I enjoy educating others about film history and the early years of cinema.
Blair was a collie owned by British film director Cecil Hepworth, who cast himself, his wife, and his infant daughter in Rescued by Rover (1905). Co-directed by Lewin Fitzhamon, the film centers on the family dog Rover, played by Blair, tracking down the old beggar woman who has kidnapped the baby.
The film was a massive success and paved the way for other canine stars and animal-centered films. Rover quickly became the most popular name for dogs in both the UK and the United States.
Rescued by Rover was so in demand for screenings that the original negatives wore out quickly, so Hepworth and Fitzhamon had to reshoot the film twice. Prints have been reserved in both the Library of Congress and the British Film Institute.
Blair had briefly appeared in Alice in Wonderland (1903), also directed by Hepworth. She later reprised her role as Rover in The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper (1908), in which Hepworth played the kidnapper and his young daughter once again played a kidnapped child.
2. Jean the Vitagraph Dog
Jean, also known as the Vitagraph Dog, was a Scotch collie born in 1902 in Eastport, Maine. Her owner, Laurence Trimble, directed her in 25 films, starting with Jean and the Calico Doll (1910). Her only surviving films are Jean the Match-Maker (1910), Jean Rescues (1911), and Playmates (1912).
Actress Helen Hayes made her debut as a child actor alongside Jean. Over twenty years later, she was quoted as saying, "Jean was the most famous dog of the day and I was very thrilled." Film historian Anthony Slide has said, "Jean was equal in popularity to Vitagraph's human stars."
Jean appeared in Vitagraph Studios films until 1913, when Trimble moved to England to work with an independent film company. When Jean gave birth to six puppies, Trimble directed a documentary short film about them entitled Jean and Her Family (1913).
Jean's last film was Far From the Madding Crowd (1915). Trimble returned to the United States the following year, and Jean died at age 14 a few months later.
3. Shep the Thanhouser Dog
Shep, a collie, started off appearing in films for Vitagraph Studios in 1913, but didn't become famous until he started working for Thanhouser Company. Accounts differ as to whether Shep was owned by Jack Harvey or Arthur Ashley, who both worked for Vitagraph in acting, writing, and directing.
Shep became known for his heroic feats in films like Shep, the Hero (1913), Faithful Shep (1913), Shep's Race with Death (1914), and The Barrier of Flames (1914). His stunts included saving a child from a burning building and pulling a horse carriage off a railroad track.
In 1914, The Chicago News ran a feature on Shep, which described him as "a dog whose principal claim to fame is that he graces the screen in the capacity of a star... and, according to the directors, goes about his work with a determination and precision which would do credit to many of his human friends in the profession... and when his cue comes enters the scene without any delay, performing his duties intelligently."
When Shep died of illness later that year, The New York Star published in their report, "There was much sorrow expressed last week at the death of Shep, the Thanhouser dog, who had created a unique part for himself in moving picture work. For Shep was a dramatic actor and could register sorrow or joy with the ease of a great artist."
4. Luke the Dog
Luke the Dog was a Staffordshire bull terrier born in November 1913 at the home of director Wilfred Lucas. Lucas gave the puppy to actress Minta Durfree and her husband, comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.
Arbuckle, who bonded closely with Luke, trained the dog to appear on camera. Luke started off appearing in the background of films starring Durfree and Arbuckle. Then, in Fatty's Faithful Fido (1915), Luke showcased the athleticism he would become famous for. He climbed ladders, jumped from rooftop to rooftop, and fell through a hole in the floor to land in a tub of water.
Luke soon took on active roles alongside major stars of the silent era, like Mabel Normand, Buster Keaton, Molly Malone, Edgar Kennedy, and Al St. John.
Several of Luke's films involved chase scenes. In Fatty's Plucky Pup (1915) he ran on a treadmill in front of a projection screen to make it appear as though he was running through the forest. In Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) he leaped off a boat and swam across a lake to catch the villain. In his final film, The Scarecrow (1920), Luke chased Buster Keaton across rooftops, through windows, and down a garbage chute.
The following year, Arbuckle and Minta separated, eventually divorcing in 1925. Minta retained custody of Luke, though Arbuckle was allowed visitation. He died in 1926 at age 13.
5. Keystone Teddy
Keystone Teddy, also known as Teddy the Great Dane, appeared in at least 60 short films by Keystone Studios. He may have been owned by the head of Keystone, Mack Sennett, as he was occasionally called The Sennett Dog.
Several of Teddy's early films starred Bobby Vernon and Gloria Swanson. He first captured audiences' attention in The Nick of Time Baby (1916), in which a dog delivers letters from a servant boy, played by Vernon, to a young woman he's courting, played by Swanson. Teddy also often worked with comedian Ben Turpin and fellow animal actor Pepper the Cat.
To capitalize on his growing fame, Keystone released a film with his name in the title, Teddy at the Throttle (1917). In this film, the villain ties Swanson to a railroad track, and Teddy saves her by jumping aboard a moving train and alerting the conductors. They stop the train just in time, and Teddy chases the villain up a tree.
As audiences fell in love with Teddy, he began appearing in magazine photoshoots and making public appearances. Soon he became one of the highest-paid actors at Keystone. The Great Dane breed became highly popular in the United States, and Teddy became a common pet name.
Teddy made his last film in 1924. He died at home a year later at the age of 14.
Mut appeared in only one film: A Dog's Life (1918), a comedy-drama directed by and also starring Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin found Mut at a local pound and brought him to Chaplin Studios, where 20 other dogs were waiting to audition. Mut won the role despite being the runt of the group.
Mut played a dog named Scraps, who befriends a tramp played by Chaplin. The two become partners in crime as they struggle to survive in the inner city. Together they steal food, sleep in alleyways, and try to dig up stolen money. At some point the tramp sneaks Scraps into a cabaret by stuffing him down his baggy trousers, only to be found out when the dog's wagging tail sticks out.
In one scene, Mut refused to lie down in an alleyway for Chaplin to use him as a pillow, so the producers fed him whiskey to make him docile. Mut was otherwise cooperative during filming, and Chaplin planned to use him as a studio mascot.
Unfortunately, after the film wrapped up, Chaplin left on a cross-country tour to sell war bonds. Mut, who had grown attached to Chaplin, stopped eating in his absence and died after three weeks. He was buried on the studio grounds with a marker reading "Mut, died April 29th—a broken heart."
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7. Brownie the Wonder Dog
Brownie, a mixed breed of bull terrier and fox terrier, starred in about 50 films for Century Film Company from 1918 to 1924. He was often a co-star of Baby Peggy, one of the most successful child stars of the silent era.
Peggy-Jean Montgomery made her film debut alongside Brownie in Playmates (1921). Following the film's success, she was billed as Baby Peggy and appeared with Brownie in several more films, such as Pals (1921), Golfing (1921), Brownie's Little Venus (1921), Brownie's Baby Doll (1921), and Chums (1921).
Though Brownie's films have been lost, some clips remain of Playmates, as well as Brownie's Little Venus, which was rediscovered in Switzerland in 2010. The remaining clip of Playmates depicts Brownie cleverly preparing Baby Peggy for a bath. He turns a knob to fill up the tub, then retrieves soap, a scrubber, and a towel.
Besides film, Brownie's other claim to fame was a comic strip based on him. In 1926, a comic strip entitled Les Aventures du Chien Brownie—which translates to The Adventures of Brownie the Dog—was released in France, and ran for one year. It was written by Jean d'Agraives and illustrated by E. Nicolson.
8. Pal the Dog
Not much is known about Pal the Dog, such as his breed, his ownership, and which production companies he worked for. He appears to have been either a pit bull or Staffordshire terrier mix, judging by his appearance in his only surviving film, A Rag Doll Romance (1922).
In that film, Pal worked with child actors Doreen Turner and Lawrence Licalzi, as well as animal actor Joe the Monkey. The story centers on two children: a well-off little girl living with her dog and grandmother, and a poor boy who lives with his uncle and pet monkey in a train car. The children befriend each other, as do the dog and monkey.
Pal also worked with Turner and Licalzi in the films A Penny Reward (1922), Monkey Shines, and Schoolday Love (1922). The latter film featured not only Pal but fellow animal actor Maude the Mule as well. In the film Cured (1922) he also acted alongside Queenie the Horse and Rosie the Monkey.
Strongheart was a German shepherd who worked as a police dog in Berlin before becoming a film star. He served in the German Red Cross during World War I and earned six service stripes. After the war, his owner couldn't afford to keep him, so he sent him to a friend in New York.
In 1920, Strongheart placed third in the annual show of the Shepherd Dog Club America. He caught the attention of film director Laurence Trimble, who had previously trained Jean the Vitagraph Dog. Trimble bought Strongheart and trained him to appear in films.
When his first movie, an adventure film called The Silent Call (1921), was released, Strongheart became an instant star. He began touring and making public appearances, each time greeted by crowds of adoring fans. As he continued to star in adventure films and westerns, the German shepherd breed became increasingly popular in the United States. He appeared in countless newspapers and magazines and was the subject of several books. Doyle Packing Company even released Strongheart Dog Food, with him as their mascot, to capitalize on his fame.
On a film set in 1929, Strongheart was burned by a studio light and developed a tumor as a result. He died at home at the age of 12.
But luckily, years earlier on the set of The Love Master (1924), Strongheart met Lady Jule, the dog who would become his mate. His grandsons, Lightning and Silver King, became film stars in the 1930s. Strongheart's bloodline goes on to this day.
10. Rin Tin Tin
Rin Tin Tin was rescued from a World War I battlefield in France by an American soldier and went on to become an international movie star. The soldier, Lee Duncan, brought him to the United States and trained him for dog shows, and later for films.
His first film, a western entitled The Man from Hell's River (1922), was an instant success. The following year, he was given his first starring role in Where the North Begins (1923), an action-adventure film that saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. He became their biggest box-office draw and was much sought after for endorsement deals and publicity photos. Rin Tin Tin merchandise—currently preserved in several museums—also earned much revenue.
Rin Tin Tin's films, which were mostly silent, were all action-oriented and focused on him performing heroic feats in dangerous situations. He also performed for a radio show called Rin Tin Tin (1930-1933), which was previously titled The Wonder Dog.
After his death at age 13 in 1932, his son, Rin Tin Tin Jr., took over his role in the radio show, and also starred in films from 1932 to 1939. Rin Tin Tin III starred in one film, The Return of Rin Tin Tin (1947), and went on to assist Duncan in training military dogs for World War II. Descendants of Rin Tin Tin have also been trained as service dogs for the disabled.
Currently, Rin Tin Tin XII is the official spokesdog for American Humane's Red Star Rescue Team, a program that rescues animals in war zones and from natural disasters.
Richard Herrera on September 05, 2020:
When was Brownie the Wonder Dog born and died? Thank you
Lora Hollings on January 22, 2020:
I never heard of most of these dogs before with the exception of Rin Tin Tin and of course I was familiar with the little dog who played Toto on the Wizard of Oz and the dog who played Lassie as well as Roy Roger’s dog named Bullet who was on his show. I will have to see if I can find some of these films to watch! I love dogs and this was a very interesting article on these canine stars. I really enjoyed it. You did a great job!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 22, 2020:
This is really interesting. The only one of these I've heard of is Rin Tin Tin. Thanks to you, now I'm more knowledgeable about these famous dogs.
Jacqueline G Rozell on November 15, 2019:
Used to watch Rin-Tin-Tin and Rusty as they helped the Calvary stay out of trouble on Saturday mornings. My Dad always thought there never was any other dog but a German Shepherd and I've lived with one all my life. I won't bore you with how many times as a child and as an adult my German Shepherd companion saved my life.