THE COMING OF LUKE
By Robert Young, Jr.
Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Old Yeller, and their like shine in
the history of canine film stars, but in the shadow of a now long forgotten
legend only the old vaguely recall and the young know by name if they are
fans of silent comedy.
The legend's name was Luke, his breed English pit bull,
his intelligence and physical abilities mind-boggling.
It is 1914, hefty Roscoe "Fatty' Arbuckle and his
diminutive wife Minta Durfee are thick in the swim of filming slapstick
comedies for Mack Sennett at his Keystone Studios.
One sunny morning, Minta was on location with Chester Conklin
at the edge of the palisades looking out and down at the surging Pacific
Ocean at Santa Monica. The film being shot was Lane, Speed and Thrills.
The scene, outlined by director Wilfred Lucas, has her dangling over the
cliff edge 300 feet above the narrow highway and pounding surf below. "Minta,
I'll give you a nice bonus if you'll hang on to that tree root and let Chester
rescue you," Lucas told her.
Thinking beyond the five dollars a day she was being paid,
Minta agreed. Secured by a piano wire "safety" line, she bravely
swung kicking and screaming from the root while Chester frantically jumped
around before finally hauling her up and in. The crew cheered. Lucas was
delighted with the shot. "Come over to my place tonight and pick up
your bonus," he told her.
Minta was both perlexed and disappointed when the bonus
proved not to be cash but a six week-old male English pit bulldog puppy,
one of a litter bred by the director. Held by Roscoe, the squiming bundle
of fur chewed Minta's finger and won her heart. Smiling, she told Lucas,
"Wilfred, because this was all your doing and something I want to remember
always, we'll name the bonus, Luke." Giggling, she tucked the puppy
under her arm and made for home. Luke went to sleep in her lap.
Within six months, long before World War I gave films Rin
Tin Tin, who spawned a dozen imitators, and whose memory is still current,
brown and white Luke was a full fledged member of Sennett's Keystone. He
made his film debut in January 1915 with 'Roscoe and Mabel Normand in Mabel
and Fatty's Wash Day.'
Amazingly fearless, Luke performed a variety of stunts
at Roscoe's command including climbing ladders, chasing villains across
rooftops, jumping from building to building. He also leapt from great heights,
and was once, with split second timing, filmed jumping from one speeding
car to another. Always on hand when Arbuckle was working, Luke eventually
earned a contract that paid $150 a week year 'round.
Reckoned a veteran, Minta Durfee's stunt bonus lived to
be thirteen years old, performing with Roscoe, Al St. John, and, later,
Buster Keaton. The circumstances of his death and burial in 1926 are unknown.
He survives in his films and in a famous production still in which he sits
at Arbuckle's feet unnoticed while the derby-topped comedian whistles for
him between his fingers.
SEE Buster Keaton and Luke play 'Roof Tag'
From Keaton's "The Scarecrow," 1920
More photos of Luke