I wrote a little piece for The Guardian’s Film Blog “Clip Joint” series, which went up online yesterday. As it was only a small article, and my ramblings about dogs and films have a tendency to run on, they did some sensible editing. If you’re interested in the full text, you can see all of the meandering nonsense after the jump.
The Greatest Canine Companions on film
Cinema has long had a great affection for dogs. The tale of Beautiful Joe, an abused rescue dog, captured the imagination of the U.S. public in the 1890s. Characters such as Rin Tin Tin, Old Yeller, Lassie and Benji then made the dog as heroic-lead a staple of cinema. However, adding a supporting canine actor to a film can often turn a potentially unsympathetic character into someone the audience will root for, add a sense of peril to an otherwise bland plot or provide some comedy relief. Dogs can be the ultimate addition to an all-human cast, and offer a way out of the writer’s dilemma of how to flesh out a character who spends a lot of time alone. With that in mind, here are a few of the best supporting dog actors on film.
Baxter- Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy is brash, self-obsessed and self-important, but his relationship with his dog companion Baxter sheds a whole new light on the TV news reporter. Introducing us to the concept of bilingual dogs and “glass cases of emotion”, Baxter shows Ron does indeed have a heart.
Toto- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The archetypal dog companion, little Cairn terrier Toto provided Dorothy’s link to the real world in this MGM classic. Canine star, Terry, was famously paid more per week than many of the human characters, a hefty $125 per week.
Nanook- The Lost Boys (1987)
The Lost Boys’ Siberian husky Nanook fulfils a classic role for the dog in a horror film- the guardian. You know you’ll be safe with a dog around, and Nanook’s ferocious attack on previous owner Michael (now a vampire) shows just how useful canine instincts are for film-makers in both saving characters and highlighting peril.
Sam- I am Legend (2007)
The 2007 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend” starring Will Smith did not get the best critical reception, and some of the changes to the story angered fans of the book. However the expansion of a dog featured in the book helped fulfil a knotty narrative issue- how do you make a character who has no-one to interact with connect with the audience? The film-makers then took this one step further and gave us a harrowing, but inevitable, end for poor Sam.
[For those concerned about the fate of fictional dogs there is a handy website: http://www.doesthedogdie.com/]
Dug- Up! (2009)
Dug represents pure cinematic canine joy. Yes, he’s animated, but it’s clear the folk at Pixar know dogs extremely well. A rotund, permanently panting Golden Retriever, Dug had been given a collar which allowed him to express his inner doggy thoughts in real human words. These conversations echo those that dog owners all over the world have long imagined having with their real-life dogs, and has enshrined the phrase “cone of shame” in the popular lexicon.
Honorable mention goes to…
Verdell- As Good as it Gets (1997)
Jack Nicholson plays curmudgeonly obsessive-compulsive writer Melvin Udall, a man who has retreated so far into his own world that he no longer remembers how to interact with others. Until an accident leads him to being caretaker for his neighbour’s little dog Verdell. Melvin finds his barriers being broken down, and his bond with the little scruffy dog leads to him opening himself to more experiences.