In nearly every industry, working people are losing their jobs to machines. Uber drivers are being replaced by automated cars. Travel agents have been eclipsed by online algorithms. And let’s not forget to pour one out for the telephone switchboard operators of years past.
It seems the animal acting community is being hit with a similar fate with this week’s release of Call of the Wild. The doggy sidekick to Harrison Ford’s starring turn is a pure CGI creation. While we could marvel at the technological advances or shortcomings, this week our Shelfers are instead choosing to celebrate their favorite canines on screen by answering the question:
Who is the goodest dog on screen?
The Awful Truth
Sometimes the classics are the best, even where cinematic canines are concerned. From a memorable duet with Cary Grant to playing fetch the fedora with Irene Dunne to an hilarious puppy custody court case, this rambunctious little guy set the bar high for every dog that came after. (If the wire terrier seems familiar, that’s because he probably is. He also appeared on screen as the famous Asta in The Thin Man series and as George in Bringing Up Baby, once again with Cary Grant.) – Emma Badame
Mad About You
When this question was posed to the Shelf team, it occurred to me that there’s no shortage of movie dogs to choose from. Too many, in fact. From Beethoven to Benji, Air Bud, Hooch, Charlie B. Barkin and every pooch in between, big screen good boys or girls have been barking their way into our hearts since nearly the dawn cinema. How could I choose? But what about their small screen counterparts?
There have been plenty of famous TV dogs over the years, but they’re not nearly as plentiful in 2020 as they were in the golden age of the network sitcom. Family sitcoms in particular almost always featured a four-legged regular or frequent guest star, a talented dog performer who could help land a joke with a goofy reaction shot or well-timed bark. A recent favourite fictional furball of mine is Murray from NBC’s Mad About You, a show I mostly missed during its original run but am now enjoying for the first time thanks to streaming.
Sure, Murray might not have the raw charisma of Eddie from Frasier or the slobbery appeal of Digby from Doghouse, but damn it the loveable collie mix was a scene-stealing star who could always hold his own against the talents of Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, even after she won her Oscar. But what made this doggo a real standout wasn’t his comedic chops, it was just how much a part of the show he was. The first four or five seasons of Mad About You could well have been called Mad About Murray, for while Paul and Jamie Buchman have their ups and downs like any couple real or imagined, their shared love of ol’ Murray always brought them together.
Like most of your favourite on screen dogs, Maui, the real-life pooch who portrayed the Buchman’s canine companion, is almost certainly dead now. As for the character Murray, he was unceremoniously killed offscreen before the series finale of Mad About You‘s original run. Off to chase the great invisible mouse in the sky, no doubt. – Will Perkins
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
In a film filled with A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, a pit-bull stole Once Upon a Time in Hollywood out from under every star in Quentin Tarantino’s latest. Brandy (Suraya) is introduced when Cliff waltzes into his trailer, ready to feed his loyal companion a variety of wet and dry dog food, but, first, she has to sit quietly still as he prepares her feast. The camera lingers on Brandy as she licks her chops, studying her features intently as her gelatinous food slides noisily into her food dish. She waits patiently and is rewarded with a bowl of goodness. It’s not a terribly long scene, but in that short time, Brandy becomes an audience favorite with each grunt and enthusiastic tail wag. Later, when Cliff and Brandy’s dinner routine is interrupted by Manson’s lackeys breaking into Rick’s house, the bond between dog and owner is put on display. Brandy and Cliff dispatch with the intruders in horrific fashion, ensuring Rick and his new bride are safe. As Cliff heads toward the hospital, Rick parts with his friend by saying, “You’re a good friend, Cliff.” And Brandy is a very good dog. – Colin Biggs
Heart of a Dog
Laurie Anderson defies categorization with her shape-shifter Heart of a Dog. Anderson does for dogs what Chris Marker does for cats with this poetic essay. Heart of a Dog evokes Marker’s Sans Soleil with its playful layering and philosophical musings as Anderson eulogizes her late terrier Lolabelle (and her late husband, musician Lou Reed). Please keep in mind, though, that this film is by an artist who literally performed a concert that only dogs could hear. It’s an eccentric tale that operates on the brain wave that animal lovers share.
Heart of a Dog is a formally ambitious and ingeniously layered meditation on love and loss. Anderson draws on home movies, surveillance videos, archives, drawings, and poetry to bid adieu to her canine companion in a humorous send-off that meditates on collective loss in a post-9/11 world. This intimate rumination is a must-see for anyone who has had to say farewell to a four-legged friend – or anyone who dares to be different. – Pat Mullen