Downeast Dog News
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Eastport Collie Was First Animal Movie Star and Played the Lead Role in Maine’s First Film

By Ethan King | Mar 01, 2020
A Studio Portrait of Jean, the Vitagraph Dog (Circa 1910), Colorized for Downeast Dog News.

Before Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, and Toto, the most famous dog in the world was a Scotch Collie from Eastport, Maine.

Jean, the Vitagraph Dog was a film industry pioneer and an actress who paved the way for an entire genre and opened the gate for other four-legged performers who followed her, a figure who would leave an indelible mark on the silent film era in her brief but storied career from 1909-1916.

Ten thousand hopefuls hit Hollywood every year, dreaming of becoming legends. Most won’t – and even the few who do, can’t hope to match the popular success of a Downeast dog who lived over a century ago. There’s no shame in that though – Jean was a prodigy, almost certainly a more talented and expressive actor than at least a third of those on The CW.

Her path to stardom was improbable. She was the family pet and companion of Laurence Trimble. When Trimble was a teenager a circus came to his hometown of Robbinston, Maine, an experience that generated a life-long passion for working with animals. In 1909, Jean and Trimble boarded a Maine Central train in Ellsworth and headed to New York City where he pursued work as a writer. He picked up some jobs as a freelancer, and eventually sold a series of magazine articles on the production of motion pictures. This assignment led him to Vitagraph Studios, then one of the major film companies. That day, a scene was being shot involving Florence Turner – at the time the screen’s most prominent actress, known as The Vitagraph Girl (branding even then) – acting alongside a dog. They observed the shoot, and when the dog who had been cast was failing to adequately perform, Trimble suggested they do a take with Jean. The director agreed, and she nailed it. Vitagraph almost immediately offered Jean a contract and Trimble a screenwriting job. Trimble would move from screenwriting to directing and eventually even acting as his career progressed, propelled by a prolific string of successes, many of which involved Florence Turner and Jean acting alongside each other.

Susan Orlean describes this incident beautifully in her biography, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend: “This story is laughably implausible, and yet it is the same sort of story that is repeated throughout Hollywood history, used to explain the innocent, almost accidental but also seemingly fated moment when life marvelously changes course. It paves over the bumpy road of tiny, unplanned steps you might have taken to advance from being a small-town kid from Maine with a pet collie to being a movie director with a famous dog – steps that are so many and so hard to retrace that it is natural for the story to blur into a fairy tale.”

Jean was the catalyst for Trimble’s long and fascinating film career, which features a string of reliably profitable “animal films” he directed in the US and eventually abroad. In the process of creating an entirely new type of film, Jean became a celebrity who was just as famous as her human costars. The legendary film and stage actress Helen Hayes (the second person to ever win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award) made her film debut at age nine alongside Jean in Jean and the Calico Doll (1910). Twenty-one years later in an interview with The New York Times, she recalled this experience, more than anything else, being excited to work with Jean.

Of the 25 films Jean and Trimble made together, only four are known to survive. One of those, Jean the Match-Maker (1910), is the oldest narrative movie made in Maine and will be shown at 15 locations during the Maine Bicentennial event, “Maine in the Movies” (www.MaineMovies200.com), March 5-15. For the occasion, an original music score has been commissioned from Los Angeles composer Mikel Hurwitz.

Photographed in summer 1910 near Portland (probably Yarmouth where the Trimble family had by then moved), the light-hearted 13-minute film opens on two young women sharing a tent in a bucolic area on their vacation. They look happy enough, but their surroundings are expansive and lonely. Enter two young men: one classically handsome and lissome, the other taller and in the habit of burying his chin into his neck and pulling his top lip back over his maxillaries – which, in combination with the luminescence of his pale skin and the black-and white cinematography, makes him resemble Nosferatu.

Nothing frightens these two – nothing except girls. The sight of the two young women emerging from their tent sends these guys running. They scurry home without being noticed and, giddy with laughter, inform their mother of the discovery while their dog, Jean, sits on a chair at the table, poised to listen. Their mother devises a plan to contact the girls, possibly in a last-ditch effort to find partners for her unusually immature adult sons and move them out of the house. She sends Jean to the tent carrying a wicker basket with a letter inside. Thus, a correspondence begins, as Jean delivers messages back and forth between the two parties.

As the story progresses, one thing becomes increasingly apparent: Jean is the real talent here. Nimble and graceful, she’s exactly where she needs to be in every shot, and her emotional intelligence makes her a natural at playing off her fellow actors. It’s impossible to watch this picture and not recognize her as its breakout star.

Unfortunately, as with more than half of all films from the silent era, much of Jean’s work is now difficult to find. Until a decade ago, Jean the Match-Maker was considered lost. Solely by chance, a hand-tinted nitrate print was discovered at the New Zealand Film Archive during repatriation of early American films. The Library of Congress undertook a two year restoration, and that is the version that can now be seen. (Another presumed-lost film was found in New Zealand at the same time: Upstream, the 1927 silent comedy directed by John Ford, the great American director from Portland, Maine.) That these original animal films can still generate attention and admiration is cause for optimism about their continued recovery and revival. Any aspiring filmmakers looking to contribute to the genre of movies centered around dogs should familiarize themselves with its progenitor. There is no doubt that this category is still very present and popular in Hollywood, from movies solely devoted to canines like A Dog’s Purpose and the Air Bud series, to stories in which the dogs appear as crucial supporting characters, like the John Wick series and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

All four-legged movie actors can trace their lineage back to that one afternoon at Vitagraph Studios, when a dog and her best friend from Maine were in the right place at the right time.