Rin-Tin-Tin stars as the leader of a wolfpack (!) who helps a baby Charles Farrell stake out his borax claim. Location shooting and finecinematography elevate this doggy vehicle.
Of all the silent era animal stars of the silent era, the biggest paws to fill are those of Rin-Tin-Tin, the lively German Shepherd who, it was said, supported the entire Warner Brothers lot on his fuzzy shoulders.
Rinty was not as classically beautiful as Strongheart. He was a bit dinky, had bat ears and his facial markings were not ideal for the breed. However, what he lacked in looks, he more than made up for in personality and acting ability. The dog was a born ham.
This picture also features Nanette, Rinty’s doggie lady love, and a collection of puppies. I am not sure if they were his but they are certainly cute so there will be no complaints from me.
Filmed as it was in the bad old days before animal stunts were monitored, this movie comes with a content warning from me. It looks like most of the feats of canine derring-do were achieved with camera tricks, dummies, undercranking and the dog’s paws being manipulated offscreen but there is a possibility that animals were indeed harmed in the making of this picture. There is one scene in which Rinty and his pack chase a white horse and I am fairly certain that the animal was in real distress and terror.
The human end of the equation is handled by Charles Farrell as Dave, a would-be borax miner who has just struck it big. (I honestly appreciate a movie prospector after something other than gold, silver or diamonds.) June Marlowe plays May, the rich local lady who has fallen for dusty Dave.
The Mojave Desert is not known for its population of wolves but that doesn’t stop the screenwriter from creating a forest fire to drive the pack in amongst the Joshua trees. Come to mention it, this is the least convincing wolfpack Hollywood has ever assembled with a few stock shots of real wolves and the actual animal performers being German Shepherds and Siberian Huskies, which makes this sort of a canine Alexander Nevsky, if you think about it.
Rinty plays Lobo, the leader of the wolves. The title cards assure us he is a half-dog hybrid, which just goes to show you that Hollywood casting shenanigans extend to the animal kingdom as well. Lobo has been leading the pack in killing and eating cattle and he attempts to do the same to Dave, May and comedy relief Alkali Bill (Heinie Conklin). The trio make a narrow escape but the townsfolk are determined to rid themselves of the wolves.
Meanwhile, “Borax” Horton (Pat Hartigan) has decided that he will jump Dave’s claim and get that borax for himself. Mwahaha.
Naturally, Rinty has to get involved. Lobo injures his paw on a cactus and Dave heals him. And makes him wear booties. What a revolting development this is. Things get worse when Alkali Bill helps disguise Lobo with a fake beard. And Dave and May find this to be a fine disguise.
Now, I realize that characters playing second banana to a German Shepherd are not likely to be the deepest in the world but I have seen more intelligent creatures than them lying on their backs at the bottoms of ponds. It’s one thing for the mustachioed comedy relief to think that a beard would work to disguise a dog but the ostensible heroes? Couldn’t they at least have looked at a picture of a schnauzer for inspiration?
Fortunately, though, this is Rinty’s film and he easily steals the show. In addition to any stray farm animals, our canine hero leaves no scenery unchewed. At one point, he is shot at and plays dead. He could have dropped to the ground but instead, he does a spin and several flops in a performance worthy of Bugs Bunny. In another scene, he reunites with Nanette and they immediately engage in mutual grooming but that doesn’t stop him from shoving her out of the way when she starts to upstage him.
Rinty’s enthusiasm is infectious and even though the story is, let’s face it, on the extremely silly side of the studio programmer equation, he manages to make it engaging and fun. Much credit to Rinty and his owner, Lee Duncan. (The story has been doubtlessly embroidered but the detail everyone seems to agree on is that Duncan adopted Rinty from a litter of pups abandoned by retreating German soldiers.)
The direction by Noel Mason Smith gets the job done but special notice is due to E. B. DuPar, cinematographer, and E. Burton Steene, who was responsible for the Akeley camera work. That camera is famous for shooting, among other things, Wings and its light weight and ability to pan and tilt one-handed made it “the GoPro of its day.” Clash of the Wolves features the expected shots of Lobo silhouetted against the desert sky but there are also some nice low angles during the chase scenes to capture the wolf’s eye view.
A quick side note: An item on the picture found in American Cinematographer stated that the cast and crew were shooting in an unnamed desert and that the temperature was 130 degrees. Well, honey, that desert is assuredly not Death Valley. It looks more like the Victorville/Lancaster/Mojave part of the Mojave Desert so the temperatures would probably be in the 100-110 degree range. Still plenty scorching but let’s not guild the lily. (Boron, which is in that vicinity, is home to the largest borax mine in the world.)
Maybe Lillian Gish was jealous of the attention Rinty was getting when she opted to steadily crank up the alleged temperatures while shooting The Wind. (These are my old stomping grounds and I always find it humorous when these crazy high temperatures are passed off as fact. And city slickers fall for these tall tales on the regular.)
Fans of Charles Farrell will no doubt enjoy seeing their favorite so young and I enjoyed June Marlowe’s performance too. Heinie Conklin’s comedy act got a bit on my nerves, to be honest. Pat Hartigan does fine as the BOO HISS baddie. He certainly did not have good fortune with animal co-stars, being roughed up as he was by Rex the Wonder Horse in King of the Wild Horses the previous year.
Your enjoyment of this picture depends entirely on how much you enjoy the prospect of an animal leading man. I should also note that silent films with animal stars were completely different from their talkie equivalent. Intertitles allow us to understand the creature’s thoughts without relying on lame “I think he wants us to follow him!” dialogue or cheesy voiceover narration.
Unfortunately, Warner Brothers (or their modern overlords) have forgotten how much they owe this four-legged hero and there is a shortage of silent Rin-Tin-Tin films receiving quality release. It’s a shame because he really is a delight to behold.
Clash of the Wolves is considered to be one of Rinty’s best by his fans and I can certainly understand its appeal. Your mileage may vary but I enjoyed myself.