Silents are Golden: Animal Stars of the Silent Era
The silent era boasted an incredible number of stars, from sweet ingenue types to “grotesque” comedians to dashing heroes. But not all stars were flappers or sheiks–some were furry and even came on four legs. I’m talking about the animal stars, of course–and there were quite a few of them!
Performing animals showed up on film almost as soon as film was invented. One example is the British Kinetoscope short Performing Animals; or, Skipping Dogs (1895). The Boxing Kangaroo (1896) is another tiny film, showing a trained kangaroo boxing with a small boy (truly, you never knew what you’d find in a Kinetoscope).
A very popular early short was Rescued by Rover (1905), another British work. Made by early directors Cecil Hepworth and Lewin Fitzhamon, it “starred” the Hepworth’s family collie, Blair. The film showed Blair racing to rescue a kidnapped baby from a cruel beggar woman. The film was so popular that the original negatives kept wearing out, so it had to be reshot twice. Blair the collie has since been recognized as the very first animal star.
He would be followed by a whole zoo’s worth of furry and feathery performers. One of the earliest is Jean the Vitagraph Dog, a black and white collie. Getting her “big break” in 1910, Jean proved to be such a well-trained performer that Vitagraph made her the star of many light comedies and dramas, such as Jean the Match-Maker (1910) and Jean Intervenes (1912). She also appeared alongside John Bunny and Florence Turner. Shep the Thanhouser collie was worked from 1913 until 1915, when he passed away from an illness. He was so well-trained that it was said directors rarely had to retake his scenes.
An early canine “hero” was the German shepherd Strongheart, owned by the same director who had trained Jean the Vitagraph Dog. The star of a number of adventure stories, Strongheart also helped popularize the German shepherd breed in the U.S. He was soon rivaled by the most popular dog star of them all, Rin Tin Tin, who Variety called “the Fairbanks, Mix, and Barrymore of the canine world”. Found as a puppy in a bombed-out kennel in France during WWI, Rin Tin Tin would compete at dog shows and eventually be put into the movies. His films likely saved the Warner Bros. studio from bankruptcy.
On the silent comedy side, there was little Brownie the Wonder Dog, who would co-star with Baby Peggy in the early 1920s. The Keystone Film Company had Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s dog, Luke, a fearless Staffordshire bull terrier who loved chase scenes could climb ladders, and could even jump from one rooftop to another. Luke showed up in a number of 1910s Keystones (often chasing Al St. John) and much of Arbuckle’s subsequent Comique series. He would also make a cameo in Buster Keaton’s short The Scarecrow (1920).
The most famous Keystone canine was Teddy, a gentle Great Dane who appeared in dozens of shorts between 1915 and 1924, plus parts in films like Mary Pickford’s Stella Maris (1918). Called “Keystone Teddy” or “Teddy the Wonder Dog,” he’s said to have been paid $350 a week.
Of course, dogs weren’t the only performers in Hollywoodland. The chimpanzees Napoleon & Sally were a mid-1910s comedy duo who were featured in one-reel shorts. The two were usually dressed in little outfits and mimicked housekeeping and other human-like behavior. Their offspring was a female named Snookums, who would also go on to perform in comedies. Billed as the male Snooky the Humanzee, she was talented enough to star in her own 1920s series. (Yes, in silent comedy even chimpanzees sometimes performed in drag!)
Not to be outdone, in the 1920s Fox had a trio of performing monkeys named Max, Moritz and Pep. They were dubbed, appropriately enough, the Fox Monkeys, and their human costars included Jean Arthur and Jack Duffy. And one exceptionally talented little Capuchin monkey was named Josephine, who even had an expressive face. She’s probably the most famous for appearing alongside Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928).
Along with Teddy, Mack Sennett also had Pepper, a dark gray cat who was said to have been born underneath a Keystone soundstage. She showed up in shorts like The Kitchen Lady (1918) and Bow Wow (1922), both starring Louise Fazenda. Waddles the Duck also had his heyday on the Sennett lot, and eventually retired to live in Fazenda’s backyard. Anna May the Elephant showed up in several shorts, such as Remember When (1925) starring Harry Langdon. And thanks to a silent comedy trend of having bears wander into the action, Bruno the Bear and Cubby the Bear were also regular players in Sennett’s comedies.
Century Comedies was practically a zoo, boasting not only the orangutan couple Mr. & Mrs. Joe Martin, but Queenie the horse, Charlie the elephant, dogs Brownie and Pal, and even some trained lions. Lions being tussled with or popping up at inopportune times were also big trends in silent comedy, and Century delivered on a whole slew of films like Daring Lions and Dizzy Lovers (1919) and Lion Paws and Lady Fingers (1920).
Perhaps the most surreal use of animal stars was in Hal Roach’s short-lived series the Dippy-Doo-Dad Comedies. Often set in rural or western locations, they featured pretty straightforward stories but with the bizarre twist of having an all-animal cast in little outfits. Played by trained dogs, ducks, monkeys (including Josephine), and what have you, the series was silent comedy’s take on an alternative universe.
We can’t cover silent era animal stars without a couple nods to its equestrian stars. Rex, a frankly ferocious Morgan stallion, starred in 1920s adventure serials and kept going throughout the 1930s, too–despite any actors being nervous to work with him. And Tom Mix’s trusty “wonder horse” Tony was a familiar sight to many fans of westerns.
With the love of cute, funny, and talented animals being just as strong back in the early 20th century as it is today, it’s not surprising that directors used them to jazz up so many films. (And, admittedly, it probably helped that animal stars couldn’t complain about their salaries.) When we look back on the legacy of cinema, let’s not forget that it’s all because of the hard work of men, women…and our four-legged friends.
Steve Massa’s book Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedywas very helpful in researching this article, as was the book chapter “The Dogs Who Saved Hollywood: Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin” by Kathryn Fuller-Seely and Jeremy Groskopf, excerpted from the 2014 book Cinematic Canines (the chapter can be read here).
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterlyand has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.