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Top 10 Dog Movies (pre 1970 Classics)

Updated on June 22, 2011

Top 10 Classic Movies to 1970

The current success of Marley and me at the box office illustrates the power of the dog. From the earliest movies to the present day, a canine companion can improve the rating. The human actors may fail to come up to speed and the plot may sicken, but the dog can save the movie from falling into oblivion.

This includes not only overnight but over time. Rin Tin Tin, for example, not only saved Warner Brothers Studios from bankruptcy, he also salvaged many a mediocre movie. The same can be said for other all time great dog actors, including Strongheart, Lassie and Benji.
Some of the major dog classic movies focus on the dog and his or her relationship to one person, frequently a child. This is particularly true of the first top 2 of this list.

(c) Maigi at Dreamstime.com
(c) Maigi at Dreamstime.com

1. Lassie Come Home (1943)

The stars of this picture included Roddy MacDowell (Joe Carraclough) as a young Yorkshire boy and Elizabeth Taylor (Priscilla), a partner in the dog’s escape from the new owners. Yet, the entire plot revolves around Lassie, played by the original, Pal.

The plot is a simple one. The Carraclough family have fallen on hard times. They sell Lassie to the wealthy Duke of Rudling. He has always admired the beautiful collie but finds himself at a loss. Lassie will have nothing to do with the Duke. She continues to escape and run back to Joe. In a desperate ploy, the Duke removes with the dog to his castle in Scotland.

There, with the help of the Duke’s sympathetic granddaughter, Priscilla, Lassie escapes. Thus begins the treacherous cross-country trek home to Joe. This makes up the rest of the movie and allows Pal to go through his paces under the direction of his trainer, Rudd Weatherwax.

2. Old Yeller (1957)

Old Yeller is the original tear-jerker for dog lovers - in both its book form and movie. If you want a good cry, this movie is a must. The setting is Texas during the late 19th century. The father is away on a cattle drive when a scruffy yeller dog arrives at the Coat’s family ranch.

The two boys, Travis and Arliss eventually take in the dog and keep him as their own. When the original owner, played by Chuck Norris, arrives, he trades the dog for a horned toad and a meal cooked by Mrs. Coats. He has realized the importance of Old Yeller to the family.

The dog is played to great effect by Spike. Spike was an awkward pup saved from the Van Nuys Animal Shelter. His rescuer and trainer was Frank Weatherwax, brother and partner to Rudd Weatherwax, trainer of Lassie. He auditioned Spike for the role. Role got it and, as the old cliché says, the rest is motion picture history.

3. The Lone Defender (1933/1934)

The star of this serial and later movie was indisputably Rin Tin Tin. This was the original “Rinty,” not one of his sons. An accomplished actor by this time, Rin Tin Tin provides the most polished performance. It was, after all, a serial, full of action and cliff hanger endings before being shaped into a movie.

The scene is the wild west during the gold rush. Rinty is the sole witness to the fruitless murder of his master, Juan Valdez, by the Cactus Gang. They were trying to force the location of Juan’s gold mine from him. Now, only Rin Tin Tin knows where the mine is. Can he help the beautiful daughter of Juan Valdez claim it rightfully while successfully evading the evil clutches of the Cactus Gang?

(c) Maufdi at Flickr.com
(c) Maufdi at Flickr.com

4. Wizard of Oz (1939)

Where indeed would this movie about a child’s longing to first escape from then return home be without Toto. Sure, Toto did not sing or dance, like Dorothy (Judy Garland), but he was the perfect foil for her and such characters as the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow.

Toto was also the plot initiator. Without Toto, there would have been no desire to run away to Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West would not have existed or needed to. It is also Toto who uncovers the fraudulent behavior of the Wizard. To a great extent, Toto is the connection between the earthbound world of Kansas and the other world of Oz.

The role of Toto belongs to Terry, a Blue Cairn Terrier. She earned $125 each week, more than most of her human counterparts. Terry, a female, went on to play many other memorable roles, but she is best known for Toto.

7. Lady and the Tramp (1955)

A Walt Disney animated endeavor, this movie is a pleasure to watch. It is a simple love story between two dogs from different worlds. Lady is a purebred dog, an aristocrat. She is very conscious of her being an American Cocker Spaniel. Tramp, on the other hand, is a rough, carefree streetwise dog. He is the bane of the dogcatcher. Not only does he always escape the net, he is always freeing his friends from the van.

When Lady flees unhappily from her home, feeling abused by an aunt of the Darling’s and her two cats, she is lost and bewildered. When Tramp finds and helps here their friendship grows into something more. There are adventures, close calls and a romantic spaghetti dinner before the 2 find love and happiness.

5. The Awful Truth (1937)

This movie pits Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) against his soon-to-be-ex wife Lucy (Irene Dunne). The dialogue is smart, the comic timing, perfect. This is a romp with all characters standing out. This includes the family dog, Mr. Smith. The screwball comedy ends with the two fighting over the custody of Mr. Smith before ending on a traditional happy note.

The role of Mr. Smith is uncredited. The role, however, was actually played by the veteran dog actor “Skippy” also known as Asta. This was about Asta’s 6th movie role at the time. Like Lassie and Spike, Asta was a product of the Weatherwax family. This Fox Terrier was known for his roles in the Thin Man movies.

6. The Incredible Journey (1963)

The premise of this movie is not original except in one aspect. Instead of a single dog covering countless miles to reach home, this journey involves 2 dogs and a cat. All members of the same family, they set off to make their arduous way through the rough terrain of the Canadian wilderness to their family. Along the way, they meet nice people and villains and experience adventures together and alone.

The stars and protagonists of the film are Luath, a young Labrador Retriever, Tao, a Siamese cat and Bodger an elderly Bulldog. Luath is played by Rink, Sym Cat plays Tao and a female Muffy plays the male dog Bodger. The Incredible Journey was remade as Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey in 1993.

(c) shareski at flickr.com
(c) shareski at flickr.com

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101 Dalmations

8. 101 Dalmatians (1961)

This is another classic offering by Disney Studios. An animated movie, it is the story of a loving family, their owners and an evil woman, Cruella de Vil. Cruella has one major goal in life – to make a coat from Dalmatian puppies. This is not good news for Perdita and Pongo, let alone the 2 dog’s litter of puppies.

When the puppies disappear, Perdita and Pongo know who has them. When their owners are unable to find the litter, Perdita and Pongo set out to recover them and the other puppies now in the clutches of Cruella and her henchmen. They must do so before time runs out and Cruella gets her wish of a spotted coat.

9. The Shaggy Dog (1956)

In this comedy, Fred MacMurray plays Wilson Daniels, a mailman, whose son, Wilby, really wants a dog. His father cannot stand the animals. This leads to complications when Wilby reads a secret inscription on a silver ring and becomes a shaggy dog – an Old English Sheepdog.

His life then takes strange twists and turns as he changes from dog to human form and back again. Only an act of bravery may save Wilby/Chiffon from the curse of the Borgia ring and possible death.

The credits list the dog actor of this film only as Shaggy the Dog.

10. Danny Boy (1946)

This movie is a very different fare from the regular dog movie. While still a boy-and-his-dog film, the dog is a very different canine than those seen previously. Danny Boy is a war survivor. He is a highly decorated hero of the K-9 Corps. He is also suffering from shell shock. His owner, played by Buzzy Henry, is not even sure he can trust the animal. In fact, some one kidnaps Danny Boy, maltreats him until the dog escapes.

The journey home follows and revenge is wreaked on the villain. Danny boy almost suffers a deadly fate but, after an act of daring do is exonerated by justice.

The part of Danny boy is played by RKO’s so-called “Rin Tin wannabee.” This was the less even tempered German shepherd, Ace the Wonder dog. Perhaps not as renowned or talented as Rinty, Ace did cut a swathe through several B movies.

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    • CrittersMum1 profile image

      Trisha 

      5 years ago from Arizona

      Animal movies, especially those of dogs, have always been a classic comfort zone for young & old alike. Of course, no matter how many times we re-watch an animal movie, the danger parts stay real & we wait anxiously for the "good" save. Like last night I found nothing exceptional to watch on TV, so I tossed in an older VHS I have of "Homeward Bound" w/ the voices of the animals filled in by the late Don Ameche for "Shadow, aka Ben", Michael J. Fox for "Chance, aka Rattler", & Sally Field for Sassy, aka Tiki... I may be a senior, but not senile, however still love watching such movies, & found out, by accident, so do my dogs, especially my Serra, whose all time favorite is "Kavik". I can recall her getting so upset with her adopted canine brother, Stripe (1 stripe only up nose), for wanting to play while she was watching completely enthralled with the dog playing the lead. What was funny is Stripe could pass for a "stand-in" canine actor for the Kavik dog & Serra was totally trying to ignore Stripe's nudging to play. Anyway, we all climbed into my bed to watch "Homeward Bound" & I still found tears streaming down my face at the end , even if I have seen several times before, when "Shadow" came out of the woods limping to his young human & all the animals came home. If a human really loves their animals as family, they can appreciate the feeling. I have never had an animal who did not become family from the start. And I have never had an animal who did not consider other pets in my home as family either even if not related cause this home is made up of rescues who were dumped...

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