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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Pets on Sets on Turner Classic Movies Wednesdays in December

Hollywood has always loved featuring animals in the movies. Off the top of my head I can think of at least two dogs and a horse that were prominent cast members essential to a story, and I'm sure you can think of some just as quickly. There's been just about every animal you can think of represented on the silver screen. In addition to dogs and horses the list includes dolphins, cats, dear, pigs, and even spiders, to name a few. This month TCM's special theme programming, Pets on Sets, highlights the animal stars of some of our favorite movies.

The tribute is a very clever concept that gives the spotlight to the much loved animal actors in many of our favorite movies. Just like the pets in our own lives, they bring so much to the stories in which they appear that the experience just wouldn't be the same without them. Whether a star or a peripheral character, an animal of any kind helps build atmosphere and depth to any scene. Part of it is what their own personality brings to the plot and the other part is the interaction others have with them. How they are perceived or treated tells us as much about the other characters of a story as it tells us about the animal. This is a filmmaker's trick commonly used as a short cut for telling an audience what a character is really like - if the animal doesn't trust the human, nor should we.

The theme series starts off with "Hounds for the Holidays, Part 1" on December 4. The night's films include the 1943 family classic, Lassie Come Home. Not only is this a wonderfully touching film, it marked the actual first screen appearance of the famous collie who would go on to star in a series of sequels as well as a TV series. The following film, Git! (a TCM premier) stars an English setter who is befriended by a runaway orphan. The film honestly doesn't have much going for it other than the likability of the dog, so if we're talking run-away kids and dogs I'd much rather see the 1961 independent feature, The Runaway. It has a remarkably similar plot and stars Cesar Romero as a priest who helps a runaway orphan and the abandoned grey hound he finds. It premiered on TCM several years ago, so I'm surprised they're not showing it during this special month-long salute. Other movies in the category are Adventures of Rusty (1945) A Dog's Best Friend (1960), and a personal favorite of mine, It's a Dog's Life (1955).

I'm not one much for cats, but the films featuring felines this month are ones that really highlight the unique connection people can have with the little fur balls. In Bell, Book and Candle (1958), the sultry Kim Novak is a modern day witch who casts a spells with the aid of her "familiar," cat, Pyewacket. The pair purr and slink their way through the film, charming every man that comes their way, including Jimmy Stewart. I can't think of a more perfect animalistic reflection of a person than a Siamese cat is for Kim Novak in this film. The two really appear to share a personality, relying on each other for their sense of character. Each requires the other in order to achieve the presence they share on screen. It is as mesmerizing as it is magical.

And then there's Harry and Tonto from 1974. Art Carney won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of Harry, an elderly widower who embarks on a cross-country trip with his cat, Tonto. His Oscar was due in no small part to the extraordinary connection he had with the pet who acted as a sounding board for the character's inner thoughts. Likewise, the orange tabby upped its game playing opposite the seasoned professional and received a "PATSY" award (Performing Animal Television Star of the Year) for his work in the film. Interestingly enough, Carney had never experienced any affection toward cats, but became very fond of his co-star. I guess the onset romance paid off.

With every Wednesday comes more movies with more animals. On the evening with horses you'll be presented National Velvet (an obvious selection) starring a 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, and The Black Stallion featuring a boy who bonds with a horse when marooned on a desert island (Caleb Deschanel earned a BAFTA for his stunning cinematography). Also showing the same night is Run Wild, Run Free starring the actor who played the title role in Oliver the same year. Apparently, if you're going to make a movie about a horse, you better make the protagonist a kid if you want a sure fire hit. This is further demonstrated later in the month on "Other Animals" night. One features a boy and his pet dear in The Yearling, and another has a boy befriend an injured dolphin in Flipper. There are some films with adults thrown in, but this "genre" is clearly dominated by the relationships between cubs of all kinds.

Of course you can't have a salute like this one without celebrating the endearing silliness that comes along with the relationship with a pet. One of the most charming animal actors ever to shine was Skippy who is best know as "Asta" in The Thin Man and the subsequent sequels. The well-trained Wire Fox Terrier appeared in numerous other movies of the 1930s including The Awful Truth (1937), and Bringing Up Baby (1938). In all of his films, Skippy is relied upon for comic relief more than anything else. And why not? He's perfectly adorable, much like the Norwich Terrier in the twenty year old "mockumentary", Best in Show, the hilarious comedy created by Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest about dog shows.

Of course, special programming usually entails guest hosts, and guess who (or what) TCM has lined up to partially carry those duties? The pets. TCM's prime-time host, Ben Mankiewicz will be sitting down (not necessarily on command) for all of these films with Carol and Greg Tresan, the owners and operators of Animal Casting Atlanta. The two can boast that their company is considered among the premiere providers of animal training in the entire film industry. But they will not be alone. Accompanying the duo are their famous animals including Cruiser (a canine of the Briard variety) who has appeared in Stranger Things and MacGuyver; Penny, a Jack Russel Terrier who appeared in the teenage romance comedy, Love, Simon; a cat named Ziva (Spider-Man: Homecoming); and a mini-horse named Lark - because, well, mini-horses are just so darn cute. I defy anyone not to be entertained by these artists who give their all for their work for very little in return. It's a lot like our own pets, isn't it.


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