By Linda Cole
Before Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin, a dog named Strongheart made his film debut as the first canine action hero. But he would first have to go through extensive training to learn how to be sociable and resist earlier training as a German attack police dog before beginning his life as a movie star. It was Strongheart who set the stage for all of the other canine action heroes who came after him.
Laurence Trimble found fame and fortune in Hollywood with his dog Jean, who rose to stardom as the Vitagraph Dog and the first canine to have her name in the title of a film. After Jean’s death in 1916, Trimble searched for another dog he could train and mold into a movie star. In 1920 he found the dog he was looking for: a German Shepherd named Etzel von Oeringen – aka Strongheart.
Born in Poland in 1917, Strongheart was descended from an elite line of carefully bred German Shepherd dogs. He was trained as a police/military attack dog and excelled at his job. Strongheart was powerful, courageous, fearless and disciplined. Strongheart had very little socialization with humans, though, and wasn’t ready for life as a movie star. The dog came to America in 1920 after his owner sent him to a friend, Bruno Hoffman, to sell. Hoffman owned a well respected kennel in New York.
Soon after Strongheart’s arrival, Trimble traveled to New York to see him. A gate blocked his way onto the property, and instead of ringing a bell to summon Hoffman, Trimble opened the gate and entered the property unannounced. He got about 15 feet before hearing the crash of glass, a fierce growl and the sight of a powerful dog in full charge.
Trimble remained still and commanded the charging dog to “Halt.” It caused Strongheart to pause and stand motionless. Trimble then called his name. Strongheart responded by walking around behind him and stopping with his head at Trimble’s right hand, facing in his direction. Impressed, Trimble knew he had found the dog he had been looking for and returned to Hollywood with Strongheart.
Trimble immediately began working with Strongheart to teach him how to just be a dog, how to play, be sociable and bond with humans. Strongheart was so well trained as a police attack dog that it took months to teach him how to be comfortable around people and have fun. Because his intended role was as a dog hero, Strongheart had to learn to show a fun-loving side on screen and how to attack gently. Trimble succeeded at his mission and even though Strongheart appeared vicious on screen when attacking, he never left a bite mark on any of his human actors. (He did tear their clothing to shreds, though).
Strongheart’s first starring role was in “Silent Call,” a 1921 film that received wide praise. Moviegoers adored Strongheart and the dog became an instant star. He went on to star in five more films. Unfortunately, the only one still around today is a 1927 film “The Return of Boston Blackie,” which can be watched here. During his time in Hollywood, Strongheart became one of the biggest grossing stars in movies with an estimated earnings of around $2.5 million dollars.
A canine love interest, a light-colored German Shepherd named Lady Jule, soon joined Strongheart in films and on PR appearances. Both dogs became beloved fan favorites and the public devoured stories about them in fan magazines and newspaper accounts. The pair produced many litters and two of Strongheart’s grandsons, Lightning and Silver King, appeared in a handful of movies. Silver King is best remembered for personal appearances promoting his intelligence and teaching children about safety.
Strongheart’s career ended tragically while shooting a new film. He accidentally brushed up against a hot studio light, receiving a nasty burn. At first it appeared to be only a minor wound, but it refused to heal and turned into a tumor which ended up taking his life a few weeks later. The beloved canine film star died on June 24, 1929. In 1960, Strongheart was honored by the film industry with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There are still descendants of Strongheart and Lady Jule living today.
This famous canine action hero had a dog food named after him and a couple of books that referenced him, “Letters to Strongheart” and “Kinship with All Life” both written by J. Allen Boone. Copies can be found on Amazon.
Read more articles by Linda Cole