The first movie star dog was a Collie named Blain, a canine hero for pioneering British film maker Cecil Hepworth.
The modern idea of cinema began in France in 1895. That year the Lumiere brothers, a pair of photographic engineers, first presented their ‘Cinematographe’ to an audience in Paris.
While there had been earlier devices that used multiple still images to create the impression of movement, the Cinematographe was the first to utilise two features that became synonymous with cinema: recording images on celluloid, and playing them back to a crowd via projection.
It caused a sensation on debut. Moving pictures were hailed as a wonder of the age and large crowds flocked to see them.
The Lumiere’s made and projected their own films, as well as selling their machines to other exhibitors. Movies were initially treated as a novelty; they were often presented on stage by magicians, as a kind of optical illusion.
In England, photographer Birt Acres and engineer Robert Paul were inspired by the Lumiere’s to produce their own version of the Cinematographe. Called the ‘Kineopticon’, it was also completed in 1895.
The device successfully recorded and played back films, but the pair would fall out over the patent; Acres registered the invention solely in his name. Paul later wrote a book, claiming Acres had stolen it from him.
Acres first demonstrated the Kineopticon to an audience in London in January 1896; the first film screening to be held in England. Later that month he gave a demonstration to the Royal Photographic Society, at Queen’s Hall.
Assisting him at this second screening was a 22-year-old film enthusiast named Cecil Hepworth.
Born in Lambeth, South London, in March 1874, Hepworth had always seemed destined for the film industry.
His father was a famed operator of a ‘Magic Lantern’; a device that allowed the projection of still images.
Utilising coloured filters, and accompanied by music and sound effects, Magic Lanterns were a popular 19th century entertainment, and one of the key predecessors to cinema.
Hepworth had followed the development of the Cinematographe closely. When he learned there was an English version, he used his father’s connections to help get him a job with Acres, where he impressed the film maker with his enthusiasm.
Hepworth later worked with another early film maker, Charles Urban, and in 1897 wrote the first British book on cinema, ‘Animated Photography, The ABC of the Cinematograph’.
Having observed practical film making first hand, Hepworth now wanted to make films himself.
Cinema was a brand-new medium, most early film makers were enthusiastic amateurs. There were no pre-requisites or technical qualifications, all that was required was to obtain some equipment, and begin experimenting.
In 1899, Hepworth and his cousin Monty Wicks pooled their savings and founded their own production company, eventually called ‘Hepworth Picture Plays’. The pair built a small studio in Waltham-on-Thames, acquired cameras and editing equipment, and set to work.
They began simply.
Early subjects included documentary recordings of everyday scenes, and travelogues of nearby towns and cities. Hepworth shortly turned to more imaginative titles like ‘How It Feels to Be Run Over’ and ‘Explosion of a Motor Car’, designed to thrill his audience.
He roped in his friends and family as actors, and completed most of the technical aspects himself. Hepworth Picture Plays was a DIY operation.
Production was swift: the company completed as many as three shorts a week.
By the early 20th century, cinema was booming, shaking off its roots as a curio to stand as its own popular art form. Purpose-built cinemas were being constructed at a rapid rate, and the demand for new movies was high.
Hepworth’s films readily found an audience, and his ambitions grew alongside his company.
In 1903, he co-directed the first screen adaptation of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Lewis Carroll’s imaginative 1865 novel. While compressing the story into 12 minutes, Hepworth’s film still featured the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and the Queen of Hearts, alongside pioneering special effects.
Narrative cinema was still in its infancy, and Hepworth’s ability to link scenes together to tell a coherent story was a distinguishing skill. The film was well received and became a commercial success.
In 1905, Hepworth came up with another innovative idea: he would put a dog at the centre of a film. While pets had already appeared in movies, no one had yet tried building an entire story around one.
Hepworth did not have to look very far for his star. The family pet was a Collie named Blain, a smart, handsome dog with distinctive white markings.
He even had some acting experience; Blain had appeared in scenes in ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
His starring vehicle would be a short titled ‘Rescued by Rover’, in which Blain (as Rover) would help rescue a child abducted by a thief. Rover witnesses the crime and followers the kidnapper back to her house, then raises the alarm and returns with the child’s parents, saving the day.
In addition to Blain, the film was very much a family affair. The scenario was written by Hepworth’s wife, Margaret, and she and Hepworth played the onscreen parents; their own infant Barbara appeared as the abducted baby.
The cast was rounded out by two professional actors, Lindsay Gray and Sebastian Smith, who were paid half a guinea each. Many film historians think this is the first instance of actors being paid to appear in a film.
Hepworth would also operate the camera, edit, and paint the background scenery. The film was directed by his colleague Lewin Fitzhamen, and the pair came up with some new filmic techniques:
‘Fitzhamon structured, framed and occasionally panned his shots to emphasise movement, creating a sense of pace and excitement that was unprecedented for the time.
By cutting on action he not only created fast-paced narrative continuity but also a complex ‘character’ out of what was essentially an animal performing a series of simple tricks.’
– British Film Institute, ‘Rescued by Rover’
These innovations did not slow the pace: ‘Rescued by Rover’ took a couple of days to shoot, cost 7 pounds to make, and ran for just over six minutes.
On release, ‘Rescued by Rover’ became a huge success. Blain’s appealing screen presence, the novelty of the idea, and the pace and staging of the action combined to captivate audiences.
It was so popular Hepworth had difficulty producing enough prints.
He had two original negatives that he used to make copies, which he then sold directly to cinema owners and exhibitors. The first batch of 400, priced at 8 pounds each, quickly sold out.
Further prints were struck, demand for the film was such that the negative itself eventually wore out. To enable further prints, Hepworth and his cast then had to re-film the entire movie.
When these negatives wore out as well, they re-shot it for a third time.
(You can view the full short, here).
The popularity of ‘Rescued by Rover’ led to another new idea: sequels.
Blain would return in a quickly made follow up called ‘Rover Takes a Call’ (where, yes: he answers a phone) which was then often paired with ‘Rescued’. He would later appear in several more Rover adventures.
These films were so well known, in England and America especially, that they are credited with popularising the name ‘Rover’, which remained one of the most common dog names for decades afterwards.
Blain also played dogs in other Hepworth films, including ‘The Dog Thief’, ‘The Detective’s Dog’, and ‘Love Me, Love My Dog’, among many others. The full extent of his filmography is unknown; as is sadly common with much early cinema, many of these short films have been lost.
Alongside his film career Blain made public appearances and appeared in ads and promotional materials. He fills an important role in the history of cinema: the first movie star dog.
Many others would follow.
Blain passed away of natural causes in 1914.
Hepworth’s company continued making films during the First World War, covering a wide variety of genres and subjects. His ambitions continued to drive him; through the 1910s he made a series of films based on classic literature, including works by Dickens and Shakespeare.
In some quarters his style was now seen as old-fashioned, although many of his films remained popular.
To try and keep pace with contemporary cinema, in 1919 Hepworth launched a plan to refinance his business. He borrowed heavily to upgrade his studio space and invest in new equipment, which he planned to pay for via a stock subscription.
But in the difficult economic times after the war, his stock launch was badly undersubscribed. Unable to service his debt, Hepworth Picture Plays went into receivership.
In June 1924 the business was closed, and its assets liquidated. The studio was taken over by another film company, Hepworth’s film catalogue was largely sold off; the old silent shorts, then viewed as worthless, were melted down and sold for their constituent chemicals.
Hepworth took work on the margins of British cinema, directing trailers for other companies, and occasionally lecturing on film making. He eventually found a position on the British Film Institute’s History committee.
He died in 1953.
But copies of ‘Rescued by Rover’ did survive, and its legacy was eventually recognised.
Many subsequent film makers copied its editing techniques and structure, legendary American cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith was perhaps the best-known acolyte. The huge success of the Rover films helped pave the way for Lassie, another Collie movie star, decades later.
The British Film Institute noted:
A simple story of a baby being rescued by a dog hardly sounds as though it ranks amongst the most important films ever made, but ‘Rescued By Rover’ marks a key stage in the medium’s development, and possibly the only point in film history when British cinema unquestionably led the world.
Restored copies of ‘Rescued by Rover’ are now held by both the BFI and US Library of Congress.