My wife recently asked me whether I’d rather have $1 million or a talking dog. Obviously I didn’t pick the million bucks, cynically knowing I could turn a talking dog into a multi-million-dollar venture. After all, even non-talking dogs talk like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie generated millions. “Rinty” saved Warner Bros. studios from bankruptcy in the ’20s and Lassie was included in many of MGM’s gallery of stars photographs.
The best dog movies play on our love for man’s best friend and then exploit the fantasy of dogs acting more human — easy to understand and always willing to sacrifice themselves for their masters.
Considering that the relationship between man and dog may be more than 30,000 years old, dog films may also appeal to the primal emotion generated in humans by the simple sight of a dog. So given the camera’s ability to idealize, here are five movies fueled by what we’ll call “the dog lover’s gaze.” And by the way, money aside, I do wish my boxers, George and Maizie, could talk.
“After the Thin Man” (1936)
This sequel to MGM’s hit “The Thin Man” reunites audiences with Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) and their beloved wire-haired terrier, Asta, as they investigate the murder of a philandering socialite. The genius of these movies is the pairing of Nora’s high-class background and Nick’s past as a private detective, which allows them to breeze through every strata of society, usually in fine clothes and with cocktails in hand. Adding even more fun than the original is the inclusion of a young Jimmy Stewart and a rival for Asta: a Scottish terrier who has been sneaking onto the property to pay visits to “Mrs. Asta.”
When Asta isn’t working to deflect these advances, he’s eating valuable clues and complicating Nick and Nora’s investigation. Though Asta may not be front and center, he remains a crucial component to the success of this series, which spawned another four sequels and a television series.
101 Dalmatians” (1961)
Rod Taylor voices the stalwart Pongo, who along with mate Perdita must rescue their puppies from the evil Cruella de Ville. My teenage daughter recently observed that this move actually got scarier as she got older, which makes sense. Cruella’s plan to make a fur coat out of the puppies does carry a deeper dread when a kid gets old enough to think it all through, but Disney’s movies often work on multiple levels … and some are very dark. On the bright side, the puppies are full of personality, the secondary villains suitably bumbling, and there’s a rollicking cadre of supporting canine characters to distract from the ghastly plan. Walt Disney was said to have disliked the animation style, designed to both save money and make it possible to render the thousands of spots on the dogs. But the film became one of the studio’s most successful movies of the 1960s and saved the animation unit from being closed down after the box office failure of “Sleeping Beauty.”
“Turner and Hooch” (1989)
This was the year for the cop-and-dog-buddy picture. Released three months after “K-9,” the Jim Belushi/German shepherd pairing, this is the better of the two, due to a young and charming Tom Hanks, stylish direction by Roger Spottiswoode and a golden-eyed Dogue de Bordeaux capable of spewing massive quantities of slobber in multiple directions. The dog in question, named Hooch, is witness to a murder and is taken into the custody of obsessive-compulsive neat freak detective Scott Turner (Hanks). Like most ’80s buddy movies, they grate on each other, come to blows, romance respective dames (Mare Winningham and her border collie) and ultimately emerge as a team, facing down the bad guys in a smoke-filled warehouse. Hanks and Spottiswoode commit 100 percent to the nonsense, both seeming to know that we can’t take our eyes off the amazing dog whenever he’s on screen.
“Best in Show” (2000)
Christopher Guest followed up his hilarious “Waiting for Guffman” with this satirical look at dog show culture. Using many “Guffman” cast members and its fake documentary style that become a TV comedy staple in shows like “The Office” and “Modern Family,” the movie follows five dogs and their eccentric owners as they travel to the prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. It’s really the people who are on display here, a collection of kooks including a bloodhound owner who is an amateur ventriloquist, a trophy wife and her overly attentive female trainer, a catalog-addicted yuppie couple who are in group therapy with their Weimaraner, and a married couple dealing with the wife’s legacy of former lovers who appear at every turn. The joy of the movie is in its improvisational style. Characters comically reveal themselves when talking to the camera (often as much by what they don’t say as what they admit). When they finally do reach the dog show in the second half, all compete for the coveted best in show, with hilarious color commentary provided by Fred Willard as a boneheaded TV announcer. Without a doubt, “Best in Show” is one of the first classics of the 21st century.
“Good Boy!” (2003)
Finally, a dog movie with a boxer as a featured player. And this one, named Wilson, even talks! Thanks to the magic of Jim Henson Pictures and Rainmaker Studios, other talking dogs include a poodle, Bernese mountain dog, Great Dane, Italian greyhound and a Chinese crested. And then there is Hubbel, a border terrier (voiced by Matthew Broderick) who is actually from outer space, crash-lands on Earth and enters the life of a young boy with a dog-walking service. That’s right, I said from outer space. And with much the same shock as Charlton Heston experienced in “Planet of the Apes” realizes that here, dogs are pets. Did I mention there was a boxer in this one? And he talks? Trust me, the kids will love it.