We shall now pause (or dare I say paws) in our study of the Westerns of our favorite actors (see under A for Actors in the Index) to consider non-human but often just as intelligent and brave stars of the silver screen, the canines.
As a dog sort of guy (my own dog Wyatt will attest), I always like to see a canine in a Western. Dogs and Westerns, two of my favorite things, and both combined, even better.
I suppose the two canine supreme monarchs of the genre were Rin Tin Tin and Lassie.
The former (September 1918 – August 10, 1932) was a male German Shepherd born in Flirey, France, who was rescued from a World War I battlefield in Lorraine by an American soldier, Lee Duncan, and named after the tiny French puppets the French children would give to the American soldiers for good luck, though Duncan called him Rinty.
Duncan trained Rin Tin Tin and it was he who got silent-movie work for the dog. Rin Tin Tin was a huge box-office success and went on to appear in 27 Hollywood films, gaining worldwide fame.
Rinty’s first big break came when he was asked to replace a camera-shy wolf in The Man from Hell’s River (1922) featuring Wallace Beery. The wolf was not performing properly for the director, shame on it, but under the guidance of Duncan’s voice commands, Rin Tin Tin was very easy to work with. When the film was completed, the dog appeared in the cast list as ‘Rin Tan’.
He first topped the billing, co-starring with leading lady Claire Adams, in Where the North Begins, a smash hit for Warner Brothers in 1923.
And it was at Warners that Rin Tin Tin really shone. In fact he was the brothers’ biggest film star in the early days. Jack Warner nicknamed him “the mortgage lifter”. The studio provided Rinty with a private chef who prepared daily lunches of tenderloin steak (consumed as live classical music was played to help ease the dog’s digestion). The manufacturers of Ken-L-Biskit and Pup-E-Crumbles featured him in their advertisements.
The dog also got his own live 1930s radio show The Wonder Dog. It is said that at the first Oscars Rinty got more votes than any other actor but the Academy wimped out and gave the award to a human – though this is dismissed as an urban legend by some spoilsports.
Many of Rinty’s screenplays were produced by an unknown young writer named Darryl Zanuck.
Though primarily a star of silent movies, Rin Tin Tin did later make four barkies, including the 12-part Mascot chapter-play The Lightning Warrior, in 1931.
Sometimes the public was hoodwinked. At the peak of his popularity, when doubtless Rinty was hounded by the pup-arazzi, Warners maintained eighteen trained stand-ins to reduce any stress on their dog star. And of course finally Rinty expired (at the age of 14). Newspapers across the nation carried obituaries. A replacement was required. Rin Tin Tin Jr appeared in several films in the 1930s and when he died in 1941, Rin Tin Tin III assumed the mantle.
Anne Frank was a fan. In her famous diary she lauded the mutt, I mean pedigree.
TV beckoned. I was a great fan as a boy of ABC’s The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954 – 59). Rusty and Rinty were the sole survivors of a wagon train attacked by Indians, and they were adopted by the garrison at Fort Apache where Rusty, but especially Rinty, helped Rip Masters civilize the West. Rusty was played by Lee Aaker, who I always thought was the best Western boy.
Duncan’s Rin Tin Tin IV was nominally the lead dog in that, but he hadn’t inherited his prestigious ancestor’s thespian talent and nearly all of the screen work was performed by a dog named Flame Jr, nicknamed JR, owned by trainer Frank Barnes. Other dogs sometimes stood in too, such as Barnes’s dog Blaze and Duncan’s dog Hey You (though all from the Rin Tin Tin bloodline). TV’s Rin Tin Tin was lighter in color than the original sable-colored dog of silent film.
But Rinty wasn’t the first canine star of Westerns. Oh no. If you think that, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
Strongheart was another dashing Westerner. He was born in Germany and was a police dog, found by director Laurence Trimble in 1920. Trimble directed Strongheart in his debut The Silent Call in 1921. Strongheart was lauded by the critics for his performance as White Fang in 1925. He had one thespian shortcoming: he could not howl. His brother Flash stunt-doubled for him in scenes that required howling. But tragedy struck down Strongheart at the height of his fame, when he slipped and was burned by a studio light. The burn rapidly turned into a tumor and claimed Strongheart’s life in June, 1929.
Jack London’s 1906 great dog tale White Fang, though perhaps not strictly a Western, was filmed many times after Strongheart’s silent version, for example in 1936, with Lightning as White Fang, a Russian version in 1946 with an uncredited dog, an Italian one with Franco Nero in 1973, with equally and equally shamefully unlisted hero, a Japanese anime one in 1982, the 1991 one with Ethan Hawke and Jed the dog topping the billing, the 2018 French-Luxembourgish animated one, and this list is not exhaustive. The story has sure been popular over the years, and all over the world.
Back in the silent movies, there were many other canine stars, including Teddy, the Great Dane who co-starred with a young Gloria Swanson, the collie Jean at Vitagraph, and the English pit bull Luke. Mr Barker, Bullet, Pete, Duke, Wolfheart, Thunder, Sandow, Bunk, Ranger, they all had their (silent) moment of glory in the spotlight during the 1920s. It got so that you couldn’t do a Western without a dog.
Talkie dogs (though of course not all actors could make the transition and sometimes a dog’s bark was worse than its bite) included Caesar, Kazan the Wonder Dog (there were quite a few wonder dogs), Flash, Captain ‘King of Dogs’, and many others. They often got top billing. When mere mortals headed the cast, the likes of Tim McCoy or Gene Autry, they still had their dogs. Tim McCoy’s co-star was Silver King, and watch Buck, fifth-billed as Buck the Wonder Dog in Gene Autry’s Melody Trail (1935). Gene’s sort-of successor Roy Rogers would of course have Bullet (another Bullet). These Westerns being largely destined for the juvenile market, naturally a nice dog was going to go down well, and be almost as important as all those intelligent horses.
But rivaling Rinty in the glitzy world of canine superstars was of course the upstart Lassie. She was a Rough Collie and she featured in a 1938 short story by Eric Knight that was later expanded to a 1940 full-length and immensely popular novel, Lassie Come-Home. This was filmed in 1943 by MGM, with Roddy McDowall and the great Pal playing Lassie. Pal was male but nobody noticed. It wasn’t a Western (the action happens in Scotland and Yorkshire) but Pal starred in six more Lassie movies at Metro, Son of Lassie, Courage of Lassie and so on, which were slightly more Western.
Actually, Pal only started as a stunt dog but when the prima donna star refused to swim a river, Pal got his chance, and never looked back. Pal (1940 – 58) appeared in shows, fairs, and rodeos around the United States before starring in the two pilots filmed in 1954 for TV, then retiring. It was his son who took the role in the TV show. He had a line of descendants who continued to play the fictional character he originated. In 1992, The Saturday Evening Post said Pal had “the most spectacular canine career in film history”. Not sure Rinty fans (such as Jeff) would agree with that.
There were several candidates for the boy role in Lassie and the final decision was apparently left up to Pal. It was Tommy Rettig, 11, who got the canine nod. He was good too.
Well, these were the megastars of the canine motion picture. But let us not overlook some other great mutts. I am especially fond of John Wayne’s dog Sam in Hondo.
Now it is said, and I hope it is true, that Pal played Sam. I like Sam because he was no tame lapdog. When the boy (Lee Aaker again) wants to pet the animal, Hondo (Duke) warns him that it’s dangerous. The lad goes ahead anyway and of course Sam snaps. The boy’s mother is outraged but Hondo is right when he tells her that he warned the boy, and if he went on trying to pat the dog anyway, it was his lookout.
Later, Hondo is afraid that the Apaches might harm his dog (just after he has shot Leo Gordon) and so he shouts out, a tad anachronistically, “Beat it, Sam!” and the mutt duly departs. Later the poor canine will suffer a tragic fate at the hands of those same Apaches.
I’m sure Duke’s dog Dog in Big Jake in 1971 is supposed to remind us of Sam.
Talking of dogs named Dog, canines play an important part in the plot of Fox’s Wolf Dog in 1958, as you may guess from the title. First the villain cruelly sets his fierce brute on poor little Spot, the boy’s mutt, with fatal results – for Spot. Then the boy finds a replacement, half wolf (though it looked just like a German Shepherd to me), which he imaginatively names Dog. Finally there is a showdown on Main Street – between Dog and the bad guy’s (anonymous) canine. You may guess who wins.
Longmire’s dog was also named Dog in the series of novels about the eponymous Wyoming sheriff.
The same year as Wolf Dog there was Ride a Crooked Trail, one of the better Audie Westerns with an excellent Walter Matthau co-starring and an even excellenter Paddlefeet.
That same year as Hondo, the great Shane also had dogs featuring. According to director George Steven’s son, who was on the set, Stonewall Torrey’s dog which played such a sentimental scene at the graveyard, was the least trained and least dependable of several dogs and other animals on that set. The mutt kept wandering off instead of doing what they wanted it to in various scenes. He wouldn’t look down into the grave as the director wanted and Stevens had to get the dog’s owner to lie down in it.
It was a doggy year, 1953, because Universal’s The Lone Hand starred Cherokee, and co-starred Jimmy Hunt as Cherokee’s boy master and Joel McCrea in a minor part as the hero.
In 1958, one of Alan Ladd’s best Westerns (because it wasn’t really an action role) had him and his son David in a rather touching story with rancheress Olivia De Havilland, and the faithful dog Lance (played by King) making up the happy foursome.
Various versions of the Wild Bill Hickok story, such as the 1995 Walter Hill one Wild Bill, featured the scene in which Bill shoots a shot glass off the head of Pink Bruford’s bulldog. History (or the cast list anyway) doesn’t reveal the name of the brave canine actor who took the role. I hope he wasn’t scared.
In E2 of Stagecoach West, the villain John Kellogg swinishly clubs young Davey’s dog Hannibal, though Hannibal later recovers. But in Episode 6 we learn the tragic news that Hannibal is no more (perhaps the actor departed this world) and Davey gets a new dog, Hannibal II.
Talking of Western TV shows, the real hero of The Westerner was not Keith but Brown (Spike). Spike had famously been Old Yeller in 1957, so was quite a star. He accompanies Dave Blassingame everywhere (he is in every episode) though interestingly, Dave rarely says Brown is ‘his’ dog. They just travel together. He doesn’t want to commit to anything, not even a dog. Maybe Brown felt the same. Peckinpah would use Spike again in Junior Bonner.
Last of the Dogmen wasn’t, as the title might suggest, about canine owners but the star certainly had more zip than the other actors, for he was Zip.
Netflix came out with The Power of the Dog in 2021 but as far as I could see it wasn’t about a dog. Plus, it was a bad film.
Given that so many cowboys had European origins and in Europe it was common to use dogs to drive cattle (I believe the late Queen of England’s preferred breed of corgi was originally a cattle dog) I’m rather surprised we don’t see canines helping out on cattle drives in Westerns. The only one I can think of was the excellent Tig in Open Range, played by a mixed-breed Terrier named Chester, but even he didn’t exactly work as a herder but was more along for the ride, as it were.
Well, I can’t list all the dogs that appeared in Westerns. There are too doggone many. I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to. Sorry if I’ve omitted your favorite. Glad to hear about it though, if you leave a comment.
But for now, we’ll let sleeping dogs lie.