terwillinger put the reptile in his picture and it caused a sensation. The audience rioted at the premiere when the snake slithered on screen. In 1967 cinemagoers were more tolerant as Tommy Steele confronted George the alligator in Disney's musical The Happiest Millionaire. And by 1990 they positively adored the ferocious Komodo dragon sharing screentime with Brando in The Freshman.

Birds, Hitchcock discovered, could wing their way to menace. But they could also be invaluable allies, such as in the drama-doc A Dispatch from Reuters when pigeons were called upon to pass wartime messages. And the kestrel that stole Ken Loach's Kes stole more than a few tears from the audience.

Film-fish swim through less ambiguous waters. Boetticher's Killer Shark predated Jaws by 25 years. Nice they're not, however charming The Fish that Saved Philadelphia or A Fish Called Wanda may sound. Outside of animation, rodents also get a raw deal in films like Killer Shrews and Willard.

In Hollywood, even creepy-crawlies can get an agent, though they're typecast as bad guys. Frighteners like The Deadly Mantis, Them!, Tarantula, The Fly, Killer Bees, and Arachnophobia exploit our ignorance of the insect world - although the sci-fi spoof Meet the Applegates, in which mutant Brazilian beetles Stockard Channing and Ed Begley Jr assume human form, prompts a rethink of family values through laughter. Well, real bugs are just too darned difficult to train, though a series of early shorts features the antics of a flea circus.

No screen animal is as clever as the script makes it appear and shooting with non-humans can turn the most patient director into WC Fields. But in the 1950s cine-beasts got the recognition they deserved with their very own version of the Oscar, called the Patsy. Winners include Francis (the talking mule), a horse called Gypsy, and Samantha the goose. You can't beat mammals, though, to grab an audience by the heart. Or the purse.

Equine stars can be corralled into three main groups. They're cowboy transport for dudes like Tom Mix (Tony the Wonder Horse), Roy Rogers & Dale Evans (Trigger and Buttermilk), and singing Gene Autry (Champion - how many Wonder Horses can the world cope with?). Horses are often racing certs like National Velvet and Black Stallion Cass-Ole. More powerfully, they're morality icons, obvious as Black Beauty, or the more subtle untamed ponies who ride between Gable and Monroe in The Misfits, the stolen Appaloosa tracked by an iron-willed Brando, or the wild Horse Named Comanche befriended by unlikely Italian Indian Sal Mineo.

Cats can break hearts, too; Audrey Hepburn's nameless moggie in Breakfast at Tiffany's, saying more about her than diamonds ever can. Piwacket lends credence to Kim Novak's witchery in Bell, Book and Candle. More unlikely is Disney's Richest Cat in the World which not only inherits $5m but talks, too. The Cat from Outer Space tested the tolerance of aliens four years before ET. And fear of his aunt's felines does for the murderous Michael Sarrazin in Eye of the Cat.

Even more disturbing is Tourneur's classic Cat People, in which the prowling manifest in Simone Simon mirrors unleashed sexual desire. But a leopard can change its spots especially when it's called Baby and in the care of madcap Katharine Hepburn. Big cats fare better than the domestic puss. Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion so amused he spawned the Daktari TV series. Elsa may have been Born Free but she certainly knew how to could capture an audience.

Perhaps it's not surprising, though, that the animals which most engage are those closest to ourselves, the great apes. Gone is big bad Kong. The least believable aspect of the appalling Congo was the band of mutant killer apes. We know better. We've seen Gorillas in the Mist. Captivating chimps like Jungle Jim's Tamba, Ronald Reagan's bedtime pal Bonzo and Willie as Vergil the sign-language ape in Project X have followed in Cheetah's jungle footprints. The orang-utan CJ has the market cornered in monkey- business, appearing on the wrong continent with Bo Derek in Tarzan the Ape Man and as Clint Eastwood's partner Clyde.

The newest star on four hooves is the porker Babe, a piglet with a penchant for rounding up sheep. She's oinking them dead in her native Australia, and trotting soon to a cinema near you. Before beasts on the Beeb, Disney's big-screen natural history series Secrets of Life tapped a fascination with animal behaviour from koalas to wolf spiders. Such films paved the way for the screenstars Tarka the Otter, Jumbo the Elephant, Fernandel's Cow, the bears Bart and Douce, Andre the Seal, Flipper the Dolphin, and Willy the Orca, whose sugary stories front the growing realisation of our responsibilities toward the planet and our fellow animals.

Free Willy 2, wearing its PC heart on its fluke, spouts a coming of age story of both boy and whale. As in its prequel, the contrived plot parallels Jason James Richter's family saga with his blubbery pal's, including a dual plunge into the pool of adolescent amour, and some love-hate tension with his new brother. But in the Nineties there is only one set of villains: devious polluters. Things have come a long way since Moby Dick. Surely a step forward, but are the lessons being learnt? It's interesting that films such as Willy helped to ban the keeping of captive orcas in the UK, while Americans still use both whales and dolphins for fun and profit. In Hollywood, animal stars, like human ones, are there to bring home the bacon. The difference is, they're cheaper. And they never forget their lines.