Dogs. Yes, that’s right, dogs. I’ve probably already doubled the amount of traffic to this site just by writing the word “dogs” three times. Four times if you count that mention. Because people just love dogs (five). They can’t help themselves. It’s down to their dependability. A human being might let you down, but a four legged friend probably won’t eat you until you’ve been dead at least four days. A cat would probably tuck in while you were still warm. Trenchant insight aside, a dog’s loyalty and trainability make it a natural for the movies. A dog can be encouraged to do stuff that’s cute. Or, with a sign from off-camera, it will start barking in a menacing manner – though the wagging tail is a hell of a giveaway that the baying animal isn’t really a Nazi hellhound. The baying hellhound/wagging tail problem aside, a dog in a movie is almost always a good thing. Unless the dog’s name is in the title, then it’s often not a very good thing at all (I’m talking to you, Beethoven, K9, Marmaduke and Turner. Or was it Hooch?)
So here they are, the best films I can think of with dogs in them. Feel free to disagree.
The Artist (2011, dir: Michel Hazanavicius)
First, silent films are not a genre so The Artist cannot fit into the “genre” of silent films. Second, The Artist is not actually a silent film – it comes with a soundtrack, people. Third, throat cleared, it has a dog in it, a very cute Jack Russell terrier called Uggie, who has a Wikipedia page, and a rake of awards for his work, including the Palm Dog for The Artist, in which he plays Jack, the dog belonging to silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Tricks include walking on back legs and then, bang!, dropping dead. Apart from that Uggie mostly just does cute, bright, head-cocked, lots of running, the odd bit of tugging of trouser leg (“Don’t kill yourself, George Valentin”) and behaving like a Jack Russell, which comes naturally.
Beginners (2010, dir: Mike Mills)
Uggie is not to be confused with Cosmo, who plays Christopher Plummer’s dog, Arthur, in Beginners. Plummer plays the old guy who, at 75, decides to come out as gay, now his wife is dead, much to the consternation of his son (Ewan McGregor). If Plummer’s performance is the best thing in Beginners, Arthur is actually the key to the movie, which is about commitment – Arthur being total commitment on four legs. Cosmo’s big trick in Beginners is just staring very intently, as if peering into the soul of the human sitting in front of him. And director Mike Mills uses this cannily, flashing up subtitles indicating what the dog is thinking. It’s a novel aid to storytelling, and very cute, obviously.
Lassie (2005, dir: Charles Sturridge)
So ingrained is Lassie in the cultural fabric that the old “what’s that you’re saying Lassie; the kids are trapped in the old well?” line continues to be used as a shorthand for cheesy storytelling. The 2005 Lassie is interesting for a variety of reasons. It seemed to come from nowhere – there was no clamour for a Lassie film from any quarter. It did not feature a descendant of Pal (the original Lassie, whose bloodline had supplied Lassies to the motion picture biz from 1942 to 1999). And it was really surprisingly good, director Charles Sturridge crafting a story entirely without irony, utterly old-fashioned, the sort of adventure young children would lap up. And the cast was not what you’d expect either – Kelly Macdonald, Peter O’Toole, Samantha Morton. It’s heritage film-making, for sure, but undeniably a work of quality.
The Man from Hell’s River (1922, dir: Irving Cummings)
This forgotten film from 1922 provided the first outing for Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd who had been rescued from a First World War battlefield (War Horse, eat your heart out) and whisked back to Hollywood, where his on-screen exploits in 27 films made the breed globally popular. It is rumoured that Rin Tin Tin actually won the most votes for Best Actor in the first Academy Awards (the award eventually went to Emil Jannings). Whether that is true or not, what is without doubt is that Rin Tin Tin made a fortune for Warner Bros, turning the studio into a success. So, at some level, Rin Tin Tin gave us James Cagney, Bugs Bunny and Bette Davis, Casablanca, Goodfellas and the Harry Potter movies.
The Man from Hell’s River – not available at Amazon
Old Yeller (1957, dir: Robert Stevenson)
How many films have a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Old Yeller does. The story of a boy and his dog in mid-19th century rural America is one of the occasions when Disney got it right. And it’s the tragic ending that has seared it onto the memory of anyone who has watched it, along with the direction by Robert Stevenson, an expert Disney hand who would go on to direct Mary Poppins eight years later. Old Yeller himself was a blackmouth cur, a clever, good-natured, tough and robust breed initially used as a hunting and cattle dog. The sort of dog you’d want out with you if you were a young kid learning about life. And the film itself is like the breed – loveable and useful but tough when it matters.
Bombón el Perro (2004, dir: Carlos Sorin)
From Patagonia, a miraculously sweet drama about an unemployed mechanic who is given a lumbering patrician example of the Dogo Argentino breed, a dog, he is assured, that will make him a fortune in stud fees. Except the dog isn’t that interested in the lady dogs. The dog is called Gregorio and at least 50 per cent of the film’s success is down to the way the big white beast sits in the passenger seat as Juan (first-time actor Juan Villegas) drives him about. The other 50 per cent is down to the way this beautifully crafted film presents a portrait of macho men (a little past their macho peak), friendship and dignity, and its use of wide, sun-baked Argentina vistas.
The Wizard of Oz (1939, dir: Victor Fleming)
There’s not much to say about the Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said. But has anyone ever noted before that Toto (real name, disappointingly, is Terry) is the only creature, apart from Dorothy, who is consistent throughout? There are characters who only appear in Kansas (Uncle Henry), characters who only appear in Oz (Glinda), and characters who do double duty (Professor Marvel/The Wizard, Hunk/Scarecrow). Then there’s Dorothy and Toto. And Dorothy never lent her name to a 1980s rock outfit (or so the entirely untrue rumour goes).
Men in Black (1997, dir: Barry Sonnenfeld)
Exposition is the bane of so many films but in Men in Black, when Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Jay (Will Smith) need a gigantic injection of plot information, Ed Solomon’s clever screenplay sends them off to meet Frank the Pug, a wisetalking canine version of Edward G Robinson who tells them who has done what with the Galaxy (the real galaxy, somehow shrunk to marble size) and how to get it back, more or less. In fact the film’s plot was changed halfway through shooting, but because Frank’s lines were all dubbed (dogs can’t really talk, apparently), it was possible to insert entirely different expository dialogue with no need to reshoot. And doesn’t it really help that while Frank is feeding plot info into the film, Tommy Lee Jones is trying to shake the life out of him? Pure exposition is rarely this much fun.
Frankenweenie (2012, dir: Tim Burton)
Tim Burton’s best film in years is a beautifully animated piece of kiddie gothic that reaches right back to a short he made in 1984, about a little boy who brings his dog back to life, Frankenstein style, by harnessing lightning. The little boy, obsessed with movies, something of a loner, is probably modelled on Burton himself, but the film is otherwise pumped full of references to the gorehounds of yore – such as Vincent Price and Peter Lorre – as well as the Universal monster movies of the 1930s. And, like Old Yeller, Frankenweenie presents a very gentle introduction to the concept of death for the very wee. The dog is called Sparky, of course.
Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009, dir: Lasse Hallström)
Syrup is the director Lasse Hallström’s forte (he made an abortionist cute in The Cider House Rules, for example) and in this totally soppy story of a man and his faithful dog, he’s ladling it on. It’s a remake of a Japanese film called Hachiko Monogatari and stars Richard Gere as guy who persuades his wife (Joan Allen) to bend the “no more dogs” rule. Divided between Gere (the first half) and the Akita-breed dog (the second), it’s the sort of film that features an encounter with a skunk (with predictable results) and, though you’d never believe it, Gere looks like he’s having a good time. Honest to goodness stuff with a teary, lip-quivering third act.
My Dog Tulip (2009, dir: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger)
Christopher Plummer again, absolutely perfect doing the narration for this film adaptation of the JR Ackerley’s autobiographical best-seller telling how, as an ageing, lonely gent, he is emotionally rescued by his relationship with a German shepherd. What marks out My Dog Tulip, apart from the delightful water-colourist style of animation, is its quirky matter-of-factness. It mentions all sorts of unmentionables that dog owners deal with every day – I’ve never seen a dog take a dump in an animated movie before. And as for the sections where Plummer discusses his dog’s anal glands or overtight foreskin, they’re something of a first too. And all done entirely without prurience, believe it or not, thanks to Plummer’s dry, droll, delivery.
Red Dog (2011, dir: Kriv Stenders)
Like the best Australian films, there’s a bullshit-free quality to Red Dog which makes it highly watchable. Telling the story of a legendary kelpie cross, it’s also the story of early 1970s Aussie manhood, the fighting, the boozing, the plain-speaking, though done in a way that won’t frighten the children or their over-sensitive parents. Quietly making a case for gritty, stubbly old-fashioned masculinity – the virtuous side of it at any rate – it details how a mixed breed connected up a group of otherwise isolated itinerant workers out in frontier Australia, and how the dog formed a deep bond with one of them (played here by Josh Lucas). It’s a true story, too, and if you go to Dampier, Western Australia, you can see the statue to “the Pilbara wanderer”.
© Steve Morrissey 2013