Pets on film: John Walsh introduces some of his favourite characters
Saturday 04 April 2009
Kes in 'Kes'
Ken Loach, 1969
Ken Loach's first film watches a bullied, abused, 15-year-old, working-class Yorkshire boy (David Bradley) achieve a kind of release from his everyday torture at home and school, as he tames, befriends and trains a kestrel falcon. One of the kestrels used in shooting was owned by Robert Nairac, who grew up to become the undercover soldier murdered by the IRA in 1977. Two scenes stand out: Brian Glover as fat, bullying Mr Sugden, ex-footballer turned athletics teacher, still desperate to win every game, even against schoolboys; and the scene when Billy, encouraged by a kind English master, explains to the class his feelings for Kes. This being Ken Loach, it all ends in tragedy, but it's a starkly beautiful flight.
Flicka in 'My Friend Flicka'
Harold Shuster, 1943
Classic equine tear-jerker from the novel by Mary O'Hara about a dreamy Wyoming kid called Ken who, when allowed to pick his own colt from the farm's herd, unerringly picks one with wild, "untameable" mustang blood. Oo-er. Flicka (Swedish for "little girl", apparently) jumps a ridiculously high fence, injures herself and has to be tended back to health by Roddy McDowell. Cue boy-and-horse love story. Then Flicka catches an infection and has to be shot by dawn tomorrow ... A massive wartime hit, it spawned a 1950s TV series and a remade movie in 2006 with Ken transformed into 16-year-old Katy, played by the decidedly un-boyish Alison Lohman.
Asta in 'The Thin Man'
WS Van Dyke, 1934
Nick and Nora Charles (played by William Powell and Myrna Loy) were everyone's favourite sleuthing couple in 1930s movies. A well-off, loving but rather louche married couple, they stayed in bed until noon, swilled cocktails, enjoyed witty spats, became involved in adventures and solved mysteries. By their side through it all was Asta, their dog: in Dashiell Hammett's original book, Asta was a schnauzer; in the film (and its five sequels), a wire-haired fox terrier. Smart, enterprising and loyal, Asta routinely discovered clues, sniffed out corpses and distracted villains long enough for Nick and Nora to make their escape. He turned up in all six films (real name Skippy) and retired in 1939, aged seven. His weekly salary was $250. His trainer's was $60.
Toto in 'The Wizard of Oz'
Victor Fleming, 1939
Hundreds of still photographs were scrutinised and scores of live auditions held to cast the important role of Dorothy's dog Toto in the classic movie from Frank L Baum's book. The winner was a Cairn terrier bitch called Terry, five years old and already the star of a clutch of movies (she made 12 in her career). She was owned by one Carl Spitz, who trained her and gave her commands by using his hands. Toto is crucial to the plot: Dorothy initially decides to run away from home because nasty Miss Gulch is coming with a court order to have Toto destroyed. When Dorothy is locked in the chamber by the Wicked Witch, Toto escapes and rouses her friends to save her. And, of course, he's the recipient of the film's best line when Dorothy, regarding the Technicolor hues of Munchkinland, breathes: "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas any more."
Baby in 'Bringing Up Baby'
Howard Hawks, 1938
The comedy that invented the word "screwball" (and first used the word "gay" to mean homosexual) features a palaeontologist (Cary Grant), a ditzy socialite called Susan (Katharine Hepburn) and two leopards. One has been sent to Susan as a lovely pet by her brother Mark in Brazil – where there are no leopards, only jaguars – and she needs to snare the palaeontologist (whom she thinks is a zoologist) to help her bring it up. Baby, the leopard, escapes and runs off with a wild leopard from a local circus, and must be rescued before an important lady benefactor arrives to give a million bucks to the dinosaur museum ... A versatile leopard called Nissa played both wild and tame versions. A total disaster on its first release, it wound up at No 24 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the greatest-ever movies.
Lassie in 'Lassie Come Home'
Fred M Wilcox, 1943
A tale of boy-dog passion and loyalty, the all-time classic pet film that saw sales of pure-bred collies registered in America shoot up from 3,000 to 18,400 in the late 1940s. After a nationwide hunt for the right dog, MGM called in Rudd Weatherwax, a purebred collie expert, who brought with him a non-pure collie, aged one, called Pal. He got the role of the faithful mutt sold by his Yorkshire owner to the local duke, who re-locates his family to Scotland. Despite the presence of the young Elizabeth Taylor (who got the job when the first choice, Maria Flynn, revealed she was afraid of dogs on set), Lassie escapes and sets out on the long journey home to snivelling Roddy McDowell ...
Morris the cat in 'The Long Goodbye'
Robert Altman, 1973
The opening sequence of Altman's Chandler update sees the great private eye Philip Marlowe with one thing on his mind at 3am – trying to feed his cat. He's out of catfood, the flipping moggy won't accept anything from the fridge, he has to go to a 7/11 store where they don't sell the cat's brand, so he buys a different brand, goes home and tries to pass it off, only the cat sees through him... A charming vignette of a pet-owner henpecked by his charge – the cat, called Morris, really can act – in a film otherwise notable for two things: the camera never stays still for a second, and Marlowe (played by a weary Elliott Gould) lights a cigarette in every scene in which he appears. By the way, in the Chandler books, Philip Marlowe has no pets.
Beauty in 'Black Beauty'
Caroline Thompson, 1994
Anna Sewell's classic 1877 novel offers a few obstacles to the film-maker, chief among them being the first-person narrative: how can you expect audiences to sympathise with a horse as it explains the chilliness of a bit between the teeth, or rhapsodises about oats. But Alan Cumming's voiceover is intensely sympathetic, and Caroline Thompson has a fine eye for sunlit meadows and a social conscience about the maltreatment of beasts, as Beauty endures all manner of indignities, to wind up pulling cabs on the streets of London. The whole thing skilfully avoids looking too much like a Lloyds TSB commercial.
Yeller in 'Old Yeller'
Robert Stevenson, 1957
The last word in canophile weepies, Old Yeller can make grown men melt. The eponymous dog in this Disney treatment of Fred Gipson's book is a Blackmouth Cur crossbreed which pesters the Coat family in post-civil-war Texas: it steals food and impregnates their classy bitch, but a bond grows between dog and elder son, Travis. Old Yeller manages to save his master from charging bears, irate cows and slavering wolves, but tragically contracts rabies; Travis is forced to shoot his best friend to save his mother and brother, and has to endure a leaden homily from his father about Growing Up and Becoming a Man. It's one of the weepiest endings in film history. In Season 2 of Friends, Phoebe reveals that she's under the impression that Yeller ends his life at a lovely dog's home – her parents, it seems, had never let her watch films with sad endings when she was young.
Clyde in 'Every Which Way But Loose'
James Fargo, 1978
Clint Eastwood's first comedy role, after playing a killing machine in spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry movies, was playing a trucker and bare-fist fighter called Philo Beddoe whose best friend is an orang-utan called Clyde. Philo falls for a girl singer called Lynn (Sondra Locke) but loses her and sets out for Colorado to find her, with his best friend Orville and his simian buddy, pursued for most of the way by a biker gang called the Black Widows. Clyde is a talented companion: he can extend his middle finger like a teen delinquent; and when a whole motorbike gang is lined up threateningly beside the truck window, the simple command "Right hand turn, Clyde" elicits a punch that knocks them all flat like dominoes. "A really great ape movie," said The Observer.
Cat in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'
Blake Edwards, 1961
Girl-about-town Holly Golightly's cat doesn't have a name. His mistress (Audrey Hepburn at her most feline) calls him "Cat". She talks about him a lot, though, emphasising his, and her, rootlessness. "Poor old cat," she says. "Poor slob. Poor slob without a name. The way I look at it, I don't have the right to give him one. We don't belong to each other. We just took up by the river one day." She later repeats the point, about not belonging to anyone, when talking to Paul the writer (whose unfinished novel is significantly titled Nine Lives) and at the end "frees" the cat on to the rainy New York streets. Only then does she realise that she and the cat aren't really wild, and can't survive without love. Climactic rainy kiss with Paul. Curtain.
Velvet in 'National Velvet'
Clarence Brown, 1944
Perhaps Liz Taylor's finest hour, aged 12, as the Sussex butcher's daughter who, with Mickey Rooney as her father's assistant, wins a piebald gelding called The Pie in a village raffle and trains it up to win the Grand National in the mid-1920s. Since women jockeys weren't allowed to compete, she has to masquerade as a Russian youth, and her sex is discovered to general consternation. The original novel was written in 1935 by Enid Bagnold, also notable for the play The Chalk Garden and for being great-grandmother of Samantha Cameron. The riding stunts in the film were performed by Monty Roberts, later to find fame as the real-life Horse Whisperer. A film sequel, starring Tatum O'Neal as Velvet's adopted American niece, was released in 1978, to general disapproval.
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