From Rin Tin Tin and Old Yeller to Frazier's Eddie, dogs occupy a special place in American movie and television history. Their breeding and training is a multi-million dollar industry in its own right. Getting the right dog for the part can make the difference between a film or show succeeding or being a disastrously expensive flop. Rin Tin Tin is credited with single handedly, or four-pawedly, saving Warner Brothers Studios from bankruptcy. Dogs are as important as any human stars to the Hollywood machine in that respect and they are treated accordingly.
A dog on the screen will instantly focus the attention of viewers. Almost anyone can empathize with a dog. A dull film can be enlivened, poor acting can be eclipsed by canine appeal, and a bad script has no effect on a dog that just does what comes naturally.
The kind of roles that dogs have played in Hollywood films and American television express something of the place of the dog in popular imagination. In the early films that featured dogs the scene is always a rural one. These films are almost an off-shoot of the Western movie and contain many of the same themes.
Dogs like Rin Tin Tin, Old Yeller and Lassie express what philosophers and theologians have often regarded as the permanent things of human morality. They embody the virtues of loyalty, devotion, love, justice, bravery and self-sacrifice which are so often absent in modern society. They seem to take the viewer back to simpler time when these values were upheld.
A more knowing audience raised on horror films and choreographed violence was thought to be immune to the charms of the "dog movie." When Joe Camp pitched the idea of a film with a dog as the main character the studios dismissed his idea. It would never work they told him. Today's audiences just would not buy it.
So instead he made his film "Benjii" himself. It was a reshaping of the old theme with an edgier, urban dog who is rescued from an animal shelter. This lovable cross breed spoke to the issues of a more troubles society. The film became huge success. Benjii went on to stardom and the backers reaped a fortune out of merchandising "Benjii" toys.
With Eddie the canine character in the television show "Frazier" we see another take on the movie dog. Frazier the sophisticated pyschiatrist is brought back to the old verities of home and family loyalty by the little terrier. The dog acts a foil silently critiquing the behaviour of the urbane intellectual. His pomposities are punctured and his humanity is revealed in his relationship with the dog.
Doubtless the "dog movie" will morph into to further manifestations of the genre in the future. Hollywood knows when it is on to a moneyspinner.