Saturday, January 30, 2010

King Charles aka The Pie

King Charles starred as The Pie in the 1944 film National Velvet starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney.

King Charles was a seven year old thoroughbred, a red sorrel with a white stripe on his face and white socks in all for feet.

The Rivera Country Club in West Los Angeles, California was where King Charles and Elizabeth Taylor first met. This horse was owned by a society woman and trained as a show hunter and jumper (he could jump over automobiles). The owner offered King Charles for Elizabeth to ride and she grew fond of the horse and eventually became the equine star of the National Velvet movie. King Charles was purchased for $800 for the movie.

Eleven year old Elizabeth Taylor underwent a rigorous training program with horseback riding lessons, riding him 90 mintutes a day, and feeding him at the instruction of Riviera Country Club and Dupee Stables in Hollywood.

A special bond between Elizabeth Taylor and King Charles was evident to everyone on the set. King Charles had a tendency to bite cast and crew. In fact, he once took a hunk of shoulder from the man who tried to train him to play dead for the film.

On the set, Elizabeth Taylor was the only star he cooperated with.

After shooting of the film completed, Elizabeth Taylor learned on her 13th birthday, that King Charles was now her horse.

King Charles was the grandson of the champion racehorse Man o' War who is considered one of the greatest thoroughbred racehorses of all time winning the
Preakness Stakes (1920) and Belmont Stakes (1920).

After National Velvet, King Charles retired and spent the remainder of his life with his new owner, Elizabeth Taylor.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Godfather Cat

From Gangster Johnny Vanning and his pet pekingese in Marked Woman (1937) to Dr. No and his beautiful white kitty, evil characters have been shown with a soft side with animals.

In the movie The Godfather (1972), Mafia Boss Don Vito Corleone is seen holding and petting a kitty as he speaks with his staff.

Not much is known about this feline actor. The kitty was actualy a stray Marlon Brando found on the Paramount movie lot during filming.

There was no cat in the actual script, and some theories suggest that, wishing to be famous, the cat manipulated the actor into featuring it in the movie.

It was Brando's idea to hold and pet the cat, to show both his character's violent and kind soft sides.

The cat purred so loudly that it drowned out the lines from the other characters. They ended up having to re-record their voices.

Members of the feline Revolution believe that, like many other cats "owned" by world leaders, the cat in the Godfather represented the real power of the Corleone family.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Etzel von Oeringen aka Strongheart

Strongheart was born Etzel von Oeringen on October 1, 1917 in Germany and originally trained as a police dog.

He was trained in the style of K9 Police Dogs and assigned to the German military during WWI. A descendant of a very carefully bred line, the 125 pound dog was fearless and powerfully built.

Famous animal trainer and American director, Laurence Trimble and his screenwriter wife, Jane Murfin (who had previously worked successfully with Jean, the Vitagraph Dog), began searching for a dog in Europe that could appear in motion movie pictures. Laurence Trimble came across 3 year old Etzel von Oeringen in 1920, he knew he found what he was looking for.

Trimble had to work very hard to socialize him and de-empahasize the harsh training he had received as an aggressive police dog. For months on end, Trimble kept the dog by his side virtually non-stop, using continuous positive reinforcement for good behavior.

Eventually, he shed his police aggressiveness and became a very well trained animal. A great judge of moral character, he never lost his instincts. He would often pursue passersby that were later found to have been frauds, embezzlers or were abusive to their spouses.

His first movie, "The Silent Call" (1921), and a star was born. He was beloved by movie-goers of all ages.

Strongheart was given the star treatment, traveling by train to make personal appearances, at which he was greeted by crowds of adoring fans. He was written up in newspapers and magazines, and even the radio proclaimed "Strongheart" a star.

A dog food named after him became popular and is still being produced over three-quarters of a century later.

Strongheart also appeared in Brawn of the North (1922), The Love Master (1924)
North Star (1925), White Fang (1925), and The Return of Boston Blackie (1927). The Return of Boston Blackie is thought to be the only Strongheart movie still in existence.

In the movie The Love Master (1924), Strongheart was cast opposite of Lady Jule, a beautiful German Shepherd. The happy canine couple produced many litters, including offspring who would sire pups who grew up to be movie stars themselves. Lady Jule and Strongheart's line survives today.

Strongheart and Lady Jule's grandson Lightning was a canine movie star in the the 1930's, appearing in The Case of the Howling Dog (1934), When Lightning Strikes (1934), Man's Best Friend (1935), Wings in the Dark (1935), A Dog of Flanders (1935), Two in Revolt (1936) and Renfrew of the Royal Mounted (1937).

Their grandson, Silver King, also appeared in the movies: On the Great White Trail (1938)and Rusty Rides Alone (1933). He also made personal appearances as part of a safety program for children.

In 1929, while being filmed for a movie, Strongheart accidentally made contact with a hot studio light and was burned. The burn, which appeared minor, progressed into a tumor within a few short weeks. He died soon afterwards on June 24, 1929.

Strongheart was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for motion pictures.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Nissa aka Baby

Nissa is the most famous leopard in film history, playing Baby and the escaped leopard she is mistaken for in the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby.

Nissa's home was Los Angeles' non-profit-making Zoopark, owned by the California Zoological Society, whose famous residents also included Jackie, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's trademark lion; Anna May, veteran jungle-film elephant; Lady, the whooping crane which danced with Shirley Temple in Captain January.

Baby was trained by Madame Olga Celeste who was always off camera with a whip in case of problems.

Katharine Hepburn was generally fearless around Nissa and even enjoyed petting Nissa. Nissa's trainer praised Katharine Hepburn, stating that Kate was fearless and could become an animal trainer if she so desired.

Nissa got on splendidly with Katharine Hepburn, but less well with other cast members. Kate Hepburn wore a perfume Nissa found attractive.

Katharine Hepburn had one very close call with Nissa. She was wearing a skirt that was lined with little metal pieces to make the skirt swing prettily. When Hepburn turned around abruptly, Nissa made a lunge for her back. Only the intervention of the trainer's whip saved Hepburn. Nissa was not allowed to roam around freely after that, and Hepburn was more careful around her from then on.

Cary Grant, on the other hand, was afraid of Nissa and a double was used in the scenes where his character and the leopard had to make contact.

Cary Grant was not fond of the leopard that was used in the film. Once, to torture him, Katharine Hepburn put a stuffed leopard through a vent in the top of his dressing room. "He was out of there like lightning," wrote Hepburn in her autobiography Me: Stories of My Life.

Blending shots of Nissa with those of the other cast members, who were filmed separately, called for trick photography that was groundbreaking in the 1930s. Bringing Up Baby employed a great deal of split screen and optical tricks, such as rear screen projection, so that having the big cat in close proximity to the actors could be kept to a minimum. Most of the split screens had a lot of movement in them, which meant the dividing line had to be moved around as well. Even the scenes of Susan (Katharine Hepburn) dragging the mean Leopard on a leash are split screened. A puppet Leopard was also used in some shots.

The puppet is most clearly seen in the shot after Susan gets the Leopard dragged into the jail. The reaction shot immediately afterwards, shows David (Cary Grant) and Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson) with "Baby" the Leopard on the table. The Leopard is a puppet.

The sound engineers also had their work cut out for them because Nissa's purr was far too loud for the microphones. They amplified the voice of the studio cat fourteen times, and used that as the tiger's pur instead.

After her one and only film, Nissa retired and kept a low profile after her film debut.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Spike (Old Yeller)

Spike was a Black Mouth Cur and a dog actor best known for his performance as Old Yeller in the 1957 Disney film of the same name.

Spike was a large, yellow, flop eared pup, with extra large feet living at the Van Nuys Animal Shelter. Bill McNally saw him and told Frank Weathermax about the dog. Frank Weathermax was an animal trainer who had trained Pal (aka Lassie), Terry (Toto) and Skippy (aka Asta).

Frank Weathermax felt the dog looked intelligent so Frank rescued him for three dollars.

At first, Spike didn't show signs of greatness. He appeared clumsy and ungainly. His bark was more of a yelp. But Spike readily to training and was always ready to please his master. Overnight he seemed to grow into his feet and develop a mature bark.

Frank Weatherwax' wife, Connie, a regular reader of the Saturday Evening Post, read a three part story called "Old Yeller" by Fred Gibson. After reading the description of the dog and seeing the illustrations, she thought of Spike. The next day when Frank Weatherwax picked up the mail he opened the Hollywood Reporter and read that Walt Disney had bought the movie rights to Old Yeller. At Connie's urging Frank called the Disney Studios and arranged to show Spike.

At first, Disney did not like Spike. Spike had been raised around children and was used to playing and having fun. He did not know how to act vicious. Frank saw potential in this big, goofy yellow dog. After a little extra training, Spike nailed the part, becoming one of the most memorable dogs in screen history.

"Old Yeller" is not the only movie Spike has done. He was also in A Dog of Flanders (1959) and in several episodes of the television series The Westerner.

Spikes son played "Rontu" in Island of the Blue Dolphins (1964), and his grandson appeared with Steve McQueen and Robert Preston in Junior Bonner (1972).