Movie Dogs: The Canines that Stole Our Hearts

From Toto to Rin Tin Tin, Lassie to Beethoven, Hooch to Marley, dogs have taken starring roles, entertaining us and raking in hundreds of millions of dollars while at the same time propelling the popularity of specific breeds of dogs. From old black and white films to modern animated and CGI films featuring dogs, canines seem to have been destined to hit the silver screen and television screens. Dogs’ connection with humans is such that Hollywood continues to humanize them, pitting them as co-stars and in leading roles – a trend that continues today. 

The following are significant films featuring dogs, dating back to the first decade of motion pictures.

The First Canine Movie Star

Rescued by Rover is a British short silent film that came out in 1905 when motion pictures had only been relevant for about a decade and is credited as being the first film produced with a dog as a major plot element. The movie is about a dog that leads its master to a kidnapped baby. 

The film was written by Margaret Hepworth, whose family dog, Blair, starred as Rover in the short. Interestingly, this was England’s first major fiction film. Roughly 400 prints of the film were sold at 8 pounds each, which in today’s value would be around $1,050.

Rin Tin Tin

Another early canine star of the silver screen, Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd that landed his first role, as a wolf, in The Man from Hell’s River, which was released in 1922. The silent film was a drama based in Canada and featured Rin Tin Tin as a hero to one of the main characters. 

Rin Tin Tin’s first starring role came the following year in Where the North Begins, a silent film released in 1923. The story involves Rin Tin Tin being adopted by a wolf pack in northern Canada. He eventually becomes friends with a French fur trapper and gets involved in a series of events involving a villainous trading post manager. With a budget of $73,000, the film grossed $441,000.

  • Rin Tin Tin Legacy
    The original Rin Tin Tin was featured in 17 Hollywood productions through 1931. Rin Tin Tin Jr. carried on the legacy, starring in 14 productions from 1932 to 1939. Rin Tin Tin III starred alongside Robert Blake in 1947’s The Return of Rin Tin Tin. An ABC television series called The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin ran from 1954 to 1959.
  • Rin Tin Tin Fun Facts
    Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd from France, rescued as a puppy from a World War I battlefield by Lee Duncan, an American soldier serving in the 135
    th Aero Squadron. The soldiers made Rin Tin Tin their mascot. Duncan trained his puppy following the war and sought out silent film work. When the beloved canine “actor” passed away in 1932, networks interrupted programming to announce his death. His body was returned to France where he was buried in a pet cemetery.

Lassie

Lassie Come Home starred a collie named Pal and was released in 1943. This first in a series of films and television programs featuring Lassie was about a family that had fallen on hard times and were forced to sell their dog, Lassie, who was particularly attached to a young son, Joe, played by Roddy McDowall. The film features Lassie embarking on long and dangerous journeys trying to find her way back to Joe.

The average Hollywood film in the 1940s cost around $400,000 to make but producers spent an estimated $666,000 on Lassie Come Home. Fortunately, the extra hefty budget paid off, as the box office receipts totaled $4.5 million.

  • Lassie Legacy: Pal starred as Lassie in seven films, from 1943 to 1951. Some notable co-stars include Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, and Janet Leigh. Lassie was also featured in a television series that ran from 1954 to 1974. The New Lassie, a Canadian-produced series, aired from 1989 to 1991. The Animal Planet network ran yet another television series featuring Lassie from 1997 – 1999. The latest Lassie film, an adventure comedy-drama based on the 1940 novel Lassie Come-Home, was released in 2005 and grossed $6.4 million at the box office.
  • Lassie Fun Facts:
    While Lassie’s character was female, the role throughout the years has gone to male collies, most of whom were descendants of Pal, who starred in the popular movie in 1943. Pal, who resided in Hollywood, California, lived to the ripe old age of 18. His owner, Rudd Weatherwax, had an extremely tight bond with Pal and was reported to have slipped in and out of depression following Pal’s death, and he never watched another Lassie film.

Toto

While Judy Garland stole the show in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, a close second was the Cairn Terrier called Toto. This musical fantasy film follows the adventures of Dorothy in the Land of Oz where she, Toto, and a trio of misfits embark on the Yellow Brick Road to help her find her way home. 

With a production budget of $2.7 million, plus money spent on promotion and distribution, the initial box office gross of around $3 million meant the studio lost more than $1 million on the film. But with other domestic and international releases in the years since, the film has grossed nearly $30 million.

  • Toto’s Legacy
    A low-budget children’s film called The Wonderful Land of Oz appeared in 1969, but the 1985 film titled Return to Oz picked up more traction with Fairuza Balk starring as Dorothy, and Tansy, a border terrier, as Toto. The director had apparently seen 50 dogs before choosing Tansy. 
  • Toto Fun Facts
    Terry, a female Cairn Terrier, won the role as Toto in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. Terry was later officially named Toto. Her owner, Carl Spitz, did an exceptional job training Toto for film work (often using hand signals to direct her) and was cast in the film based on previous work. An actor playing a soldier of one of the wicked witches accidentally stepped on Terry during filming, putting her out of commission for about three weeks, during which time a double was used.

Beethoven

While Stephen King’s Cujo captivated horror movie fans, it didn’t do a lot for the title character’s breed, the Saint Bernard. However, nine years later came the release of Beethoven, starring Charles Grodin and Chris, a loveable, if not troublesome, Saint Bernard. The film is about a group of puppies stolen from a pet store, but one of the puppies, soon-to-be-named Beethoven, escapes and finds its way into a home and becomes a member of the family. While there are plenty of comedic antics to begin with, the plot takes a turn when a dog-napping veterinarian and his associates try to break up the family.

The film, released on April 3, 1992, was a massive hit, raking in $147 million at the box office. It earned the Humane Society of the United States’ best feature film in 1993. A sequel released the following year was also a huge hit, raking in $118 million.

  • Beethoven’s Legacy
    Given the huge success of the first film, a second was released in 1993 titled Beethoven’s 2
    nd. A third followed in 2000, aptly titled Beethoven’s 3rd, followed by Beethoven’s 4th in 2001. Beethoven’s 5th was released in 2003, followed by Beethoven’s Big Break in 2008. Beethoven’s Christmas Adventure was released in 20011 and in 2014, Beethoven’s Treasure Tail came out in 2014.
  • Beethoven Fun Fact
    A 200-pound St. Bernard named Chris played Beethoven in the 1992 movie. Chris’s trainer also worked with a St. Bernard in the Stephen King novel-adapted movie Cujo. Given the popularity of the first Beethoven movie, and even though Chris is depicted as a rambunctious character that gets into a lot of trouble, the breed gained a great deal of popularity due to the movies.

Marley

Film stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston were a huge draw for the 2008 movie Marley & Me, but a Labrador retriever stole the show. This 2008 comedy-drama is about newlyweds who adopt a dog who requires some obedience training. Marley’s misadventures end up being the subject of one of the character’s newspaper columns. As the newlyweds build their family and change careers, Marley is a fixture in the plot until the tear-jerking end.

One of the highest-grossing with a dog as a prominent member of the cast, Marley & Me pulled in $247 million. Opening on Dec. 25 and grossing $14.75 million on its first day, it set a Christmas Day box office record.

  • Marley’s Legacy
    While the arc of the story doesn’t leave much room for a prequel and definitely not a sequel, the enduring effect of this dog’s time in the limelight is, as the film’s dog trainer said, “everybody has to deal with their own mortality. Dogs make us do that.”
  • Marley Fun Facts
    Because the film depicts the full life of the dog, from a puppy to age 14, the production company used 22 different labs to play the part of Marley. 

Hooch

Tom Hanks, one of the most beloved American actors of all time, starred opposite a Dogue de Bordeaux, or French mastiff, named Beasley in 1989’s Turner & Hooch. The movie features Hanks’ character as a police investigator and Hooch becomes at first an unwelcome house guest, but then becomes an apt partner that helps Hanks’ character find a murderer.

With a fairly meager $13 million budget, Hooch scored with fans at the box office where the movie raked in $71 million.

  • Hooch’s Legacy
    In 2021, the idea behind the original movie was revitalized into a television series and it aired on the Disney network. Producers found five different dogs, the same breed as the original Hooch, to play the role of Hooch in the series. Twelve episodes were produced, the last of which came out in October 2021. Unfortunately, the series was canceled after one season.
  • Hooch Fun Facts
    Although the film preceded Hanks’ huge box office hits, such as Forrest Gump, The Da Vinci Code, and Toy Story, it still ranks as one of his top 25 films for some critics. Rather than enjoying prolonged success, Beasley was a “one and done” actor. Even though he outlived the average French mastiff by roughly six years, Beasley never worked in Hollywood again.

The New Breed of Cinema

Those are the classics, but we’re seeing a new crop of entertaining programming featuring canines today, such as Clifford the Big Red Dog, the 2021 film featuring the children’s book title character created by Norman Bridwell, who first published a book about Clifford in 1963 and kept them coming until 1999. This latest movie release follows Clifford’s Really Big Movie, which came out in 2004.

In animated cinema, the DC League of Super-Pets makes its debut in March. When Superman is kidnapped, his superpower-equipped dog, Krypto, wrangles a gang of shelter pets to help him with the rescue mission. This film features the voices of such Hollywood A-Listers as Kevin Hart, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Keanu Reeves.

Another recent Hollywood development is the February 2022 release of Dog starring Channing Tatum. This film features Lulu, a Belgian Malinois, who is a former Army Ranger, who along with Tatum’s character, both of them somewhat broken by life experiences, embark on a Pacific Coast road trip and along the way, find their way to happiness.

At PetSoothe, we’re animal lovers and embrace all films with canine co-stars. We’re also committed to doing everything we can to improve the lives of pets, even the ones that aren’t Hollywood stars, which is why we developed CBD dog treats that promote well-being. See what our customers have to say about our products here.

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