A few years ago, while snooping around in a bookshop sale, I found a book of dog photographs.  On one page was a photograph of Buster of the MGM Barkies, balancing effortlessly between the backs of two chairs.  My instant impression was of a brindle Basenji, though on closer inspection he appeared to have a docked tail.  The photo was dated 1931, some six years before Basenjis officially arrived in the US through the efforts of dedicated breeders.  I bought the book, after which I made sporadic attempts to find more information on the Barkies and their trainer, Rennie Renfro, who himself had been a lion tamer and stunt actor.  At the height of the Barkies' fame he kept 65 dogs on his five acre peach farm in the San Fernando Valley.

 
       
   

 
       
   

If Buster was a Basenji, then obviously he, or one (or both) of his parents arrived in the US via some other route, perhaps direct from Africa with other animals bound for Hollywood - after all, his owner was an animal trainer - and in the early thirties a number of wild animals appeared in Hollywood films.  In the book "Jungle For Sale" by Henry Trefflich, a wild animal dealer, the writer describes how he collected and shipped animals for the American market, and the Basenji breed was well known to him as he says:

The barkless dog from Africa, the Basenji, stirred up a lot of comment when one of my representatives brought a group of nine into the United Sates in 1939.   They were something of a novelty, and inevitably stories about them appeared in the press, although they were not the first Basenjis brought to the United States.

The only sounds the Basenji makes are low, throaty murmurs, like vague chuckles.  It is an astonishing sight to see these dogs, fine, healthy, and perfectly normal in every way, with appetites to match even slightly larger breeds, become excited.  They cavort like the happy little comedians they are.   The more they jump and twist about, the more you find yourself expecting them to bark.  But they never do.

Two of these Basenjis were Kindu and Kasenyi, who arrived in a crate of gorillas bound for San Diego zoo.  See the BCOA African Stock Project for more information.

A little further on Trefflich says:

One day, shortly after my first Basenjis had been mentioned in the press, a writer of mystery stories called at the office and put an odd question to me.  If a housebreaker was busy burglarizing a home and a Basenji suddenly discovered him, would it be possible for the dog, in a heroic effort to call attention to the intruder, to "find" its voice and start barking?  He cited what he said were examples of people overcoming disabilities in crises and doing the seemingly impossible: a paralytic suddenly able to walk, a blind man suddenly able to see, a mute suddenly able to speak, etc.

I pointed out that this was a faulty comparison.  the Basenji has no disability.  It simply has no voice.  Therefore in the proposed scene it would have no voice to "find".

I could tell from his expression that the man was disappointed.

"You're positive?"

"Positive."

If someone made me the right odds I'd bet that my comments didn't discourage that writer.  "After all," his parting shot was, "It's a fiction story.  And I'd have no plot without that situation."

"Have fun," I said.  "Probably no-one will challenge such a situation in a whodunit.  You won't be in trouble until you write a story about a Basenji that sings in the Metropolitan Opera."

I have personally witnessed more than one of my own Basenjis give a warning "bark" to the others when suddenly startled, and I am sure there are plenty of owners out there whose dogs could sing very well at the Opera.  As for real burglars, four of my Basenjis (thinking I was a burglar one night) kept quiet and hid - only one was brave enough to investigate!

With my interest in Buster growing, I began to search on the internet and found an article by American journalist and author Eve Golden, who gave permission for her article to be reprinted.  She was kind enough to send me photocopies of the old news clippings she used when writing the article, and also a video of the Barkies in their spoof movies.  Eve  also loaned me some stills taken from their films which I have used to illustrate her article.

The Barkies were a sensation for about a year, when much was written about them in newspapers and magazines on every aspect of their casting, training methods and even their diet. The famous Hollywood gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, wrote in 1929:

"The canines in the films are leading anything but a dog's life these days.  What with the mechanism of sound they are able to talk like any human being.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is making a series of two-reelers in which dogs play the leading roles and use human voices.  I ought to know something about these dog actors too, because Pansy Parsons' father, Jiggs, plays one of the leading roles, and let me tell you, if M-G-M doesn't make Pansy an offer, I will have a few things to say about this dog picture."

On 5 April 1931, The Tribune reported:

"Expansion of of studio facilities for the screening of "The Barks Brothers" and other new vocally synchronised, two-reel dog comedies resulted in the building of a section labelled "Dogville Row".  This might be termed a miniature studio, for it has its own sound stage, property shop and wardrobe buildings, not to mention the dressing kennels and the swanky bungalows of the four big stars."

"A fifty foot runway for exercising the dogs is to be found on "Dogville Row", and here the temporary occupants of the kennels are put through their daily paces by a special trainer, while Jigs, Buster and Oscar presumably cast disdainful glances from the seclusion of their swanky privacy.  No specific information is at hand as to whether or not the elect of dogdom are obliged to go out and exercise with their less favoured brethren, but one may hope that they are left undisturbed in their homes.  Otherwise what would be the use of becoming a star?"

 
   

 
   

Buster takes a bath before the big game in "College Hounds"

 
       
   

On the subject of casting and costume, other journalists commented:

"The matter of sex doesn't bother dog picture-directors. Excepting Buster, who always plays heavy lovers, dogs are shifted between male and female roles at will.  For example, Bill played the District Attorney in "Who Killed Rover?" and a prison matron in "The Dog House".  Oscar, who jumped from extra work to stardom in two pictures, played leading ladies in "Dogway Melody", and "So Quiet on the Canine Front".  Shep usually does clean-cut juveniles, but he has been a blushing bride on one occasion."

* * *

"The company possesses a wardrobe containing over a thousand costumes - carefully tailored to measure.  And quite a chore it is to get them dressed in the morning, too.  Although they put up with it more calmly now than they did at first - and don't spend a lot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's valuable time trying to scraffle out of their trousers backwards as they did when they were first introduced to them."

* * *

"It is intensely interesting to watch the filming of a scene with a dozen or more dogs.  Often there is a regular bedlam of noise with all of the trainers shouting at their respective dogs.  But each dog seems to recognize his master's voice and acts accordingly."

* * *

Asked about his training methods and how he hand-picks dogs to play major acting roles, Rennie Renfro told one journalist:

"The first step necessary in training dogs for pictures, is to pick the smart dogs from each litter.  By a smart dog I mean one which has the necessary "edge" on the others in general intelligence and nervous organization which will enable him to master difficult routines in training.  I never pick more than two dogs from a litter for this purpose.  It is possible to judge a young dog by looking into his eyes.   There is a certain alert fire and gleam to the eye denoting possibilities that can be brought out by training."

"Those of my students that seem to possess special ability I enter upon a systematic course of training for picture work.  This includes walking on the hind legs, opening doors, assuming different positions and holding them, picking up designated objects, learning directions right and left, and most important of all the movement of the jaws in response to a hand signal.  All of these so-called "tricks" are the result of long and patient training with constant repetition which impresses the routine on the dog's "memory" (I am convinced that dogs do have a memory) and enabling him to recall the action from verbal suggestion."

"In handling my "company" before the cameras I have to use extreme firmness, as the moment a trainer relaxes the "actors" seem to sense it and in a flash they are in all corners of the stage with the technical staff pursuing."

On the subject of feeding, we are told:

"The feeding is exceedingly scientific.  For six days they are fed a ground mash consisting of 70% meat and 30% vegetables.  One day each week only they are given raw meat.  The dogs have become so used to a semi-vegetable diet that they consume practically all of the peaches that fall from the Renfro trees."

An early attempt to corner the growing dog food market was made by Renfro, who was quick to capitalise on the media interest in his canine stars.

"Rennie Renfro, owner of the dog stars, Oscar and Buster, has a profitable arrangement with a local veterinary.  They manufacture dog rations under the name of "M-G-M Barkies".  Renfro advertises the product in medicine-show fashion by taking the dogs to markets and putting them through their tricks."

Tantalisingly, there is only one mention of Buster's sire, a canine star in his own right before Buster followed him into the business.

"Buster, that tall, lean, aquiline leading man - comes from a long line of stage people.  His father was once a male star.  And famous, too.  But now, Buster senior is getting a little gray and grizzled, so he is relegated to character roles and must leave the romantic parts to his promising son!"

And then, in another clipping:

"Buster, who might have been a Boston except for the indiscretion of an ancestor, was picked for leading man.  Buster is 4 years old, and has acted in more than 50 educational comedies."

This last piece of information had me blinking in surprise, as it is difficult to imagine Buster having any Boston ancestry at all.  It is possible that the journalist got it wrong, or that Rennie Renfro, who for trainability preferred mutts to pure bred dogs, had little interest in the parentage of any of them and just guessed.  From this distance in time, who knows?

 
       
   

Catherine Moylan and Buster in "Trader Hound"