Susan Orlean’s quest for the truth about Rin Tin Tin
What Susan Orlean knew about Rin Tin Tin in 2005 wouldn’t fill a sticky note. What she learned when she embarked on a story about Hollywood animal stars and their trainers for The New Yorker magazine is now filling a book. Rin Tin Tin: His True Story sprang naturally from that assignment, says the New York–based writer, discussing how she happened onto her forthcoming “biography” of the canine actor. “It was kind of accidental—one of the better ways to get onto any project.”
As with her best-seller, The Orchid Thief, Orlean has a knack for bumping into good ideas. She is known for overturning the quiet little story that might have simmered away unnoticed—the obsessive subculture of orchid-collectors, how Americans spend their Saturday nights, the life of a female matador. She has also co-authored a cookbook for dogs. So what captured her interest in such a tried-and-true subject as a pop culture star with a fan club?
Orlean attributes it to the discovery, one surprise at a time, that her assumptions about Rin Tin Tin—whom she knew only from a ’50s kids’ show—were wrong. “I thought Rin Tin Tin was just a TV figure, and had no idea he was a real dog with a real life and a real history. Every bit of reporting I did continued to surprise me on that score.”
The heroic German Shepherd, who starred in 26 movies before his death in 1932, has become more enigmatic with the years. “There are many refuted histories of Rin Tin Tin, many versions of who and what he was,” she says. What didn’t vary, from the original dog to each of his successors, was “a fixation on the character as something almost magical.” Orlean recognized in his human entourage the same “monomania” she’d encountered in the plant enthusiasts she met while working on The Orchid Thief. She became intrigued by Rin Tin Tin’s magnetism, which inspired not only his handlers, but generations of admiring fans. Was it the animal himself, or something he represented, which was also embodied in his string of successors—perhaps the enduring loyalty of an intelligent canine?
So began her three-year quest to untangle his legacy.
Her subject’s almost one-hundred-year history kept Orlean busy traveling—but the travel was “through time more than through places,” she says. Hours spent sifting through archival material made this “a very different project for me,” says the author, who is known for her intensive, in-the-moment reporting. “I did a fair amount of historical research on Orchid Thief, but never in this concentration. The main source has been all the history, the records, all the notes—more than a person.”
Lucky for Orlean, Lee Duncan, the American serviceman who brought the original Rin Tin Tin home after World War I, kept lots of notes, including carbon copies of many of his letters. “I feel in my own way I’ve gotten to know him,” Orlean says. “All the flotsam and jetsam of his life.”
Duncan found Rin Tin Tin as a pup in 1918, in a bombed-out kennel in France. He named him after a puppet called Rin Tin Tin that French children gave to American soldiers for good luck. When the war ended, the pup returned home with him to Los Angeles, where Duncan later taught him tricks that included scaling a wall nearly 12 feet high. As the story goes, his owner believed he was destined for fame.
When Duncan’s protégé successfully filled in for an unwilling wolf in the 1922 movie The Man from Hell’s River, Hollywood producers took notice. The dark-hued Shepherd would be cast as a wolf or wolf-hybrid many times after that. With his starring role in the 1923 silent film Where the North Begins, “Rinty” earned a new nickname, “the mortgage lifter,” as he rescued Warner Brothers from bankruptcy.
From 1930 to 1955, his character was heard in three different radio series, beginning with The Wonder Dog, in which he performed his own sound effects. With his death, his son, Rin Tin Tin, Jr., took over, also appearing in several short films in the 1930s. In 1947, Rin Tin Tin III starred in The Return of Rin Tin Tin, while Duncan’s Rin Tin Tin IV appeared in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, an ABC television series that ran from 1954 to 1959.
His financial success inspired imitators from other studios. “There were dozens and dozens of German Shepherds making movies in the ’20s and ’30s,” Orlean says. This copycat trend reflected “the way people consumed culture from many fewer outlets back then.” Rin Tin Tin: His True Story will cover all of the dogs—every German Shepherd actor surrounding his legacy. “He was a “huge profit machine,” she notes.
The profits didn’t end with his death in 1932 at the age of 14. Nor did the colorful stories. Of the many colliding versions of his life’s events, Orlean finds the one about his death most striking. (One of the most-cited tales has the celebrity dog cradled in the arms of actress Jean Harlow.) “There are what seems like a million stories of how and where the original Rin Tin Tin died. They get quite dramatic and extreme, and the truth is probably much more ordinary.”
As one of the first canine actors, Rin Tin Tin was considered remarkable. By today’s standards, his skills might seem less so due to developments in training techniques that have led to more believable performances. However, in her book, Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger devotes a chapter to Rin Tin Tin that suggests otherwise: “The astonishing thing about watching Rin Tin Tin is that you begin to agree that this dog could act,” she writes.
But animal acting was hardly what it is today, with agencies in place and even a “Dog Actors Guild” with a database, searchable by breed, where those with aspiring canine actors post resumes. Another development is the American Humane Association’s involvement in monitoring the welfare of animals during the production of films and television programs. The AHA assumed this role in 1940 with the creation of its Film and Television Unit; acceptable movies and television programs now receive the “No animals were harmed” credit at the end.
The original Rin Tin Tin, though “hardly a model of breeding,” Orlean observes, was saved from genetic oblivion after the death of Lee Duncan in 1960. Earlier, endorsement, breeder Jannettia Brodsgaard had purchased several direct descendants from Duncan in an effort to maintain the line. After her death in 1988, her granddaughter continued the lineage at “El Rancho Rin Tin Tin” in Latexo, Texas.
Rin Tin Tin’s descendants are also trained as service dogs to assist special needs children. Ironically, the breed is being dropped by one major guide dog training school in favor of Retrievers, and has also been targeted in some places for breed bans for being “overly aggressive.” The Shepherd has “more connotations than many other breeds,” notes Orlean. These are, of course, undeserved stereotypes. But Orlean considers it all part of what makes Rin Tin Tin fascinating. “Collies are straightforward. They don’t have as many complexities as the German Shepherd.” And, she adds, “Labs don’t have that kind of history.”
As a child, she was obsessed with German Shepherds—“there was hardly a kid alive who didn’t want one.” But today, she says, “My taste in dogs has changed.” While we are talking by cell phone, her breed of choice bounds out of the bushes and frightens her. “It could’ve been a bear!” But in fact, it’s just a dog—Cooper, her handsome red-and-white Welsh Springer Spaniel.
Has Orlean managed to find the “true” story of Rin Tin Tin?
“I think the true story is that there is no true story, ever,” she says. “There is a story that I think is closest to what really happened, but I think much of what I’ve learned from working on this book, and much of what it’s about, is the frail and faulty nature of memory, and that truth isn’t an absolute.”
What endures is the ideal—and the longing.
“Rin Tin Tin was the ultimate in terms of embodying steadfastness, wisdom and devotion. That’s a pure emotion that people wouldn’t be able to embody, so he represents something even better than human.”
Your dog can be a star
In 2017, we will be celebrating our 20th anniversary, and to commemorate this milestone, we’re looking for special dogs to grace not only our anniversary issue, but every issue during that year. There’ll be a total of four winners.We’re seeking photogenic dogs with both special qualities and compelling stories—fun-loving, spirited, soulful.
The contest is open to all U.S. residents 18 years of age or older.*
To enter, upload
The first Cover Dog will appear on our 20th Anniversary issue, Spring 2017. Deadline for that issue’s entries is Nov. 15, 2016 (other deadlines posted on here at thebark.com/coverdog).
One entry per dog. You only need to enter once to be eligible for all four issues.
This is NOT a photo or writing contest. The winning dog will have a studio session with a leading dog photographer and that professional photo will appear on the cover of The Bark. The photo and essay that you submit will be used to help the judges select a perfect cover dog—one whose special Bark j’ai ne sais quoi stands out on the magazine cover.
Ready to enter? Go to the offical contest page at: thebark.com/coverdog
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Watch the video, read the story behind this joyful civil rights anthem
The economy? Foreign policy? Urgent matters, but they could wait. Speaking directly to his young daughters, Barack Obama discussed another topic early in his landmark election-night acceptance speech: “I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.”
The announcement is sure to have elated Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, who, as the nation knows, have long lobbied their parents for a dog. Obama, the first black man elected president of the United States, and his wife Michelle, recently revealed that the “First Puppy” will join the First Family once they’ve settled into the storied residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Uplifting news for dog aficionados across the political spectrum, revelations about the forthcoming canine addition to the Obama family hold special resonance for Bernard LaFayette, Jr. A distinguished scholar-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, LaFayette is also the co-writer of a famed civil rights anthem, “Dog Dog.”
Available on the 1990 release Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the tune (also known as “My Dog Loves Your Dog”) features these lyrics:
My dog a love a your dog and your dog a love a my dog
As for the song’s pedigree, LaFayette, 68, explains, “I was raised in Florida during segregation. There was this white family and my family, and we both had dogs. It didn’t make any sense to me that we kids couldn’t play together when all the dogs would just rip and run and get along fine.”
Determined to help improve race relations, LaFayette later became active in the civil rights movement. He recalls that he was in the thick of organizing a student protest in Nashville when childhood memories inspired him to compose, with a friend, the music and lyrics for “Dog Dog.”
“I’d been a tenor in various church and street-corner choirs,” he says. “So, the song just seemed to evolve naturally out of the spirit of the times. Music was a major mobilizing force for civil rights activists. ‘Dog Dog’ was always well-received because it takes a child’s perspective and points out the silliness of discrimination in a humorous way.”
Indeed, Yale University sociology professor Ronald Eyerman brightens when he recalls his discovery of the song while conducting research for a book. Coauthor (with Andrew Jamison) of the 1998 volume Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century, Eyerman appreciates “Dog Dog” for its engaging, secular charm. “It is very different from most other civil rights anthems in that it is non-religious and about everyday life,” he observes. “Also, what struck my mind was that it took rhythms from popular music. It’s kind of a doo-wop children’s jingle, a non-serious piece with a serious message.”
Like LaFayette, Eyerman notes the influence of music in civil rights struggles. “The impact was stunning and robust,” he says. “The use of song to build collectivity and maintain courage and solidarity in the face of enormous threat got people through things they might not have otherwise. Song was also a great pedagogical tool, as the ‘Dog Dog’ song attests.”
Founder of the legendary a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bernice Johnson Reagon counts “Dog Dog” among the most popular songs in her extensive repertoire. A student civil rights leader in her hometown of Albany, Ga., Reagon says she learned the tune in the early 1960s from Cordell Reagon (whom she later married), an organizer who came to southwest Georgia to lead voter registration drives and train emerging activists.
Later a member of the acclaimed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers, Reagon says that the group performed “Dog Dog” at nearly every concert. “It was a wonderful song because it taught lessons people could learn from their pets. Dogs seemed to be ahead of humans on the social level in the South.”
Retired from Sweet Honey since 2004, Reagon says she was cheered to find “Dog Dog” on the ensemble’s Grammy-nominated 2007 children’s album Experience … 101. “They sent me a copy of the CD and it includes a version of ‘Dog Dog,’ she says, with a smile. “It’s so clearly a song for the young and the young at heart.”
Oakland musicologist and choir director Melanie DeMore recognizes the entertainment value of “Dog Dog.” “I usually teach it in three-part harmony,” she says. “I encourage both adult and children’s choirs to add barking sounds and to be very animated during its performance. It’s hysterical when you see a whole bunch of folks on the stage delivering the powerful message of the song and still having fun by jumping up and down like puppies and barking.”
In another interpretation, Harry Belafonte, on his 1967 album Belafonte on Campus, adds a rousing calypso beat to the song, which also includes this verse:
My little doggy was a playing one day
Reflecting on the historic victory of President-elect Barack Obama, Bernard LaFayette says “Dog Dog” serves as a reminder of the stunning racial progress achieved in the past 50 years.
“Dogs are therapeutic,” he declares. “They can be unbiased eyes and ears for us in so many ways. When dogs get to know each other, regardless of their breed, they inevitably become friends. They show us how to break down barriers, overlook differences and focus on common bonds. I consider ‘Dog Dog’ a benchmark of how far we’ve come since segregation. It seems only fitting that the Obamas would welcome a puppy to the White House.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
At Tennessee’s Dollywood, there’s something for everyone, even the family dog
Visiting eastern Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains this summer? If so, be on the lookout for Dollywood, the Pigeon Forge, Tenn., amusement park named for country music star Dolly Parton. It has something for everyone, even the family dog. Though only service animals are permitted inside the park, your pet can wait for you in comfort at Doggywood, a climate-controlled indoor day-care facility.
With both kennel runs (4 x 6 feet, $12) or cottages ($30, with comfortable beds and faux fireplaces) in a rustic cabin setting, Doggywood provides your dog with a place to spend a relaxing day while you enjoy the roller coasters and live entertainment. You can even take time out to exercise your dog in the dog-walking area next to the facility without leaving the park. These accommodations are daytime only (no overnights), and space is limited—call early to make a reservation.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
In Rabbit Hash, Ky., the top dog is …well … a dog
Rabbit Hash, a small hamlet on the banks of the Ohio River, is home to Kentucky’s oldest continuously operated general store, and the country’s only dog mayor: Junior, a 12-year-old black Lab who assumed office in 2004. He is, in fact, Rabbit Hash’s second canine mayor; the first was Goofy, who took office in 1998 and served until his death in 2001. In the election, Junior faced a pig, a donkey and a fellow canine. Votes cost $1 each, and the hamlet’s citizens could vote as many times as they wished—the election was a fundraiser for historic preservation.
Junior roams freely around the 30 acres he shares with canine family members and Jane Cochran and her husband Randy. “He really has no duties as mayor” and likes it that way, says Cochran. “He has no other political ambitions.¨
Still, Junior makes public appearances and uses his office to promote good causes; he is spokespet for a number of charities, including the Northern Kentucky Women’s Crisis Center’s pet protection program. Junior is also lending his name to a line of hot sauces sold at the general store.
Cochran says Junior is enjoying his time in the spotlight. “When you get out his kerchief to wear to events, he gets very excited.”
UPDATE: Following Mayor Junior’s regrettable demise in May 2008, Rabbit Hash elected a new mayor, Lucy Lou, a red and white Border Collie, who was victorious in a candidate field that included 10 dogs, one cat, one opossum, one jackass, and one human. RIP, Mayor Junior (1995—2008).
Culture: Science & History
A small orphaned Terrier was the first dog to fly over the North Pole
The annals of polar exploration are filled with tales of canine heroes who earned their fame by blazing trails and tracking through the wilderness. But one of the most beloved polar characters on four paws in the 1920s was a fierce little black-and-white Fox Terrier named Titina, who gained her glory by sitting on her master’s lap.
Titina was the inseparable companion of one of the tragic figures of Arctic exploration, Umberto Nobile, the Italian inventor and airship pilot who flew over the top of the world in the dirigible Norge in 1926. At first revered as an Italian national hero, and then reviled, Nobile would be abandoned by almost all the world, except for his most loyal crew member, a faithful companion who stood only 10 inches high, weighed about 12 pounds and once barked down a polar bear.
Umberto Nobile said Titina found him in 1925 as he walked the streets of Rome preparing for his inaugural trans-polar flight. She was a starving little puppy, wandering lost and alone, only a few months old. The skinny orphan stood on her hind legs, and “with her fore paws beat the air beseechingly” until he patted her on the head. A boy passing by was whistling a popular tune of the time, “La Titina,” and so she became his Titina. The homeless dog had found her home, and wherever Nobile went, she would always follow. “The man lived a life of chance and of daring,” one journalist wrote, “and the dog also.”
Life with Nobile would take Titina literally to the end of the Earth, a notable achievement, especially for a dog who hated to fly. But as much as she disliked flying, she simply hated being separated from her master even more. Nobile claimed he had no intention of taking Titina on board the historic flight across the North Pole in 1926, but Titina would not have it any other way. Titina—“wild with joy” and wearing an Italian sash of green, red and white around her neck—was pressed against Nobile’s chest as thousands cheered their departure from Rome. As the airship headed north, Titina stepped into the annals of polar history.
Nobile was both the designer and chief pilot of the Norge, while the commander of the expedition was the Norwegian adventurer, Roald Amundsen. Amundsen, to put it politely, was furious that Nobile had brought Titina along because the conditions on board the airship were so incredibly crowded.
The crew of 16 men and one dog were crammed into a tiny living compartment about six feet square that hung beneath the giant bag of hydrogen. There was literally no room in the gondola for anyone to sit down (except Titina, who lay flat on a stack of clothes and supplies). Antonio Quattrini, an Italian journalist on board, said the only way he could take notes was to crouch down; however, that proved hazardous because Titina “has taken a ferocious dislike to my notebook. Whenever she sees it in my hands she wants to tear it to bits.” But Quattrini loved the little Terrier nonetheless—calling her an outrageous flirt—and wrote her official biography for the New York Times. In Quattrini’s words, Titina was “a dog marked by destiny, a dog of greatest character.”
As the world followed the Norge’s polar journey, fascination with Titina grew. One dispatch written “in answer to the queries of a great many persons, particularly women” eager to hear news of Nobile’s dog, reported: “Over the Pole she wore clothes—a red woolen jersey—and during the greatest part of the flight she slept, covered by Colonel Nobile’s sleeping bag ….”
The flight of the Norge made aviation history, and Nobile and Titina became international celebrities. She accompanied him on their world tour, greeting and posing with the likes of Mussolini, the royal family of Norway, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, Rudolph Valentino and even the president of the United States. Nobile so loved the little dog that he refused to be photographed unless Titina was with him. He seemingly went nowhere without his pet, including the Metropolitan Opera—where Titina was forced to wait downstairs until the performance was over—and the White House—where Titina peed on the carpet during their meeting with President Calvin Coolidge. (Apparently Titina’s indiscretion loosened up “Silent Cal,” because one attendant said afterward he had never seen the President so “good-humored and chatty.”)
Given the success of the Norge flight, Mussolini made Nobile a general and commanded him to build another airship, the Italia. Instead of promoting fascism as Mussolini intended, however, the Italia would become synonymous with disaster. It crashed in a storm over the frozen wastes of the Arctic in 1928, and half of the crew was killed. Titina and General Nobile, who broke his leg in the crash, were among the survivors.
In the wake of the catastrophe, Nobile’s reputation and character were also shattered. Not only did many blame him personally for the crash, but most importantly, he was charged with abandoning his men; he had allowed himself and Titina to be rescued first, leaving the rest of the survivors behind on the drifting ice pack for weeks. Disgraced and disowned by his native country, he was forced to resign his commission.
By the time Nobile died in 1978 at age 93, he had spent 50 years trying to salvage his tarnished reputation, writing six books trying to explain the Italia disaster. His last, The Red Tent, became a Hollywood film starring Sean Connery, and featured a little Terrier as Titina, the only member of Nobile’s crew who never abandoned him.
North Carolina student takes inspiration from A Dog’s Life
Last Christmas, 11-year-old Mark Federman received A Dog’s Life: Autobiography of a Stray, by Ann M. Martin, as a gift. His foster mother, Cristina Skillin-Federman, thought he’d like it because “he really loves animals.”
Fast forward to this year, when, as part of NPR’s “In Character” series, fifth-graders at his school (Isaac Dickson Elementary in Ashville, N.C.) wrote about imaginary characters they most admired, and recorded their essays at the local public radio station. When it came time for Mark to select his imaginary character, he knew exactly who to chose: Squirrel, the narrator of A Dog’s Life. www.scholastic.com/dogslife/ As a puppy, Squirrel had been separated from her mother and brother; over the years, she had known longing and abandonment as well as comfort and kindness, and in the book, she tells how she found her way.
Mark entered the North Carolina social service system four years ago, and in that time, had been in nine foster homes. And, like Squirrel’s, Mark’s story has a happy ending. The Federmans have adopted both Mark and his younger brother, and are in the process of adopting his older brother as well.
Read more about it and listen to Mark read his essay.
Dog's Life: Travel
California’s coastal paradise
Given that it was the first county in the U.S. to ban GMOs (genetically modified organisms), has more organic grape acreage than anyplace else in the world and some of the world’s tallest trees—to name a just a few of its natural wonders—it’s no surprise that Mendocino County in northern California is one of the most dog-friendly spots on Earth.
In most places, the only hotels that allow dogs are at one extreme or the other in terms of amenities. Not so in Mendocino County, where you can chose among cozy B&Bs, luxury resorts and everything in between, including a wide variety of vacation rentals that welcome dogs with open arms—many offer dog blankets, towels for sandy paws, bowls, organic and locally made treats, and more in their special canine welcome kits.
Long car trips with a pent-up pooch can be trying, but Mendocino County is only 100 miles north of San Francisco, a straight shot up Highway 101. It took 35 minutes door-to-door from my house in the East Bay to Hopland, the epicenter of Mendocino’s increasingly popular, but still uncrowded, wine country. Wine tasting mit pooch is an unexpected pleasure. The rule here is to ask first, but since most of the wineries in the county are small and family-owned, tasting is still often gratis and pets are generally considered part of the family.
A few miles farther north is Ukiah, county seat and home of numerous fun shopping opportunities, including the four-paws-up Mendocino Barkery, which features organic treats and food as well as sporty pet accessories and necessities. Pick up a picnic at Sushi Time, the new extension to the popular and authentic Japanese restaurant, Oco Time, and head to Lake Mendocino for a nice long walk. On Thursday nights, locals in the know bring their dogs to Tierra, an art gallery and tasting room that pours select local wines in their garden.
Get up early the next day and head west toward the Pacific Ocean. If you select Route 128, you’ll also pass quite a few wineries. Once at the coast, go north to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens and stroll its 47 lush acres; the gardens front directly on the ocean and are meccas for both whale- and bird-watchers. Dogs (on leash) and picnickers are welcome.
Most of the coastal properties are dog-friendly. I scored a room at the Stanford Inn by the Sea, another pet paradise. The inn is right on the edge of Mendocino Village, and since owners Joan and Jeff Stanford are animal lovers, the rambling property is home to dogs, cats, horses and llamas, among other creatures. Their in-house vegetarian restaurant, Ravens, features an indoor section where guests are welcome to dine with pets, directly outside of the main dining room. “We have always traveled with our dogs,” says Jeff Stanford, “Over the years, we have hosted a variety of nonhuman visitors, including dogs and cats, of course, but also iguanas, parrots, Vietnamese pot-belly pigs and a tortoise.” Stanford Inn is warm and inviting, with the comfortable atmosphere of a rich friend’s well-appointed country home, right down to details like a freshly built fire in each room and friendly resident cats and dogs lounging in front of the large main hearth in the lobby.
There are also plenty of options for outdoor activities as well. Catch-a-Canoe and Bicycles Too, right up from the inn on Big River, welcomes dogs on most of their larger boats and provides dog lifejackets. The Big River Conservation Project, an unprecedented public/private partnership, has linked more than 7,334 acres of estuary and surrounding forestland, creating a haven for birds, 60,000 acres of connected wildlife habitat and over 100 miles of trails. On-leash dogs are permitted (maximum leash length is six feet), except in specifically marked areas.
Most of the Mendocino’s state parks have the six-foot-leash policy but if off-leash is what you need, hit Noyo Harbor Beach in Fort Bragg. There, thanks to cooperation between the City of Fort Bragg and the Mendocino Dog Owners Group (MCDOG), your best friend can romp and roll in the sand unencumbered.
Canine animation 101
We need to be dogmatic here.
Jean-Luc Godard once said that any discussion of cinema must begin with D.W. Griffith. Good enough. Any article on the animated dog must start with Pluto.
He was the gentle pup who started a revolution. For film historians, he’s remembered as a breakthrough in character animation, the first cartoon personality actually to register thoughts and share inner feelings. But for dog partisans, he is (or should be) the canonical cartoon canine, the first animated character to move and breathe like an actual dog.
During Pluto’s long heyday in the 1930s and early 1940s, he redefined the way cartoon animals could be portrayed. His famous predecessors, whether Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, were never meant to represent actual creatures. Their behavior and situational gags had nothing to do with the way mice, cats or rabbits actually behaved. But Pluto not only moved like a dog—four paws on the ground, his only sounds barks and growls, his main preoccupations sniffing, scratching and exploring—he actually seemed to think and react like a dog.
To watch Pluto battle a magnetized plate in Donald and Pluto or contemplate a gaggle of chicks in Pluto’s Quinpuplets is to see an animal go from dumb curiosity and mild surprise to anger and panic, and to understand all the while what is going on in the dog’s head.
Even more than that, Pluto made the cartoon world safe for dogs. Before Pluto, dogs kept getting the short end of the brush. In a feline-friendly world led by Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat and all their many clones, then turned upside down by Mickey Mouse and all his imitators, the animated dog was the stigmatized Other—doomed to play either the bullying villain or the bland two-legged sidekick when he wasn’t banished to bit parts as a nondescript member of the barnyard repertory company. As a personality, the canine ranked somewhere between the cow, the pig and the horse.
Not that animators didn’t try to make him a star. As early as 1928, with the arrival of talkies and Mickey Mouse mania, rival studios recognized that they needed strong characters to compete, and turned to dogs as a logical alternative to the overused celebrity cat of the silent era. So, for instance, the Fleischer studio, already famous for Koko the Clown, decided to upgrade Koko’s sidekick Bimbo, a generic cartoon puppy, and star him in a series of his own. Nothing worked. Then Fleischer started over with another kind of dog—a sexy French poodle with long ears, huge dewlap jowls and canine teeth that were joined to the bosomy body of a femme fatale. Damned odd and damned ugly. Only when Fleischer animator Grim Natwick started losing the dog parts, turning the ears into earrings, making the mouth girlish and giving her a button nose did a classic emerge: animation’s first bombshell, Betty Boop.
If anything, the dog trials at Disney got even weirder. In the wake of Mickey’s stardom, the studio had been creating friends to flesh out Mickey’s barnyard universe. And in 1932, they experimented with a cartoon hound named Dippy Dawg. Dippy started as a country hick buried under whiskers and spectacles who ate peanuts and laughed a distinctive hiccup guffaw. Weak and (except for the laugh) nondescript as a dog, Dippy was eventually redesigned by master animator Art Babbitt, who worked from a more compelling model: Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.
Jo-Jo was a famous Barnum and Bailey circus freak attraction whose keepers thought he looked like a Basset. And, as historian Mark Langer was the first to notice, Dippy became a Jo-Jo caricature. He acquired Jo-Jo’s two widely spaced buck teeth, his harelip and his hang-drop jaw, which, combined with ex-circus clown Pinto Colvig’s chortling voice, turned him into a bashful, guffawing dimwit. Thus emerged Goofy: Dog as sideshow mutant.
It was into this world that Pluto evolved. He was the brainchild of Disney animator Norm Ferguson, and Ferguson’s first great success at Disney. The master of broad staging and comic facial expression, Ferguson would later draw several of Disney’s most indelible characters—the Big Bad Wolf in The Three Little Pigs, the hag witch in Snow White and Gideon the cat in Pinocchio. Sharp-eyed Plutologists who watch early Pluto shorts like Just Dogs (1932) and Mickey’s Pal Pluto (1933) can, in fact, see in Pluto’s furrowed eyebrows, leering glances and wicked grins the harbingers for several of the Wolfs and Witch’s most famous routines.
Ferguson first brought Pluto into the world as a zealous Bloodhound in a 1930 Mickey Mouse short called The Chain Gang, and the dog soon became, along with Minnie, the Mouse’s most important sidekick. But Pluto was at his best when left to his own devices. The sad truth is that Mickey was a rather dull-witted dog owner. Well-meaning but unobservant and excruciatingly paternalistic, Mickey never seemed to know how to play with Pluto or give him opportunities to show his stuff. Pluto truly shone only when he was by himself, a solo act tangling with the inanimate.
The textbook classic came in Playful Pluto (1934), where he is stuck to a piece of flypaper and we get to see all the ways he assesses his predicament. In Mickey’s Grand Opera (1936), he is even funnier, playing off a magician’s hat that keeps spewing out rabbits, doves and flowers. And then, in a sequence in Bone Trouble (1940) worthy of Harpo Marx, Pluto contemplates himself in a funhouse hall of mirrors.
Tex Avery’s Droopy was less a reaction to Pluto than a reconceptualization of how a dog could be funny. A sad-eyed Basset with the shock of red hair and long dishrag ears, Droopy was as improbable a cartoon hero as an IRS accountant. Dog lovers are already indebted to Avery for his Bulldogs. They were comic villains, it is true, but villains who set the gold standard for canine menace. They gave new meaning to delight as they terrorized cats and canaries. Anyone who has heard the Bulldog in Bad Luck Blackie go into his mellow chuckle as he contemplates the extermination of a precious kitty or seen him as big as Godzilla in King Size Canary has felt the delight of guilt-free thuggery.
But Droopy was infinitely stranger. There was something otherworldly about him: Dog as fate. He was the relentless, Kafkaesque tracker who, seemingly without effort, knew where you were going before you stepped it down. Underlying the bored deadpan delivery and his direct-to-audience asides (“Hello, all you happy taxpayers.”), Droopy had a tenacity unrivaled in cartoon shorts. Unlike Pluto, he arrived fully formed in his first and arguably best cartoon, Dumb-Hounded (1943), where the formula was set. Droopy was the Tortoise who beat the Hare—in this case Woolfie, the drooling con artist on the lam. Woolfie races all over the planet to escape the police, only to find Droopy inevitably waiting.
Droopy was always more a cult figure than superstar, and he held the fort for cartoon dogs tired of being man’s best friend and the perennial eager beavers. If Pluto became the first superstar recognizable as a dog, Droopy gave dogs license to be as inscrutable and finicky as any cat, and much smarter.
Heart on sleeve, dog on tie
In the syntax of men’s suits, the tie is an exclamation point! Fashion may prescribe its width, politics code its colors—still, the tie affords a narrow window of self-expression. Or, perhaps, not so narrow: “A tie is like a canvas,” says Gerald Anderson, executive director of the Neckwear Association of America; “When you have a wide tie, you have more to work with.”
These medium-width, rayon and silk examples date from the late 1940s or early ’50s. The rust-toned palette was a favorite of the time, and as for the subject matter—“Were dogs popular!” exclaims haberdasher/historian Jon Lundberg. Specifically, hunting dogs were most likely to appear (as well as game birds, sport fish and horses)—all relating to the enthusiastic return to civilian leisure that followed World War II (a time that also saw the launch of a profusion of men’s hunting and fishing magazines, such as Argosy, True and Outdoorsman.)
If a gentleman can’t wear his heart on his sleeve, at least he can wear his dog on his tie. Besides hunting dogs, other breeds can be found, more rarely, on vintage ties—occasionally beautiful, hand-painted portraits of particular breeds.
Slices of stylish, wearable nostalgia, vintage ties (mostly from the 1930s to the ’60s) are still abundant and affordable, with sources ranging from flea markets to websites like Rusty Zipper Vintage Clothing. Wearing one, you can be a complete swing-era dandy, add a touch of swank to everyday work wear or, like collector James Hamann (1200+ ties), simply knot one on, with a ’50s fedora, to go walk the dog.
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