10 cool canine movies to get us through dog days

Here we are, stuck in the dog days of summer.

What better time to celebrate the best of canine cinema?

I realize that in the movie world, the term "dog days of summer" refers to the waning weeks in August when Hollywood studios, having released their best films in June and July, dump their lesser quality productions. These took on the unfortunate moniker "dogs," a clear slap in the jowls to the canine kingdom if you ask me.

Ancient Romans, believing that Sirius the dog star caused the extreme heat of late summer, would sacrifice a poor brown canine to appease Sirius and spare themselves seasonal discomfort during the dog days, starting in July.

But enough of these seasonal slanders against puppy populations, I say! Time to balance the scales of justice by honoring 10 of the best canine movies ever made, dog stories that aren't, uh, dogs.

Canines have always been important to the movies, either as easy devices to supply sympathy and cuteness to a story, or as full-fledged stars of their own tales.

Dogs can be villainous (the Doberman in "Hugo"), funny (the terrier in "The Artist"), cool (Charlie Brown's beagle in anything) and heroic (the mutt in "Underdog").

True, dogs have been featured in some of the worst movies every set upon the American public.

The rabid killer dog "Cujo" comes to mind, as well as "Man's Best Friend," a 1993 thriller about a genetically spliced mastiff that can climb trees and mimic behaviors of other animals.

But the nastiest bad doggy movie of all time has to be "Dogs," a wretched 1975 horror tale that came to the Chicago area in 1978. It featured David McCallum (star of TV's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.") in a story about man's best friends suddenly rising up against their masters in a vicious and bloody revolt.

But we digress.

Here, then, come 10 of the best canine creature features with dogs in major roles.

<b>1. "Lassie Come Home" (1943) - </b>The very first on-screen Lassie was played by a male collie named Pal in a World War I-set story about a Yorkshire lad (super young Roddy McDowall) forced to sell his beloved dog, who escapes his new master and struggles to return home, with the help of others, such as the pretty Priscilla (Elizabeth Taylor). MGM turned out several sequels through 1951. This still remains the best of the genre.

<b>2. "Old Yeller" (1957) - </b>A baby boomer classic that leaves no viewers with dry eyes. In 1869 Texas, a beloved family pet named Old Yeller valiantly protects his young master (Kevin Corcoran) from a rabid wolf attack. Then, Yeller begins exhibiting symptoms of rabies. Co-starring the immortal Fess "Davy Crockett" Parker as the father.

<b>3. "101 Dalmatians" (1961) - </b>Superb stylized animation highlights Walt Disney's family thriller about the efforts of Cruella deVil (Betty Lou Gerson) to kill and skin 101 puppies for her new fur coat, and 15 of them belong to Pongo (Rod Taylor) and mate Perdita (Cate Bauer). The 1996 live-action remake isn't bad, especially with Glenn Close chewing and digesting the scenery as Cruella.

<b>4. "My Dog Skip" (1999) - </b>In 1942, a bullied kid (Frankie Muniz) gets a best buddy in a smart and loyal Jack Russell terrier. Kevin Bacon supplies one of the best performances of his career as the lad's surly war vet father. The emo ending caused major flood alerts in communities where it played. Based on the book by Pulitzer Prize winner Willie Morris.

<b>5. "Lady and the Tramp" (1955) - </b>Siamese cat lovers take it on the chin in Walt Disney's first CinemaScope animated feature with classic songs by Peggy Lee (who successfully sued Disney for residuals from the movie's home video releases). Lady (Barbara Luddy) hooks up with the rascally Tramp (Larry Roberts) just in time to save her human family's baby from a rat attack and abuse from two singing Siamese kitties.

<b>6. "My Dog Tulip" (2009) - </b>Something different from Canadian filmmakers Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. An unsentimental, bittersweet account of a man's 14-year relationship with a German shepherd interested only in defecating, eating and mating while his patient master (narrated by Christopher Plummer) tries to find a proper dog spouse. Hand-drawn animation on computers for a distinctive, impressive look.

<b>7. "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey" (1993) - </b>Oh, no! It's a remake of Walt Disney's 1963 adventure "Incredible Journey," and it's better! Chance the bulldog (Michael J. Fox), Shadow the Golden Retriever (the late Don Ameche) and Sassy the Cat (Sally Field) hit the roads across the mountains and plains to find their humans, who've moved to a new city for Dad's job. Oh, yes, the animals talk.

<b>8. "Marley and Me" (2008) - </b>Not a great movie, but a superb dog movie. A couple (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston) love their yellow Lab Marley even though he's the most destructive, disruptive force in their universe. A domestic comedy that blindsides us with a sober twist of events. Based on newspaper columnist John Grogan's autobiographical novel.

<b>9. "Benji" (1974) -</b> The first of nine adventures starring lovable Benji (here, a shelter mutt named Higgins) remains the best. Writer/producer/director Joe Camp filmed this story about 18 inches above ground level to suggest the hero's point of view. Benji saves two youngsters from kidnappers. Simple and sweet.

<b>10. "White Fang" (1991) - </b>Jack London's classic story of redemption comes to the silver screen under the direction of Randall "Grease" Kleiser. A poor lad (Ethan Hawke) befriends a half-wolf, half-dog on his quest to find the Alaskan gold vein that eluded his late prospector father. Look for Barrington native Bill Moseley playing Luke, not exactly a very nice fellow.

"Homeward Bound:The incredible Journey" stars two dogs and a cat trying to find their lost humans over hill and dale.
John and Jenny Grogan (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston) move to a colder climate in the heart-warming drama “Marley and Me.”
What list of beloved dog flicks would be complete without “Lassie Come Home,” starring a young Roddy McDowall?
A young prospector (Ethan Hawke) befriends a half-wolf, half-dog partner in Jack London's "White Fang."
Outside of Lassie, the most endurable showbiz dog has to be Benji, here shown with his feline buddy in “Benji the Hunted.”
Pooches and pasta? It doesn’t get any cuter than “Lady & the Tramp.”
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