A Whole Zoo Of Performers–Animal Stars Of The Silent Era

The silent era boasted an incredible number of stars, from sweet ingenue types to “grotesque” comedians to dashing heroes. But not all stars were fashionable flappers or svelte sheiks–some were more on the…hairy side. Or even came on four legs. Yes, I’m talking about the animal stars–could you tell?–and there was a virtual zoo of them back in the day.

Luke the Dog in The Cook (1918).

Performing animals were showing up on screen almost the second film was invented. An uber-early example is the British Kinetoscope short Performing Animals; or, Skipping Dogs (1895). Another tiny early film was The Boxing Kangaroo (1896), showing a trained kangaroo boxing with a small boy (truly, you never knew what you’d find in a Kinetoscope).

It wasn’t long before animals were helping popularize early motion pictures, too. One very successful early short was the charming Rescued by Rover (1905), another British work. Made by early directors Cecil Hepworth and Lewin Fitzhamon, it “starred” the Hepworth’s obedient family collie, Blair. The film showed Blair racing to rescue a kidnapped baby from a cruel beggar woman. It seems rather slowly paced today, but back then Rover was so popular that the original negatives kept wearing out and it had to be reshot two whole times. Thanks to this, Blair the collie has since been recognized as the very first animal star.

Blair and baby in a timeless pose.

He would be followed by generations of furry and feathery performers. Jean the Vitagraph Dog, a black and white collie, got her “big break” in 1910. She proved to be such a well-trained performer that Vitagraph starred her in numerous light comedies and dramas such as Jean the Match-Maker (1910) and Jean Intervenes (1912). She also appeared alongside comedian John Bunny and Vitagraph’s biggest actress, Florence Turner.

Jean in The Church Across the Way (1912).

The Thanhouser studio also had a collie named Shep. He worked from 1913 until 1915, when he passed away from an illness. Shep was similarly well-trained and it was said that directors rarely had to retake his scenes.

An early canine “hero” was the German shepherd Strongheart, owned by the same director who had trained Jean the Vitagraph Dog. Mostly forgotten today, he was the star of a number of adventure stories and helped popularize the German shepherd breed in the U.S. He was soon rivalled by the most popular canine star of them all, Rin Tin Tin, declared by Variety to be “the Fairbanks, Mix, and Barrymore of the canine world”. Discovered as a puppy in a bombed-out kennel in France during World War I, Rin Tin Tin would compete at dog shows and eventually be put into the movies. His film Where the North Begins (1923) likely saved the Warner Bros. studio from bankruptcy.

On the silent comedy side, there was a plethora of charming trained animals. Little Brownie the Wonder Dog would co-star with Baby Peggy in the early 1920s. The Keystone Film Company was lucky enough to have Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s dog Luke, a fearless Staffordshire bull terrier who loved chase scenes, could climb ladders and could even jump from one rooftop to another. Luke showed up in a number of 1910s Keystones (often chasing Al St. John) and also appeared much of Arbuckle’s subsequent Comique series. He also made a cameo in Buster Keaton’s farm-themed short The Scarecrow (1920).

A Salute To Luke The Dog | Silent-ology

The most famous Keystone canine was the gentle giant Teddy, a Great Dane who appeared in dozens of shorts between 1915 and 1924. He also had parts in films like Mary Pickford’s Stella Maris (1918). Called “Keystone Teddy” or “Teddy the Wonder Dog,” he’s said to have been paid $350 a week.

Teddy with Louise Fazenda and Mack Sennett.

Not to be outdone by mere performing dogs, in the 1920s Fox had a trio of performing monkeys named Max, Moritz and Pep. They were dubbed, appropriately enough, the Fox Monkeys and their human costars included Jean Arthur and Jack Duffy. One talented little Capuchin monkey was named Josephine, who had a remarkably expressive face. She’s probably the most famous for appearing alongside Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928).

The chimpanzees Napoleon & Sally were a mid-1910s comedy duo who were featured in one-reel shorts. They were usually dressed in little outfits and mimicked housekeeping and other human-like behavior. Their offspring was a female named Snookums, who would also go on to perform in comedies. Billed as a male called Snooky the Humanzee, she was talented enough to star in her own 1920s series. (Yes, even chimpanzees performed in drag in the silent comedy days!)

Still from Snooky’s Twin Troubles (1921), from the NFPF site.

Century Comedies was practically a zoo by itself, boasting not only the orangutan couple Mr. & Mrs. Joe Martin, but Queenie the horse, Charlie the elephant, the dogs Brownie and Pal, and even some trained lions (known simply as the “Century Lions”). Lions being tussled with or popping up at inopportune times were big trends in silent comedy, and Century was happy to deliver with a whole slew of films like Daring Lions and Dizzy Lovers (1919) and Lion Paws and Lady Fingers (1920).

Along with Teddy the Wonder Dog, Mack Sennett also had Pepper, a dark gray cat who was said to have been born underneath a Keystone soundstage. She showed up in shorts like The Kitchen Lady (1918) and Bow Wow (1922), both starring Louise Fazenda (who had an affinity for animals). Waddles the Duck also had his heyday on the Sennett lot, and eventually “retired” to spend his remaining days in Fazenda’s backyard. Anna May the Elephant showed up in several shorts, such as Remember When (1925) starring Harry Langdon. And thanks to another odd silent comedy trend of having random bears wander into the action, Bruno the Bear and Cubby the Bear were also regular furry faces in Sennett’s comedies.

Pepper chilling with Louise Fazenda.

There were also some well-known equestrian stars. Rex, a frankly ferocious Morgan stallion, was a star in adventure serials throughout the 1920s and kept kicking and galloping throughout the 1930s, too–despite many actors being nervous to work with him. And Tom Mix’s trusty “wonder horse” Tony was a familiar sight to many fans of westerns.

Perhaps the most surreal use of animal stars in the silent era was Hal Roach’s short-lived series the Dippy-Doo-Dad Comedies. Often set in rural or western locations, the stories were pretty straightforward but with the bizarre twist of an all-animal cast–in little outfits, too. Acted by trained dogs, ducks, monkeys (including little Josephine), and so on, the series was silent comedy’s take on an alternative universe.

A still from Go West (1923)

With the love of cute, funny, and talented animals being just as strong back in the early 20th century as it is today, it’s not surprising that directors used them to jazz up so many films. (Admittedly, it probably helped that animal stars couldn’t complain about their salaries.) When we look back on the legacy of cinema, let’s not forget to appreciate the hard work of so many men, women…and four-legged friends.

This post is a version of an article I wrote for my Classic Movie Hub column Silents are Golden. It was fun to revisit!

Steve Massa’s book Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy was very helpful for this article, as was the book chapter “The Dogs Who Saved Hollywood: Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin” by Kathryn Fuller-Seely and Jeremy Groskopf, excerpted from the 2014 book Cinematic Canines (the chapter can be read here).

20 thoughts on “A Whole Zoo Of Performers–Animal Stars Of The Silent Era

  1. Great article, thanks. I love Luke. And Josephine (though monkeys usually creep me out). I might need to see some of these other animal stars.

  2. Speaking of Rin-Tin-Tin films – and how fortunate we are that they have been preserved and available for home viewing – are WONDERFUL. What a dog! What an actor! What a fabulous role model he was for America’s youth in the 20s.
    Speaking of dogs, Luke is HILARIOUS in ‘Scarecrow.’ stealing scenes from Buster with his amazing feats of athleticism.
    Speaking of ducks (and their ilk), a favorite moment in the ‘Goose Woman’ is when Louise Dresser marches down the road followed by her faithful goose.
    Another wonderful article. Thanks.

    • Luke is my favorite animal performer for sure! He’s so adorable and enthusiastic.

      I just watched THE GOOSE WOMAN recently–excellent film! A favorite of Kevin Brownlow’s too, I think.

      • Brownlow wrote that when he was a teenager collecting silent films and writing fan letters, he invited Mary Pickford to his home when she was in London to watch The Goose Woman, which Pickford had never seen (!!,) and she and Buddy Rogers did just that! Imagine! Entertaining Mary Pickford!!

  3. I cringe when I see animals show up in these old films. They didn’t have the protection back then that they have today. However, I do enjoy seeing Luke (Roscoe’s dog) because he is well-loved and having a blast with Arbuckle and Keaton. Nice to see Waddles the duck had a lovely retirement thanks to Louise Fazenda!

    • I know what you mean about performing animals back then, I get a bit unsettled too at times. Luke, Teddy, and some of the other popular stars did get treated well, happily–I think Luke even had his own chauffeur for awhile, at least as a publicity gag!

  4. I love Pepper, such a photogenic kitty (well, they usually are, as the Internet has proven). Anyway, she has a turn playing a villain in “The Little Hero” which also stars two other animal actors.

  5. Occasionally the animal actors went AWOL. Here’s an item from the newspaper in Santa Barbara, California in 1917 – “A good deal of consternation and something of fear were caused yesterday . . . by a monkey at large … A frightened woman telephoned the police regarding the wild animal broken loose that was spreading fear among the women and children … several frantic women telephoned the police station to call out the reserves … a squad of officers hurried to the scene.” The police captured the monkey with a bag of peanuts, and later discovered that the monkey had appeared in the “Flying A” serial “The Diamond from the Sky.”

  6. The photo of Fazenda with Pepper is adorable. The only Pepper film on YouTube is ‘The Little Hero’ – referring not to Pepper but to a cute little dog. This is a 1913 film with the adorable Mabel Normand wearing a godawful suit that not even Mabel can make appealing. Are the Pepper films you mention on Mack Sennett Shorts dvds? If so, which ones?

    • Hmm, from what I recall in my DVD sets the films available tend to have her pop in here and there. I believe she has a prominent role in BOW WOW (1922), which is due to be on the Sennett Vol 2 set (to be released either this year or next year).

  7. I have a couple of performers to mention from two Gladys Walton films. The first is Ethel the lion from the 1921 “The Man Tamer” and Mike the circus dog from the 1923 “Sawdust”. And I also found a story of Rupert julian hiring a swearing parrot for some scenes in Gladys’s 1922 film “The Girl Who Ran Wild” but the parrots name was not mentioned.

  8. I found another article in the Oregon daily journal from Oct 8 1922 about the swearing parrot. It’s name was “lady Helldamn” and it said Gladys was to blame for causing the bird to stop swearing and the owner was irate and would sue Universal. Was it just ballyhoo,I dont know. Gladys was a birder and in the early 1920’s the backyard of her bungalo was full of chickens ducks and two turkeys. She was quoted saying “People laugh and make jokes but they enjoy the fresh eggs I give them” then if you fast forward sixty plus years when michael ankerich interviewed her at her home for his book she had baby chicks in a box under a heat lamp and a parrot that would say her name. Once a birder always a birder, maybe the story is true.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s