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All Movie Talk

Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Vintage: Animal Players

Animals on the silver screen have long had the power to captivate audiences. Well, it makes sense. They hold a special fascination for us in real life, so why not in the movies? Here's a glimpse at the four-legged movie stars of the 1920s.

Animal Players
Here's The Film Daily Yearbook's catalogue of "animal players" for 1927. Further down, you can find the revision for 1928. These lists are actually pretty slim, but as it says, these are only those animals who received full screen credit in feature-length films. Expand the scope to short films as well, and the lists would open right up.

Dogs are probably the most popular movie animals, and these lists imply they've always been. We've got Lassie, Benji, Shiloh, Beethoven, Buddy, Otis, Einstein, Hooch, Old Yeller, and many more. In the 30s and 40s, there were Toto, Asta, Ace the Wonder Dog, and Pete the Pup. Well, the 20s had this crowd. The one you probably recognize is Rin Tin Tin, which we discussed briefly on this week's podcast episode.

Rin Tin Tin was, at one time, the biggest movie star in the world. The original dog was found in a kennel in France during World War I. The kennel had been bombed, the dog was shell-shocked, and an American named Lee Duncan found him and rescued him. He trained him to do tricks and discovered that this dog was incredibly athletic. A movie producer discovered the dog at a show and paid to film him.

His first starring performance came in Where the North Begins (1923), which saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. A poster on the IMDb page for the film wonders if, had there been no Rin Tin Tin, if there would be no Jazz Singer. No, and nor would there be any Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, or Looney Tunes. Most of the same talents would have found work elsewhere, but the creative climates would have been different and potentially produced dramatically different work.

There were many other canine movie stars before Rin Tin Tin, in particular a dog named Strongheart, who was also a German Shepherd. Strongheart is best known for the 1925 version of White Fang. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Strongheart Dog Food, a line of dog food still being produced today, was named after him.

But for some reason, Rin Tin Tin rose above the crowd. His franchise outlived him by far -- the original Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, while Rin Tin Tin entertainment is still being produced. Interestingly, almost all appearances of the character (live, or on film or television) are played by descendents of the original dog. The current Rin Tin Tin is tenth in the bloodline.

I'm not familiar with the other dogs mentioned here, but I'd like to point out that "Fangs of Justice" is one of the all-time great movie titles.

Horses, of course, have a completely different sort of appeal. With horses, you don't get titles like "Fangs of Justice." You get things like "Wild Beauty." Outside of westerns, dogs are for boys, and horses are for girls, and the titles follow suit.

But the interesting thing about horses is that, in the Old West, they suddenly become macho champions of the desert. Westerns were numerous in the day like you couldn't even imagine, and one of the keys to establishing a successful western franchise was to have a star horse. The biggest star horse of all-time is probably Trigger, Roy Rogers' horse, who starred in roughly 86 films and 100 television episodes between 1938 and 1959. He was billed as "The Smartest Horse in the Movies," a catchy marketing tagline that the films backed up with heroic gestures and comic shenanigans.

But establishing horse stars in western franchises dates back much earlier, as the 1927 scan suggests. Tom Mix, Fred Thomson, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, were the Gene Autry and Roy Rogers of the prior generation. They didn't sing, like Autry and Rogers, but they cranked out B westerns at the same breakneck pace and had their own equine stars. And they were big. Tom Mix and Tony share a cement square at Grauman's Chinese Theater, which preserves their bootprints and hoofprints.

Fred Thomson, second to Rin Tin Tin as the biggest box office star of 1926, had Silver King, whose career lasted longer than Thomson's did. Of Silver King, director Al Rogell once said, "He did all of the work...everything in the early pictures -- the mouth work, the jumps, the chases, the falls, quick stops -- and could untie knots, lift bars, etc. He could wink one eye, nod his head yes or no, push a person with his head. Fred trained him to do certain things and expected him to perform them."

Animal Players
When all is said and done, probably the only thing we, human beings as a whole, like to watch more than animals is ourselves. And in many ways, animals are more interesting. There's a genuineness to animals that's shockingly scarce in people. Animals can act, yes, but on the whole they are being themselves, on camera or off, and there's something refreshing about that.

Still, despite animals remaining popular today, there's a big difference between the biggest animal stars today and 80 years ago. 80 years ago, film was a new form of entertainment, and audiences were still discovering what wonders it could capture. Want to see a cute little movie about a cute little dog that catches the badguys? Hey, if you'd never seen anything like that before, that probably sounds pretty intriguing.

Today, we are inundated with reworkings of the formula, and what we don't get on film, we get on television. Children's entertainment in particular is overrun with animals doing tricks and catching badguys. Meanwhile, over on the Discovery channel, we can watch the real things, animals being animals in their natural habitats. There's not as much call for the same kind of star performances from animals in the movies, and when they do get made, they tend to be made poorly and ignored outside of their niche audiences. Well, there's no mystery left to making them. Everybody knows how to do it, so they crank through the formula, and the lack of enthsiasm shows through.

But it's interesting to back to older movies about animals, made back when the filmmakers themselves understood and probably shared the fascination and weren't working with such an awareness of all that has come before. Because animals remain, in and of themselves, fascinating to most of us. Movies don't have to make them fascinating for us. They just have to capture what's already there.

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