Over the years there has been much debate over the inclusion and treatment of animals in Hollywood, fighting years of animal abuse claims. Despite this, some of the most credible and iconic films to date, see an animal take centre stage. From Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to the Wizard of Oz; Hollywood’s fascination with animals started in the early 1920s but continued for decades before the development of CGI and special effects.
From dogs to cats, chimpanzees to dolphins; animals were the stars of the Silver Screen. With three animals earning their own spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, several animal ‘movie stars’ were undoubtedly Oscar worthy. Animal lover and trainer, John Peter, praises animal actors for their talent, not ignoring the controversial abuse claims, “Animals are in fact hugely talented. Trained in the correct way, they can do amazing things and they are indefinitely stars of the Golden Age.”
In Hollywood there are few dogs as famous as Lassie, appearing in an astonishing 11 movies, spanning the early 1940s to 2005. The original Lassie, played by a dog named Pal, featured in seven feature films until 1951, when Pal’s descendants played the future roles and iterations of Lassie thereafter. Pal was chosen out of 1500 canine auditions to play the starring role in the film adaptation of the book, Lassie Come Home. With a further six other feature films, Pal became a household star in his own right.
When looking at animals on the big screen, it is essential to acknowledge Rin Tin, the German Shepherd who went on to become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars in the early days of Tinseltown; starring in a credible 27 films before his death in 1932. Similarly to Pal, Rin Tin’s descendants continued his legacy appearing in numerous films throughout the 1930s with another feature film, Return of Rin Tin Tin, and a renowned TV series that ran from 1954 until 1959.
The inaugural Academy Awards took place in 1929, two years after Rin Tin released an astounding four films in one year. The talented canine star received the most votes for Best Actor, with 39 votes. Despite the award going to human actor, Emil Jannings for The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh.
The iconic 1939 Hollywood classic, the Wizard of Oz, not only made viewers swoon over Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, but also saw viewers yearn for a courageous canine sidekick, Toto. Played by Terry, a Cairn Terrier, Toto remained one of the unsung heroes of the film. With an impressive resume of 18 films, Terry is one of the most prolific dog actors of all time. Terry was coached by renowned training legend, Carl Spitz, whose innovative training technique of silent hand movements to guide and direct dogs on set became recognised. Spitz started the Hollywood Dog Training School in 1927, which still exists today.
Judy Garland’s furry co-star, earned a lucrative salary of $125 a week, which back in the Golden Age was seen as a very competitive and well-paid salary (earning more than the Munchkins). On the set of The Wizard of Oz, long before CGI, Terry the Terrier did all her own stunts including; fighting, chasing a witch, catching an apple, sitting up and speaking on demand. Terry also took an immediate liking to Judy Garland, living with the iconic actress for two weeks prior to production.
Garland bonded instantly with Terry, often trying to buy the furry co-star from Spitz. The bond between Terry and Judy Garland was clear to see, often displaying how a physical connection shows a stronger bond on screen. Videographer, Olu Renwick discusses how working with real animals often benefits the actors and their relationship conveyed, “people act better with a real animal stand in as they can look them in the eye and bounce of their reaction, especially when they have a good bond with the animal like Judy Garland and Terry did.”
A Spotlight favourite, and Golden Age Classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, saw a feline take centre stage. After years of popular talented canines, Orangey the ginger feline starred alongside Audrey Hepburn in undoubtedly one of the most iconic films of all time.
Orangey is regarded for his ability to stay in position for hours at a time. The feline film star had a prolific career in both film and TV during the 1950s and 1960s, being the only cat to acquire two Patsy Awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year, an animal actor’s equivalent of an Oscar) for his roles in Rhubarb, 1951, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961. Unlike Toto, Orangey had several stunt doubles as it is reported cats are notoriously hard to train.
Animal lover, Audrey Hepburn, is reported to have voiced her distaste at the penultimate scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as she described casting Cat outside into the pouring rain as one of the most distasteful things in her career.
The Golden Age saw a variety of animal stars, with iconic Hollywood films often featuring a furry co-star. Despite the negative accusations, animals were often prized in the film industry, with some receiving Academy Award nominations and others earning more than human actors. There is no doubt that animals ruled the big screen in old Hollywood.