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This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to author Roby Sweet. Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Syn the Siamese Cat: Star of the Silver Screen

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Today, June 19,  is National Pets in Film Day, and we’re observing the day with this short profile of one of our favorite cat actors, Syn the Siamese Cat, star of Disney’s The Incredible Journey and That Darn Cat.

From the pound to an incredible journey

The Incredible Journey

Syn was “discovered” by trainer Bill Koehler, who found him in a California pound and bought him for five dollars. The people who gave the handsome Siamese up described him as “standoffish,” but Koehler found that he learned quickly. Syn was trained to respond to a bell tone so that, when the bell was rung, Syn would go toward it.

The cat’s first big role was The Incredible Journey (1963), in which he co-starred with a bull terrier and a Labrador retriever in the story of three pets trekking across the Canadian wilderness.

The role of Tao the cat brought several challenges for Syn, one of the greatest of which was pretending to be friends with a bull terrier. The dog was friendly enough, but Syn…well, there was a lot of hissing on his part. Koehler and his associate and “cat man” Al Niemela worked with the animal actors for months, teaching them their “marching order,” the way they would walk along together for much of the film. One day they decided to see if they could get Syn to alter the marching order and jump onto a fence beside the old road where they were filming. The dogs were started down the road doing the tired walk they’d rehearsed so many times. Then Syn was released to follow them, which he did, yowling all the way (Koehler described Syn’s loud vocalizations as “profanity”). Al told him to jump, motioning to the fence, and Syn went immediately toward it and jumped onto the top rail, from where he continued to follow the dogs. The trainers stopped the dogs to let Syn catch up, and when he did, he jumped down from the fence, went straight to the bull terrier, and rubbed against him repeatedly. At last, affection! (Although it did take a moment for the dog to get over his surprise at the cat’s actions.)

Syn the Siamese faces down a bear
Syn when he was facing down a bear in
The Incredible Journey.
Still from movie trailer.
Syn also had to face down a large black bear in the scene in which he protects his buddy the bull terrier. As far as acting goes, this scene was not difficult, because Syn would naturally “oppose anything from a gopher to the National Guard,” Koehler wrote. But still…a bear! (It was actually a trained bear named Carol, but still...a bear!) 

Syn’s brush with death—for real

The scariest part of this movie was something that wasn’t on screen. At one point, Syn and several of the other cats (there were several backup cats) became ill. One morning, they were found lying still and silent in their pens, very unusual for felines who were usually active and vocal. They would not even swallow water from a syringe. They were even worse the next day, when a veterinarian was able to come. He knew immediately that the cats were suffering from some kind of chemical poisoning. A vitamin K injection turned them around, and they all recovered. It was later determined that a well-meaning property owner had sprayed sheep dip along the path where the crew, including the cats, had filmed. He’d wanted to protect the animal actors by keeping the insects at bay, but the cats had gotten the chemical on their fur and ingested it when they licked themselves.

Truly a close call for Syn!

That Darn Cat book cover
Disney created this book based on the movie
That Darn Cat. The color of Syn's eyes
has been enhanced; they were naturally a
beautiful blue, but not quite that blue!

That Darn Cat!

Syn went from one success to another when he starred in his next film, That Darn Cat! (1965). For his role as DC (Darn Cat), Syn had to perform many precise actions, such as moving to specific places and stopping to look in a specific direction. He learned to do all this by following his sound cues (and sometimes getting a treat). This is pretty amazing when you consider all the distractions on the large sound stage where the movie was filmed.  Only a cat with superb concentration would ignore the distractions and follow his cue.

The other major thing Syn had to learn for this role was a lot easier. He had to become friends with Haley Mills, the actress who played his main person in the movie. Mills spent a lot of time petting Syn, carrying him around, and sitting with him in her lap. Syn purred a lot.

For his hard work in That Darn Cat!, Syn was awarded a well-deserved PATSY (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) in 1966. That’s a long way to come for a cat who was left at the pound for being standoffish.

Sources

"The Incredible Journey." Cinema Cats. Posted August 22. 2014. http://www.cinemacats.com/?p=3220

"That Darn Cat." Cinema Cats. Posted September 12, 2014. http://www.cinemacats.com/?p=3477

William R. Koehler. The Wonderful World of Disney Animals. New York: Howell Book House, 1979.

8 comments:

  1. Betcha a lot of people wanted their own Siamese cats after seeing Syn in two cute movies!

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  2. This is so interesting! I don't think I've ever seen the 1963 version of The Incredible Journey. I've watched the later 1993 version many times though. And how scary about the chemical poisoning! So happy the cats were saved.

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  3. Very interesting post. Syn was pretty clever. I am glad the cats survived that ordeal with the poison.

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  4. I loved both of those original movies. Thanks for sharing the info about Syn!

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  5. This is funny ... I just requested "That Darn Cat" from the library (the older one ... there's a newer one too). I love that we have such similar tastes. If you haven't checked out "The Cat from Outer Space" - you might enjoy it (unless I read about it on your blog ... which is possible).

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  6. That was fun to read. I'm really allergic to Siamese cats (we have one - well she's part Siamese) but they are really such characters.

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  7. Whoa, Syn had quite an interesting career!

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