Paw Prints on the Silver Screen

by Lily Hoagland

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“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read,” quipped Groucho Marx. The favorable relationship between dogs and actors makes sense, given all the traits they have in common: their desire for your attention, their ability to perform on command, and their knowing exactly how to tilt their head so you’ll forgive whatever mess they made.

America’s silver-screen canines experienced a heyday during Hollywood’s golden age. After the success of Rin Tin Tin—one of the rare characters who survived the transition from silent films to “talkies”—movie studios loved having dogs in pictures. Dogs would attract a larger family audience and didn’t cause the kinds of problems during filming that their coddled human counterparts could. Lassie never sat in a trailer popping pills and refusing to come to set until she felt “inspired.”

Additionally, dogs had a transformative power for a star’s image. A playboy with a few too many scandal-ridden headlines could be made to look wholesome when captured frolicking with a Cocker Spaniel. A lonesome tough guy from the screen would suddenly seem like sensitive father material when shown goofing around with a terrier puppy. Dogs generated good public relations by automatically lending their affability to the people pictured with them.

A new book, Hollywood Dogs (ACC Editions), showcases hundreds of photographs of stars from the 1920s through the ’50s with either their canine co-stars or personal pooches. From Jean Harlow cuddling her Pomeranian, Oscar, to Bing Crosby hamming it up with a terrier named Buttons to publicize their feature, The Emperor’s Waltz, these pictures are a great juxtaposition of glamour and humanity.

While this collection is from half a century ago, rest assured that America’s love of dogs in film is still going strong. At the Vanity Fair party following the White House Correspondent’s Dinner a couple years ago, the biggest star was neither the Hollywood power players or any of the big shots of politics; it was Uggie, the dog from that year’s big Oscar winner, The Artist. The impressive former Secretary of State and four-star General Colin Powell was delighted to have his picture taken with Uggie, going so far as to giggle as he held the dog—thus proving that man’s best friend can make even the most formidable melt.