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Film: The Man Who Laughs
Director: Paul Leni
Performers: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Zimba the Dog (Homo the Wolf)
Breed featured: German Shepherd
Production information: Universal, 1928 (USA)

In seventeenth century England, young Gwynplaine, son of a nobleman, has his face surgically disfigured into a permanent, grotesque grin as punishment when his father offends the King. Cast out into the wilderness, the boy picks up an orphaned blind baby and is eventually taken in by a kind-hearted mountebank, Ursus. Gwynplaine and the baby girl, Dea, grow to be central members of Ursus’ traveling theatrical troupe. The young lovers seem made for each other, so Ursus intends for them to marry. However, Gwynplaine deems himself inadequate for Dea, whose blindness has shielded her from the truth of his disfigurement.

Anyway, things happen, and Gwynplaine finds himself sucked back into the machinations of the royal court. The film summary on Wikipedia is perfectly sufficient to fill you in on plot details. Of course, I’m most interested in Ursus’ companion, a “domesticated wolf” whom he has named… Homo.

Talk about an identity crisis… Zimba the dog plays a wolf whose name is Latin for man!

Zimba is typed as a “German” shepherd dog for convenience, as the German nationality of the cast (specifically, Conrad Veidt) and director looms large over this extravagant, semi-silent Hollywood production. Publicity perhaps subtly affected the way that audiences decoded the image of Homo the “Wolf.” Anyway, Zimba was not the first — nor would he be the last! — GSD called upon to play the part of a wolf in film. Rin Tin Tin, the more famous contemporary dog actor, often straddled the lupine-canine divide as well. These dogs appeared large and imposing and could assume fierce faces on command.

Yet, they were appealing precisely because they’re “tameable,” able to be mastered. So Homo knows to guard his own, and to stay at Dea’s side when ordered to serve as masculine surrogate in Gwynplaine’s absence.

His muzzle doesn’t appear quite as triangular as most GSD, does it? Nor does he have the dark mask that is required in the breed standard.

The wolfdog occupies an important thematic role as observer, mediator, and judge. Named after the saying, Homo homini lupus, or “Man is a wolf to [fellow] man,” Homo metes final justice, acting both as a force of nature and (human) moral rectitude when he rips out the throat of the big bad guy. But most importantly, because the animal actor delivers the violence we wished upon the enemy, the humans are allowed to return to innocence even as their collective bloodlust is satiated.

Victory for dog, victory for mankind! He gives the audience what they want without the guilt. What a very useful dog indeed.

Bonus animals in the film include several other anonymous dogs scurrying under horse hooves and cartwheels, and a pet monkey in the possession of one kinky Duchess Josiana. This last pairing adds a touch of irony — the primate, as well as the royal mistress whose emotions he mimics, are both far more “beastly” than the wolf who dwells amongst sideshow freaks.

Homo the Wolf may not live up to his form, but in this story, he certainly lives up to his name.

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