Portraying dogs as humans — a topic we’ve brought up a few times, usually with a sneer — is as ensconced in Hollywood tradition as it has now become on Facebook.
Dogs talking in movies, in fact, is as nearly old as talkies themselves. In the Early Sound Era, trained dogs (aka as cheap labor) were commonly called on to appear in movies, particular movie shorts that were shown before the feature presentation in movie houses.
Of those, one series in the pack stood out: the “All-Barkie” Dogville Comedies, including “Hot Dog” (above).
From 1929 to 1931, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced a series of nine short comedy films, sometimes known as the “barkies.”
The actors in these films, directed by Zion Myers and conceived and co-directed by Jules White (who both later gained fame for The Three Stooges comedies), were trained dogs, usually dressed in human attire, whose voices were dubbed by human actors.
Their aim, most often, was laughs. They commonly mocked the often naughty and haughty behavior of the noble class — and spoofed the era’s movies, as well.
But as you’ll see here today, some of them had a pretty dark side.
The series is somewhat controversial today — and was even then — due to suspected methods alleged to have been used to get the dogs to pose and to appear to talk, and they stopped being made after criticism over a scene in the final one, portraying canine cannibalism.
Of course “talking dogs” were nothing new by the 1930s. Talking movies were, though, and dogs pretty much worked for free.
The films were shot with silent film and dubbed over with human speech, often using the voices of White and Myers, as well as other actors.
The Dogville shorts started with 1929’s “College Hounds”, a parody of Buster Keaton’s “College” that features a huge doggie football game. The next film was “Hot Dog,” about a murder in a seedy cabaret after a jealous husband finds out his wife has been cheating on him.
After that came “Who Killed Rover?” and a Broadway parody called “The Dogway Melody.”
Those were followed by “The Big Dog House,” “All’s Canine on the Western Front,” and “Love Tails of Morocco.”
A nationwide theatre owners poll in 1930 rated the Dogvilles as the best short subjects over more legendary comedy and musical series, according to article published last year by Atlas Obscura
Many of the dogs were supplied by renowned Hollywood animal trainer Rennie Renfro, who was present for the making of the films.
To make the canine performers appear as if they were speaking, a director or Renfro himself would stand in front of a dog and wave various lures to focus the canine’s attention. The human would then open his hand repeatedly to entice the dog to open its mouth. Other times, they gave the dogs toffee to make them chomp.
A January 1931 article in Popular Science Monthly says the directors preferred using stray and mixed-breed dogs “because they are not high strung and can get along better in groups than the animal ‘prima donnas’ of breeding.”
Based on trade papers of the time, the Dogville Comedies were well-received and director White would call the series the favorite project of his career.
But not everyone was tickled and charmed by the “Barkies.”
There are some accounts that piano wire was used to help the dogs remain upright — as if they were part dog, part marionette.
The Performing and Captive Animals’ Defense League wrote to the British Board of Film Censors to protest the release of the movies and several films in the series were banned by British censors.
The creators stopped making the Dogville Comedies in 1931 after the controversial “Trader Hound,” a spoof of the movie, “Trader Horn.” The short was banned by U.K. censors for its hints at cannibalism — albeit dogs eating dogs, as opposed to humans eating humans
In retrospect, some see the short films — just as some see The Three Stooges — as having a mean edge. On one hand, they seem aimed at children; on the other, the plots were often mature, featuring adultery and murder.
Throw in the animal welfare concerns, and the fact that humanizing dogs doesn’t do anyone any good, and they can be looked at — by me anyway — as a less than glorious chapter of Hollywood history.
The complete series of Dogville Comedies has been released on DVD by Warner Bros. as part of its Warner Archive Collection.