For nearly five years in the 1950s audiences thrilled to The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. During the same year The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin first aired and lasting for nineteen seasons, Lassie was a beloved classic recreated for television. Even today hearing the opening music for either show brings back memories of watching the episodes each week.
Unbeknownst to me, stretching back to the era after World War I, another canine is responsible for the fame found by dogs on the silver and later the television screen. Based on factual research, this fictionalized account, Strongheart: The World's First Movie Star Dog (Henry Holt And Company, November 11, 2014) written and illustrated by Emily McCully, shines the spotlight on a little-known hero. With the assistance of his humans this dog became a household name.
This is the story of Etzel von Oeringen, who became the first movie star dog.
Etzel von Oeringen was born in Germany in 1917. He was a pup with a lineage firmly in place; champion dogs known and trained to work with police. During World War I he served in the German Red Cross earning recognition before being sent to American in 1920.
Director and animal trainer, Larry Trimble along with his screenwriter wife, Jane Murfin, wanted to create a movie, a silent film, with a dog in the starring role. After an initial encounter with Etzel where he exhibited frightening traits relative to his training, the couple still decided to take him from his kennel near New York City back to their home in Hollywood. Larry worked for weeks with Etzel retraining him for his new occupation. He needed to focus more on play than work but still be obedient.
Larry and Etzel became more of a team as the dog seemed to anticipate his every move and thoughts; his face actually mirroring Larry's emotions. Ready to begin the filming of Jane's script, The Silent Call, all Etzel needed was a screen name. Strongheart was born.
Strongheart was a natural on the set even performing his own stunts. This first film with a dog in the lead was a huge hit; earning him a national tour with treatment fit for a star. Upon his return home, his original training served his humans unexpectedly. It seemed his fame was destined to flourish whether he was in front of the camera or not. More movies, a mate and puppies that starred in movies too, extended the legacy of Strongheart: The World's First Movie Star Dog.
Emily Arnold McCully chooses to focus on those points in Strongheart's life most appealing to her reading audience. Her research provides her with specific examples used to support other statements in the narrative. By including components of his first three years of training she is able to contrast it with the results gained by Larry Trimble's work with his dog. Her simple sentence structure works in tandem with the included dialogue creating an authentic portrait of this dog's life. Here is a sample passage.
In time Etzel
learned to play ball,
to fetch, and to chase.
He loved his toys. He would take each toy out of
the closet, play for a while, and then carefully put it
back where it belonged.
His favorite was a mouse. He wouldn't let anyone
else touch it.
Rendered in watercolor and pen and ink on watercolor paper all the illustrations by Emily Arnold McCully, beginning with the dust jacket, exude warmth. On the front a mature Strongheart is shown from a scene in a movie. On the back she places the puppy Etzel within an oval shape surrounded by the same shade of red from the title. The opening and closing endpapers are five strips of film showing frames from the movies. Three of the frames have words on them as was done in silent movies. They are done in black and white placed on the identical rich red background.
McCully has included an introductory title page and a formal title page. On the first a cameraman is standing behind an alert Strongheart. A full double-page picture is next with the camera and light crew along with director Larry Trimble to the left of a movie set with actors and Strongheart on the right. A full color palette is used with exquisite attention given to the smallest of details. Appropriate clothing, hair styles, buildings and decor in keeping with the time period is evident in all of the images.
The pacing set by the illustrations seems to be similar to what would be found in the silent films of the 1920s. Emily Arnold McCully uses many smaller visuals to accentuate her text with only a few double or single page spreads to emphasize more dramatic moments. Her delicate brush strokes and fine line work convey overall mood and singular emotions with skill.
One of my favorite illustrations spans a single page. It shows the interior of a movie theater premiering The Silent Call. The audience is in the foreground with a pianist in front of them providing the musical score. The upper left hand corner shows a close-up of Strongheart on the screen. This truly captures the historical perspective presented overall in this title.
Strongheart: The World's First Movie Star Dog written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully preserves and presents to readers the place this canine holds in film and dog history. Her narrative flows well captivating her readers and inviting them to do further research about this amazing animal. A one page Author's Note supplies more details about Strongheart. A short bibliography follows.
You might enjoy the insights of Leonard Marcus in his review of Strongheart: The World's First Movie Star Dog found in an issue of The New York Times Sunday Book Review. He places it with other nonfiction titles. As usually happens to me every week when I am looking for nonfiction books to review, I found even more interesting primary sources on Strongheart, pages from an article in Photoplay 1921. (Yes...1921!) The links are here, here and here. This is fascinating reading folks.
I am sending many thanks to Alyson Beecher, educator and blogger at Kid Lit Frenzy for hosting the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge this year. Make sure you visit the other blogs to read about this week's choices.