Scruffy: Canine Star of British Studios

By Richard Farmer and Sarah Street

We recently came across an intriguing feature in the French journal Pour Vous (thanks to Sue Harris) about a British film star. Published in February 1940, after the start of the Second World War, but prior to the German invasion of France, the article has a pretty conventional ‘day in the life’ structure and is handsomely illustrated.  It concerns Scruffy, ‘dog and star’ (Pour Vous, 21 Feb 1940: 9) and perhaps the most important British cinematic canine since Cecil Hepworth’s Rover.

Why Scruffy was considered worthy of this treatment in France is not clear, although a similar article on a French poodle named Pipo a couple of months later suggests that dogs may have been en vogue at the time (Pour Vous, 22 May 1940: 6). However, the photospread has obvious appeal for us here at STUDIOTEC: we see Scruffy arriving at the main entrance to Denham studios and starting his day’s work, as captured in these images.

Scruffy being given a medical to satisfy the insurers before being allowed to start the day’s shooting, and in the make-up room, where are are told he requires neither lipstick nor false beard.

Scruffy at work, and, finally, looking with supposedly unfeigned interest at the day’s rushes. 

The photos are clearly staged – although perhaps no more so than pictures of human stars in similar circumstances – but they do provide us with glimpses of the spaces and equipment of the studio. Quite what the highly-skilled studio employees in the photos felt about their role as extras in a photoshoot for a dog is not recorded, and neither is their reaction to the fact that at the height of his fame Scruffy was being paid at least 35 guineas per week – which BECTU records show might have been considerably more than his human colleagues were (Observer, 22 November 1936: 11). Although fan magazines joked of their concern that Scruffy would soon ‘get [a] swelled head’ and start ‘demanding a dressing-room on the set and a stand-in’ (Picturegoer, 26 October 1935: 40), his professionalism was apparently highly regarded at Denham, where his ability to hit his mark first time earned him the nickname ‘One-Shot Scruffy’ (Daily Mail, 17 May 1937: 4). 

Scruffy’s life was a real rags-to-riches tale: purchased from Battersea Dogs Home at a cost of 7s. 6d. by London Films cameraman Bernard Browne (Anon., ‘Scruffy – film star’, Bystander, 23 December 1936, p. 486), but like all the best stars, this might have been an origin story written for the press: The Era claimed that the Battersea Story was just studio publicity, and that in fact Scruffy came from a litter on an Oxfordshire farm (The Era Staff, ‘Talking shop’, The Era, 2 December 1936, p. 2). His ‘autobiography’ (see later) however records him living in north London, getting lost, put in a Dogs’ Home and then given a home by Browne. The rest is, as they say, canine movie history.

Described as ‘the Charlie Chaplin of dog stardom’ (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 29 September 1937: 8), Scruffy made his screen debut in Wharves and Strays, a 1935 documentary shot primarily on location at the Thameside docks by London Films cameraman, and Scruffy’s owner, Bernard Browne.  Having made his feature film bow in Fox’s Blue Smoke, shot at Wembley in 1935, Scruffy went to work at Denham, appearing in Wings of the Morning (1937); at the film’s gala premiere, he was seated next to Sir Kingsley Wood, then Minister of Health and later Chancellor of the Exchequer, a politician who seemed only too happy to be photographed with the most hirsute of the stars of Britain’s first Technicolor feature (Sketch, 2 June 1937: 460). In the film Scruffy belongs to lead character Kerry (Henry Fonda), with whom he appears in several scenes, including one while Kerry is having a bath. The colour of Scruffy’s fur was clearly an attribute that supported Natalie Kalmus’s design for the film as highlighting natural browns and verdant hues for the Irish location.

Scruffy, star of Wings of the Morning.

Scruffy and Henry Fonda in the bathroom in Wings of the Morning.

Staying at Denham, Scruffy made Storm in a Teacup (1937). In the film, Scruffy plays a pivotal role as Patsy and was at the time of the film’s release arguably as big a draw as co-stars Vivien Leigh and Rex Harrison, both then still relatively early on in their careers. Although some exteriors were shot in Scotland, most of Storm in a Teacup was made at Denham, and the studio played host to approximately 150 dogs – ‘lean dogs, fat dogs, mongrel dogs, pedigree dogs, lap dogs, yap dogs’ (Leicester Chronicle, 11 December 1937: 17) – during the shooting of the film’s climactic sequence, with the hounds raised to ‘a pitch of wild excitement’ by the secretion of pieces of raw liver in actors’ costumes (Yorkshire Post, 28 September 1937: 8). 

Scruffy featured in poster for Storm in a Teacup.

Scruffy featured in special postcard for Storm in a Teacup.

The filming of Wharves and Strays and Storm in a Teacup is described in Scruffy: The Adventures of a Mongrel in Movieland (1937), an ‘autobiography’ by Claude Burbridge that recounts Scruffy’s experiences from a canine point of view. Whilst an obvious attempt to cash-in on what might have proved a brief moment of fame, Scruffy’s ‘autobiography’ went through four printings in its first year, proving, as the New Review put it, ‘that the book is popular and its hero an authentic film star’ (New Review, 1939: 96). It recounts how after being trained at a special kennels by R.M. Montgomery, Scruffy first encountered an unnamed film studio to feature in a chaotic, never completed production about the life of John Bunyan. Ever observant, Scruffy takes in the studio’s vast stage quite vividly:

High up by the roof there was a kind of balcony and on this were a lot of very big and very strong lamps and men were sitting by the lamps with their legs dangling over the edge. There were hundreds of people hurrying about and getting in each other’s way and tripping over the cables that writhed all over the floor like snakes (p. 78).

A flavour of the studio as a space of frenetic activity is also conveyed by Scruffy while waiting for his cue:

The set was in a state of uproar. Carpenters and scene shifters were so busy that the place never looked the same for two minutes consecutively. Cameramen were saving and killing arcs; electricians were spinning cocoons with cables and flex; actors and actresses were dabbing feverishly at their make-up and the assistant director cantered past us with the tears streaming down his cheeks (p. 80).

More positively, we learn of Scruffy’s time at Denham Studios, described as ‘a vast size, containing many buildings. These buildings are also of a vast size and contain many gadgets, which are all the latest pattern and most important in the production of pictures’ (p. 89). Scruffy seems particularly aware of social distinctions, commenting that once through Denham’s main gates the long line of buildings housing offices ‘are manned by a very aristocratic collection of young men and maidens. I am not certain as to their precise duties, but I feel sure that they have nothing to do with the squalid and commercial business of producing pictures. I am inclined to imagine that they are recruited from Roedean and Eton in order to lend tone to the film industry and to impress visiting potentates, magnates and what-nots. The further you advance from the front of the building the lower you move down the social scale’ (p. 90). Here is Scruffy arriving at Denham; it appears he was never subject to social exclusion as a valued member of the Denham Studio Club:

Scruffy is impressed with Denham’s restaurant as a place ‘glittering with stars and other people of importance’ (p. 126), and he even attends Denham’s annual Christmas dance for staff and stars. He was petted by many stars including Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Merle Oberon, Robert Donat and, of course, his employer Alexander Korda. Here he poses with Marlene Dietrich and Merle Oberon.

There followed an attempt to find out if Scruffy was capable of carrying a film on his own. Vulcan Pictures’ 62-minute supporting feature Scruffy was shot at Stoll’s Cricklewood studio in autumn 1937, and despite its being burdened by a ‘very slow’ pace and a plot ‘full of improbabilities,’ Monthly Film Bulletin found much to enjoy in the film, not least the eponymous lead’s turn as ‘a most engaging mongrel’ (Monthly Film Bulletin, 1938: 97). The film was still attracting bookings until at least May 1945, but the lack of a sequel suggests that Scruffy’s management team recognised that he was most likely to enjoy success in supporting roles, such as his turn alongside George Formby in It’s In the Air (1938), shot at Ealing as the first of a six-picture deal that Formby agreed with ATP.

Scruffy’s commitment to his craft did not stop at the studio gates, though, and like most film stars of the era he appeared on magazine covers (he sat for a portrait by Mrs Shaw Baker, animal portraitist, that graced the front page of the February 1939 edition of Woman’s Magazine), promotional materials such as post-cards and calendars, and the wireless (featuring in an episode of In Town Tonight and, on New Year’s Day 1939, a special programme entitled Calling All Dogs). Scruffy also made numerous personal appearances – as many as 40,000 people might have petted him (Acton Gazette, 10 February 1939: 5) at the ‘more than one hundred’ PAs he had made by February 1939 (Acton Gazette, 3 February 1939: 1). Most of these were at cinemas, but Scruffy also opened fairs and fetes, acted as a judge at a dog show held at Selfridge’s on Oxford Street as part of his promotional duties for Storm in a Teacup (Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June 1937: 39), and was ‘guest of honour at a literary lunch at Grosvenor House’ (Acton Gazette, 3 February 1939: 1). 

In December 1940, with Bernard Browne looking to join the RAF, Scruffy was sold to Margaret Buckley for a price in the region of 100 guineas (Sketch, 11 December 1940: 340). Scruffy, as did many of his contemporary British stars, set about raising funds for war work: anyone donating 10s. to the Dogs’ Spitfire Fund, a body of which Scruffy became President, received his photograph; anyone donating 20s. received a copy of his autobiography (Daily Herald, 18 December 1940: 6). News of his sale was reported in the national press, demonstrating how well known he had become, but his career seems to have waned at this point – the trail goes cold in digital newspaper archives and his career, and possibly even his life, appears to be discussed in the past tense in an article in July 1945 (Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 27 July 1945: 6). But he clearly added more than a generous bowlful of canine charm to the history of British film studios.

References

Christopher Adams, ‘Two Dogs have their day’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 29 September 1937, p. 8.

Anon., ‘We take off our hat to –‘, Sketch, 2 June 1937, p. 460.

Anon., ‘Around London with the Showman’, Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June 1937, p. 39.

Anon., ‘London notes and comment’, Yorkshire Post, 28 September 1937, p. 8.

Anon., ‘Where to be amused’, Leicester Chronicle, 11 December 1937, p. 17.

Anon., ‘Scruffy,’ New Review, 1939 (vol. 9), p. 96.

Anon, ‘La journée de Scruffy, chien et vedette’, Pour Vous, 21 Feb 1940, p. 9.

Anon., ‘We take off our hat to – ‘, Sketch, 11 December 1940, p. 340.

Anon., ‘Scruffy’, Daily Herald, 18 December 1940, p. 6.

Anon, ‘Quest for a dog star’, Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 27 July 1945, p. 6.

Claude Burbidge, Scruffy: The Adventures of a Mongrel in Movieland, London: Hurst & Blackett, 1937.

E. G. Cousins, ‘On the British sets’, Picturegoer, 26 October 1935, p. 40.

C. A. Lejeune, ‘A dog film star’, Observer, 22 November 1936, p. 11.

Tamara Loundine, ‘Les débuts de “Pipo” a l’écran’, Pour Vous, 22 May 1940, p. 6.

Seton Margrave, ‘Happiest British picture for years’, Daily Mail, 17 May 1937, p. 4.

E. P., ‘Scruffy’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 5: 49-60 (1938), p. 97.

J. E. T., ‘Scruffy now lives in Acton’, Acton Gazette, 3 February 1939, p. 1.

‘X’, ‘Round about Acton’, Acton Gazette, 10 February 1939, p. 5.

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