Cinematic Canines

“Cinematic Canines: Dogs and Their Work in the Fiction Film,” edited by Adrienne L. McLean. Rutgers University Press. $27.95.

Numerous authors have focused on dogs in film, but none approaches this scholarly work’s interpretation, thoroughness and breadth. The content ranges beyond a century and is categorized in three parts – Stars and Featured Players, Character and Supporting Actors and Stock, Bits, and Extras. The essays are arranged according to categories the motion-picture industry has traditionally used for its actorsCinematic Canines

For McLean, a professor of film studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, the origin of this project can be traced to a Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in 2009 and took on a life of its own since, with 13 other essayists involved.

Numerous questions are raised and answered by the writers, who leave no stone unturned while viewing promotional items and film in their subject area.

Are these dogs legitimate actors? Should they be eligible for an Oscar? Is their care humane?

McLean says, “Although in their relationship to the film industry and its modes of production, dogs do resemble child actors – in the sense that, like children, dogs have little authority to control the uses to which they are put – the fact that dogs are legally nothing but property, commodities with ‘rights’ that, beyond loose rubrics like ‘humane treatment,’ accrue mainly to their owners, makes them qualitatively different.”

Names like Rin Tin, Asta, Lassie, Benji and others transcend generations and personalize films to dog-owning theatergoers, many of which tend to anthropomorphize their four-legged friends.

Possibly dogs’ biggest impact in the industry came in the silent era where there was an equality between human and animal. “Conceptually,” says writer Joanna E. Rapf, “silent films allowed animals, especially dogs, to interact with people in ways that made them seem quite human,” while taking the reader on a nicely detailed, chronological journey through those early days.

Dogs’ roles reflected the country’s changing landscape and psyche, too, Rapf says, from “rural-based values to the multifaceted dimensions of urban life, from simplicity to the complexity of a ‘machine age’ and from a time of peace to one of the bloodiest wars the world has ever seen.”

Not only did canine stars attract big audiences, they were saviors, too. Kathryn Fuller-Seeley and Jeremy Groskopf note Rin Tin was sometimes called “The Dog Who Saved Hollywood,” as his films were said to have rescued the struggling Warner Bros. studio from bankruptcy.

From comedy, to war heroes, to rescuers and later animation, dogs have extended our landscape and lifestyles into a realm of entertainment, ranging from fantasy to reality, the authors note throughout the riveting resource, which stretches its boundaries from the U.S. to Australia, South Africa and Japan.

Questions arise throughout as who deserves the acting kudos – the dogs themselves or their trainers. Fuller-Seeley and Groskopf say, “Reporters and writers began to talk to trainers (in the 1920s) about how they manipulated dogs to get the desired expressions and actions, effectively changing a discourse of acting to one of tricks.”

In the case of Asta (played by Skippy) “the Screwball Dog,” essayists Sara Ross and James Castonguay note the wirehaired fox terrier crossed social boundaries making himself at home in locations, from nightclubs’ top dinner tables to crime scenes, museums and venues normally barred to “his kind.”

Yet those meanderings boasted a touch of realism, too, since the breed was a favorite of the “well-to-do and the working man,” making it the perfect “everydog.”

More than once authors point to the “irresponsible promotional schemes that negligently encouraged dog ownership, especially of dogs with a documented pedigree, specifically “Lassie” and “101 Dalmatians,” following their release. Yet filmdom had a positive influence on the family dog by encouraging interaction and subsequent bonding.

Alfred Hitchcock is embraced as one of the premier directors for grasping the human-animal bond, stretching back to his second feature, “The Farmer’s Wife,” (1928) with a pair of springer spaniels. “For him, we can surmise,” says writer Murray Pomerance, “the dog was everything a person ought to be, and these spaniels with their pristine gaze and rapt fascination reflect cinema promise.”

Alexandra Horowitz, a professor of psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University, serves up a different perspective, as an ethnologist (science of animal observation), writing: “The use of dog characters in the films explored herein is representative of the way that humans misrepresent the dog. Dogs are used for their generic roles – as props, as part of the scenery, as part of the family – but not considered as dogs, as individual animals.

“Using an ethological approach to consider these filmic dogs’ behavior, it is apparent that dogs are regularly acting in ways at odds with their film roles.

“. . . The cinematic disregard for dogs is puzzling, as they are expressive creatures in their own right, perfectly able to convey emotion, transmit information, or show affection.”

The tableau is wide ranging, boasting a solid mix of interpretation and impression and nicely accented with vigor and sensitivity. It’s not a one-night read, rather a volume to digest slowly and savor the rich, insightful detail and interpretation.