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Film: Dog Heaven (a Little Rascals short)
Director: Anthony Mack
Performers: Pete the Pup, Hal Roach’s Rascals
Breed(s) featured: American Staffordshire Terrier, Great Dane, various mixes
Production information: Hal Roach Studios, 1927 (USA)
Availability: Viewable and downloadable at Archive.org

Ah, woe unto the poor misunderstood pit bull — back then, as in now. However, the nature of Pete the Pup’s “family troubles” is decidedly different from the breed-specific legislation of today. Poor Pete is accused of being lazy drunkard (!) and a bully who terrorizes the neighborhood and goes so far as to push a child off a bridge. When even his own “fat kid” owner refuses to come to his defense, Pete makes the desperate choice to end his own miserable life…

Don’t worry — despite the dark humor of the opening images, everything turns out okay.

Pete the pit bull is one of the most famous of the Little Rascals, whose legacy has endured thanks to a combination of his peculiar markings (the product of Hollywood makeup artistry), charismatic canine acting, and contemporary breed politics. He was a fixture of the Rascals gang. Frankly, this is a great relief for someone like me, who normally cannot stand child actors. Pete’s presence greatly redeems the quality of these funnies that otherwise try too hard for my taste.

In my new favorite!blog! of the moment, Modern Mechanix, which features amazing archival scans of vintage magazines, I learned how early special effects contributed to the magic of Pete’s acting skills. As relayed by Pete’s trainer, Harry Lucenay:

… Pete frequently is called upon to register astonishment by putting his paw behind his ear while sitting up on his hind legs. Due to a dog’s physical make-up, this is virtually an impossibility. How is it accomplished? Simply by having the trainer place the dog’s paw behind the ear before starting the cameras and then shooting the scene in reverse action. A shot then is made of him sitting up in a natural position. In the cutting room the two shots are matched so the action appears to be simultaneous.

“Secrets of Famous Dog Trainers,” Popular Mechanics June 1936, p. 882

He goes on to impart other pearls of dog training wisdom: “The early stages of training should be masked as play, says [Lucenay]. Thus, knowledge is instilled without making it a hardship” (ibid., 884). It’s an interesting article that suggests what we now think of as “positive” training, without getting bogged down in jargon or debates. But it would take a lot more close reading to unpack just what’s going on here, since even the ideas of play and obedience, so critical to Lucenay’s training philosophy, are categories in flux — as evidenced by the comedic and satirical edge that early films like Our Gang shorts often display.

Anyway, if you want to watch a cute pit bull doing cute tricks with a cast of ingratiating and slightly creepy children, check out this or any number of the Little Rascals films. It sure must have been fun while it lasted.

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