From Carpet-Wetter to Canine Movie Star: The Story of Toto

Interesting glimpses into the life of the film icon, Toto.

Posted Feb 11, 2020 | Reviewed by Daniel Lyons M.A.

Public Domain (PD-PRE1978)
Toto and Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz"
Source: Public Domain (PD-PRE1978)

I was presenting an all-day series of talks about the human-canine bond, and I had planned to talk about the ways that dogs were represented in movies and other media in the afternoon. So in the morning, just to gather a little bit of data, I had all 219 participants write on a slip of paper the answer to the question: "Which three canine movie stars do you think have been the most popular or influential of all time (no animated or cartoon dogs please)?" One of the organizers of the event tabulated the answers and we got the following ranking:

  1. Lassie
  2. Rin Tin Tin
  3. Toto
  4. Benji
  5. Buddy (from the "Air Bud" movies)

The top two entries were not a surprise to me since there have been 11 Lassie films, a series of radio dramas, and a TV series which ran for 19 seasons. Similarly, Rin Tin Tin has appeared in 27 Hollywood films and six seasons on TV. To me the heart-warming surprise was Toto.

When I was a kid my favorite film had been The Wizard of Oz. Some say that the film starred someone named Judy Garland, playing the orphan adventurer, Dorothy, but every child knows that the real star was Toto, a gray brindle Cairn Terrier. If you doubt me, let me refer to a colleague of mine in the Film and Theatre Department, who did the hard number crunching and found that Toto is in more scenes than Judy Garland (although Judy has more close-ups and obviously more dialogue). Dorothy also addresses more lines to Toto than to anyone else in the film. Because the state of Kansas features prominently in the original story, a movement started in Wichita to make the Cairn Terrier the state’s official dog. Notice that no one has suggested that Judy Garland be the official actress of Kansas.

Toto was really a female dog named Terry who was born in 1933 in Altadena, California. She became the pet of a married couple that became frustrated because she was continually wetting the carpet. So they took her to Carl Spitz, who ran a dog training school in nearby San Fernando Valley. Spitz worked with her and in a few weeks, she was completely housebroken. However, by the time her training was finished, Terry's owners were already late in their kennel and training payments. When Spitz tried to reach them he found that their telephone had been disconnected. So at his wife's urging, they decided to keep her as a pet.

Clark Gable and Hedda Hopper noticed Terry when they visited the kennel for some publicity photos with Buck, a St. Bernard that Spitz had trained for Gable's new film "Call of the Wild". At their urging Spitz brought Terry to Fox Studios to audition for a part in the new Shirley Temple film "Bright Eyes". Terry was put through her training routines (playing dead, leaping over a leash, barking on command and so forth) and then presented to seven-year-old Shirley for the final say. Shirley watched Terry happily playing with her own pet Pomeranian, Ching-Ching, and then picked Terry up and handed her to Spitz and announced, "She's hired."

Terry would go on to appear in 21 Hollywood films, however, in all but one of them, she was not credited on the cast list.

When it was announced that MGM was going to produce L Frank Baum's popular children's book The Wizard Of Oz Spitz thought that this was an opportunity for Terry to reach stardom since she was the spitting image of Dorothy's dog, Toto, as pictured in the Oz books. So he began teaching her all of the tricks that he thought that she might need in the film.

When he met with the producer Mervyn LeRoy (who had been inspecting an average of 100 dogs daily for the past week) Spitz announced "Here's your dog. She's all trained up for the part." He then demonstrated that Terry knew how to fight, chase a witch, sit up, speak, and even catch an apple thrown from a tree. Furthermore, she and Judy Garland immediately liked each other.

Toto was a valued member of the cast of the Wizard of Oz and was paid a weekly salary of $125.00. In comparison, the little people who sang and danced as the Munchkins were receiving only $50.00 a week.

However, like most stars, or at least like most Cairn Terriers, Toto had her quirks and terrier-like outbursts. For example, during the cornfield scene when Dorothy meets the Scarecrow for the first time the shooting had to be stopped while Toto was reprimanded by the film director, Victor Fleming. The problem was she was caught trying to chew on the costume of Ray Bolger, who was playing the Scarecrow.

Carl Spitz explained to Fleming that the straw around the Scarecrow’s legs was flopping around so loosely that it was irresistible for a terrier. He noted that something moving erratically on or near the ground triggers a genetic predisposition in a terrier that tells its brain, “Here is a thing that must be chased.” A quick costume repair was needed to tighten the ground level pieces of straw so they would be less appealing to Toto, while the higher bits of straw could still bounce freely to make the Scarecrow seem to be just a loosely stuffed manikin. While the crew waited for the modification of the costume, the director fumed, “Must dogs be just as temperamental as actors?”

There was a second incident when Toto had her paw stepped on by an actor playing one of the witch's guards. At first, everyone feared that it was broken, but it was only sprained. To give her a bit of rest, however, they decided to use a stuffed toy, the same shape and size as a Cairn Terrier, to stand in for lighting and camera checks. Unfortunately, the moment that Toto saw her replacement she leapt off her chair and raced across the set with teeth bared and began to rip her stand-in to pieces. The director, Fleming watched this incident, sighed, and asked, “Must dogs be as jealous and insecure as actors?”

One of the strangest things to be seen on the set of the film was Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, happily sitting with Terry on her lap. Hamilton was an ardent advocate of animal welfare causes despite her menacing threat to Dorothy in the film "I'll get you and your little dog too!"

According to a report by the Library of Congress in 2010, The Wizard Of Oz is the most-watched film ever, due in part to its regular broadcast on network TV beginning in the 1950s. Because of the popularity of Terry's part in "The Wizard Of Oz" Carl Spitz eventually changed her name officially to "Toto".

Here is Toto's complete filmography:

  • Bright Eyes (1934) - Rags - Loop's Dog [with Shirley Temple and James Dunn]
  • Ready for Love (1934) - Dog [with Richard Arlen and Ida Lupino]
  • The Dark Angel (1935) - Dog [with Fredric March and Oberon]
  • Fury (1936) - Rainbow - Joe's Dog [with Sylvia Sidney and Spencer Tracy]
  • The Buccaneer (1938) - Landlubber [with Fredric March and Franciska Gaal]
  • Barefoot Boy (1938) - Toto [with Jackie Moran and Marcia Mae Jones]
  • Stablemates (1938) - Pet Dog [with Wallace Beery and Mickey Rooney]
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939) - Toto her only credited role (credited as "Toto") [with Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, and Ray Bolger]
  • The Women (1939) - Fighting Dog at Beauty Shop [with Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford]
  • Bad Little Angel (1939) - Rex [with Virginia Weidler and Gene Reynolds]
  • Calling Philo Vance (1940) - McTavish [with James Stephenson and Margot Stevenson]
  • The Ghost Comes Home (1940) - Dog in Pet Shop [with Frank Morgan and Billy Burke]
  • Son of the Navy (1940) - Toto [with Jean Parker and James Dunn]
  • Cinderella's Feller (1940) - Rex the Dog [with Juanita Quigley and Scotty Beckett]
  • The Chocolate Soldier (1941) - Dog [with Nelson Eddy and Rise Stevens]
  • Rings on Her Fingers (1942) - Dog [with Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney]
  • Twin Beds (1942) - Dog [George Brent and Joan Bennett]
  • Tortilla Flat (1942) - Little Paelito [with Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr]
  • George Washington Slept Here (1942) - Dog [with Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan]
  • The Heavenly Body (1944) - Dog in Groomer's Tub [with William Powell and Hedy Lamarr]
  • Easy to Look At (1945) - Toto (her final film role) [Gloria Jean and Kibby Grant]

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