Strongheart: The First Major Canine Film Star

Strongheart became famous in history as the first major dog celebrity, having starred in six silent films between 1921 and 1927.

Strongheart, originally named Etzel von Oeringen, was born on October 1, 1917 in Wroclaw, Poland. The male German shepherd was descended from a carefully-bred line of police dogs, was trained in the kennels of the Berlin police department, and had a gallant record of service in the German Red Cross during the First World War. After the war, Etzel's owner could no longer afford to keep the three year old dog so he sent him to a friend who owned a reputable kennel in New York to be sold.

American director Laurence Trimble, who had achieved fame as an animal trainer for his work with Jean (the first canine film star in the US) was in search of a new dog. In the autumn of 1920 Trimble and Jane Murfin, a screenwriter for his films, bought Etzel, knowing the dog had the makings of being a star. The name Etzel von Oeringen seemed to long and complicated so it was decided by the publicity department of the motion picture studio to name the dog Strongheart.

Because Strongheart was so well trained in police methods, it took Trimble months to teach him to feel comfortable around groups of people, to have fun, and (because he was to play a dog hero) to attack gently. According to Trimble, "His human counterparts on screen were pleased with Strongheart, for even though he tore their clothes to shreds, he never left a mark of fang or nail on any actor."

Strongheart's first picture, The Silent Call (1921), was a huge success. He was loved by people of all ages and was given the star treatment when making personal appearances. He was the biggest grossing star in Hollywood during his lifetime - according to the Los Angeles Times, "...it is estimated that he has earned no less than $2.5 million since entering pictures and his income tax alone in one year was said to be $38,000."

Strongheart starred in five other films: Brawn of the North (1922), The Love Master (1924), White Fang (1925), North Star (1925) and The Return of Boston Blackie (1927). The Love Master and The Return of Boston Blackie are the only films known to survive today.

Lady Julie and Strongheart visiting a children's hospital in Boston, 1924

Strongheart produced many litters with his mate Lady Julie, a light-colored German shepherd who co-starred with him. One grandson, Lightning, appeared in several movies during the 1930s. Another grandson named Silver King also appeared in a couple of movies and made personal appearances teaching children about safety.

In 1929, while making a film, Strongheart was accidentally burned by a studio light. The burn never healed, causing a tumor to form which ultimately took his life. The beloved dog died at Murfin's home on June 24, 1929. Descendants of Strongheart and Lady Julie are still living today.

In 1960, Strongheart was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.