Tuesday, April 24, 2012

9 Most Acclaimed Animal Film Stars of All Time

In this age of products and fast food franchises being skillfully marketed as movies, starring 3-D computer-animated, wise-cracking, pop-culture-referencing animals (think mice, chipmunks, and dancing penguins), it's easy to forget that animals starring in classic movies were living, breathing, and occasionally carnivorous creatures. Some of these animal actors were huge stars in their time. Others made just one film before deciding Hollywood wasn't for them. Movies today are very different indeed than what they were back in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. But maybe today's popularity of CGI-created macaws and rats has something to do with the contributions these nine talented animals made to the industry.

  1. Trigger

    Trigger, a palomino horse originally named Golden Cloud, co-starred with cowboy actor Roy Rogers in several movies and with Rogers and wife Dale Evans in their 1950s television series. Trigger was quick, smart, and could do at least 150 tricks, including walking several feet on just his hind legs. His first film appearance was in the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood as Maid Marian's mount. When Trigger died in 1965, Rogers famously had him preserved with taxidermy and mounted rearing on his hind legs. Rogers apparently said afterwards, "When I'm dead, skin me and put me up on Trigger."

  2. Cheeta

    The Tarzan film franchise began with the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man, based on the character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The films starred former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller in the role of Tarzan, and Cheeta (sometimes spelled "Cheetah"), Tarzan's chimpanzee companion. Accounts vary as to Cheeta's behavior with his human actors. Mia Farrow, whose mother Maureen O'Sullivan co-starred with Weissmuller in six of the Tarzan films as "Jane," said her mom "invariably referred to Cheetah as 'that bastard' … he bit her at every opportunity."

  3. Asta

    Skippy, a wire-haired fox terrier, perhaps best known for his role as Asta, Nick and Nora Charles' loveable dog in the 1934 detective comedy The Thin Man and its sequels, was said to be one of the most intelligent animals working in film during the 1930s. He was at ease with verbal commands as well as hand cues, which were necessary for any dog performing in a sound film. Skippy also famously starred as "George," Katherine Hepburn's bone-burying pup in the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby.

  4. Baby

    Speaking of Bringing Up Baby, the role of "Baby" was played by Nissa, a trained leopard who scared the hell out of the film's male lead Cary Grant, but bonded with the fearless Katherine Hepburn. Baby is a tame leopard owned by Hepburn's character Susan Vance. The second wild leopard that appears in the film, let loose from a cage at a circus by Cary's character, was also played by Nissa. Apparently, Nissa liked the perfume Hepburn wore on the set, and was especially gentle and affectionate with her. Nissa's purr on the set was so loud that the sound designer had to replace it in editing with a recording of an amplified domestic cat's purr. Bringing Up Baby was Nissa's one and only film.

  5. The Pie

    "The Pie" is short for "The Pirate," the rebellious and proud horse played by the real-life grandson of champion racehorse Man O'War, in Elizabeth Taylor's breakthrough 1944 film, National Velvet. The Pie had the strength and ability to jump over automobiles, and threw and injured stuntman Billy Bartlidge who was doubling for Taylor in one of the steeplechase scenes. The 12-year-old Taylor asked for and was given the horse once the film was completed, and she didn't even have to give up her earrings as part of the deal.

  6. Francis The Talking Mule

    Francis the Talking Mule was played by a female named Molly, chosen in part for the role because she was easy to handle, and voiced by character actor Chill Wills, who never received screen credit for his work. Molly's trainer Les Hilton would go on to train Bamboo Harvester, the horse who played the television's best known talking animal, Mr. Ed. Comedic actor, singer, and dancer Donald O'Connor starred in the first six of the seven 1950s Francis films, playing the befuddled Peter Stirling, a young soldier to whom Francis has chosen to speak and give advice.

  7. Benji

    Higgins, a golden mixed-breed dog rescued by animal trainer Frank Inn, appeared in the 1963 television series Petticoat Junction and later starred, at a relatively late age for a dog, in the 1974 independent film Benji. Benji inspired several sequels, but only the first film stars Higgins as a stray dog living in a small town in Texas where everyone seems to call him by a different name. After two children who befriended Benji are kidnapped and held for ransom, Benji, in the tradition of wonder dogs like Lassie, rounds up help to set the kids free. The movie's theme song, "I Feel Love (Benji theme)" was sung by country music star Charlie Rich and received a Golden Globe award for Best Original Song.

  8. Lassie

    How can we not include Lassie on a list of acclaimed animal film stars? Canine thespian Pal played the rough collie Lassie in the 1943 film Lassie Come Home, the first of seven films starring Pal as "Lassie." In the 1950s and 1960s, several descendants of Pal would star in the long-running Lassie television series. Pal was trained by Rudd Weatherwax who also worked with Skippy aka Asta, the aforementioned four-legged star of The Thin Man movies.

  9. The Black Cat

    We don't know the name, gender, or trainer of the black cat who starred with legendary actor Peter Lorre in the 1962 B movie Tales of Terror, a "trilogy of shock and horror" based on three different Edgar Allen Poe stories. We do know that as part of the film's PR campaign, an open audition was held in Hollywood to find the ideal black cat to co-star with Lorre. In the film's third and final section, Lorre memorably plays a cuckold who seals up his cheating wife, her lover, and, completely by mistake, a black cat behind a brick wall to die, only to be caught thanks to the howling of the pissed feline. The film was justifiably lambasted by critics, and the black cat never worked in Hollywood again.

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