Children and animals have a reputation in the entertainment industry as being unpredictable scene stealers. It’s not an untrue sentiment, and any film where the performance of either is suspect taints the entire film. Yet the histories of television and film are filled with unforgettable performances by both children and animals, and of those the most endearing have to do with man’s best friend: the dog. Dogs on film are as old as the medium itself, with early canine stars like Rin Tin Tin or Asta drawing audiences on their presence alone. From The Wizard of Oz’s Toto to Prey’s Sarii, here are the performances that deserve a treat.
Lassie in Lassie Come Home (1943)
Lassie is the collie star of radio, television, film, and countless other media and merchandise. You’ve probably heard of her. Lassie Come Home is the first of seven MGM films starring the ubiquitous canine, where Lassie (Pal) is sold to a rich Duke Rudling (Nigel Bruce) in order to raise some money for the Depression-era Carraclough family. Young Joe (Roddy McDowall) is grieved at the loss of his dog, but Lassie escapes from the Duke’s home in Scotland, persevering through a series of trials and tribulation to come home to her boy.
Toto in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Oh, Toto (Terry), if you had only resisted the urge to bite nasty old Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton). Toto, a Cairn Terrier, ultimately is the catalyst for the events of the magical fantasy film that sent young Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) to the Land of Oz via tornado. It’s Toto that rouses the gang together to save Dorothy from the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton). And it’s Toto that blows the Wizard’s (Frank Morgan) pyrotechnic charade. Good boy.
Rin Tin Tin in Where the North Begins (1923)
The true story of Rin Tin Tin is ripe for a movie itself, going from being rescued from an abandoned battlefield in World War I France to world-wide celebrity that helped bring Warner Bros out of financial ruin. Where the North Begins is Rin Tin Tin’s third film with the studio, playing a German Shepherd adopted by wolves in northern Canada. He befriends a French fur-trapper, Gabriel Dupre (Walter McGrail), leaves the pack to stay with him, and helps Dupre stop a villlainous trading post manager.
Beethoven in Beethoven (1992)
The St. Bernard that launched an eight film franchise, Beethoven (Chris) is a small St. Bernard puppy that is adopted by the Newton family — but he doesn’t stay small for long. Soon he grows into a 185-pound, drooling, playful and inadvertently destructive beast. The family adores him, save for George (Charles Grodin), the patriarch of the clan. But when a villainous veterinarian gets hold of Beethoven, the whole family bands together to save their pet and a whole host of others.
Benji in Benji (1974)
Not to be outdone, Benji has eight films, three TV appearances, one TV series and two documentaries. And a Commodore 64 video game. It all began with Benji in 1974. Benji (Higgins) is a stray dog, beloved by the community with a special affection for two children that regularly feed and play with him. One day, the children aren’t there to play – they’ve been kidnapped, and it’s up to the golden haired mutt to track them down.
Comet in Full House (1987-1995)
Comet (Comet) first appeared on the family-friendly sitcom in the Season 3 episode “And They Call It Puppy Love”, a golden retriever that became the family pet. Comet was a popular addition to the show, adding an element of humor and empathy that only a canine can bring. There is even a Comet-centric episode, Season 8’s “Comet’s Excellent Adventure”, where he escapes and explores the city with a female collie (pretty sure female, at least, and not a Lassie sitch). But when he sees sweet little Michelle (Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen) on TV, he races back home. Aww.
Eddie Crane in Frasier (1993-2003)
Eddie, played by Moose in Seasons 1 to 7 and by his son Enzo in Seasons 8 to 11, Martin Crane’s (John Mahoney) Jack Russell Terrier, is a never-ending source of humor on the show, annoying Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) to no end. He’s intelligent, with times he is not more likely another means of taunting Frasier, so one never knew what to expect from Eddie episode to episode, adding to his popularity.
Marley in Marley & Me (2008)
Based on John Grogan’s memoir of the same name, Marley & Me stars not one, not two, but twenty-two yellow labs of varying sizes and talents as Marley (and, let’s face it – Owen Wilson (John) and Jennifer Aniston (Jennifer) are second fiddle to the lovable mutt). The film follows the lives of John and Jennifer Grogan, who adopt Marley as a puppy, and although Marley grows physically, his antics and rambunctious behavior remain puppy-like, testing their patience (but gifting John with plenty of material for his newspaper column).
Old Yeller in Old Yeller (1957)
There are people of a certain age that still weep openly at hearing the name “Old Yeller”, which is a testament to the movie and to Spike, the Yellow Mastador who played the golden-haired mongrel in the film. The movie stars Tommy Kirk as Travis Coates, a young man left to care for the family ranch after his father goes on a cattle drive in the 1860’s. Travis, his mother and younger brother adopt Old Yeller, who has seemingly adopted them first. Over time and after a host of encounters against raccoons, snakes, bears and wolves, Travis and Old Yeller grow very close. Which makes the heartbreaking ending even worse.