First film dogs


The Lumières’ Le Faux cul-de-jatte (1897), from

David Bordwell recently posted yet another jaw-droppingly good piece on his Observations on film art and Film Art blog, whose consistently high quality makes the rest of us look like mere gossip-mongers. This post, entitled Gradations of emphasis, starring Glenn Ford, examines widescreen cinema (you’ll have to read it to find out what the title means). But there was one aspect of it that caught my eye, something captured drifting across the screen, that reminded me of one of the odder corners of early film down which I like to wander sometimes.

In his survey of lateral staging in film (i.e. action happening within the frame, literally coming in from the sides), Bordwell looks at early film strategies, and reproduces frames from the Lumières’ Le Faux cul-de-jatte (1897), in which a fake amputee begs in the street. He describes the action, until one frame (on the right, above), where a stray dog enters the action from the right. He writes, “The cop comes to the beggar, partially blocking the dog, who takes care of other business. (Not everything in this movie is staged.)” What interests Bordwell is the staged action. What interests me is the dog. Let me explain…

Cinema’s first dog, appearing in Edison’s Athlete with Wand (filmed February 1894) is noticeably at a remove from action and camera (though obedient enough to keep within the frame)

It was when I was presenting a series of programmes at the National Film Theatre on Victorian cinema (i.e. films made before 1901), in 1994, that I first noticed a peculiar phenomenon. As I introduced each short film in the compilation, and pointed out those points of central interest which I had recorded in my notes, I started to notice that the audience’s attention was being frequently been drawn away from the supposed subject and centre of the film’s attention, and instead they were detecting action to the edge of the frame, or crossing the frame, interrupting the action or courageously ignoring it, creating a vital counter-narrative. In short, their attention was irresistibly drawn to stray dogs.

This was a surprising phenomenon, which I exploited at the time for some simple humour, but on mature reflection it seemed that here was a hitherto wholly ignored yet clearly important facet of early cinema, a theme overlooked yet superabundantly obvious once pointed out to the idle observer. The number of stray dogs in early films is considerable, as anyone familiar with the period will readily acknowledge, and their distracting and engrossing qualities seemed to be in urgent need of analysis. Why were stray dogs accepted in early film dramas? What were they doing there? Where did they come from? Were there more such dogs in British films than others? What could their presence tell us about early film practice? How could one construct an overarching vision of early cinema that encompasses the animal and the accidental? Why are there no stray cats? Why, ultimately, were the audience looking in the wrong direction? Were the original audiences similarly distracted? In what sense could it said that such canine interruptions were directed, and by what agency? I resolved to write a paper that would answer these nagging enquiries. It would be called ‘First Film Dogs’.


I began first by collating the necessary data, and working on a critical theory which would most usefully and succinctly describe the phenomenon. The examples were easy to find: the exuberant Jack Russell which joins in the punishing of a sweep who wanders into a garden and dirties the laundry in James Williamson’s Washing the Sweep (1898, left); the stray dogs wandering over the parade ground amid the marching soldiers in the Boer War actuality Lord Roberts Hoisting the Union Jack at Pretoria (Warwick, 1900), upsetting the solemnity of the situation; dogs wandering casually onto the studio set of early Pathé films; the dog that takes position centre frame in film of a genuine mining tragedy funeral in the middle of the Pathé mining drama Au Pays Noir (1905); actualities such as Funeral of the World’s Greatest Monarch (1910), where King Edward VII’s own dog takes part in the procession, and is then accompanied by a passing stray (such thematic complexity!); the efforts of ‘Monarch’ the Lifeboat Dog to contribute to a life-saving re-enactment performed on the beach in Launch of the Worthing Lifeboat (Biograph, 1899).


Monarch’s contribution to an actuality which in fact incorporates a dramatic element illustrated the next stage of the theme, where the cinema progressively encroached upon the freedom of the dog, containing the dog within the frame, from Edison’s Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog (1901, right, though watch the film and see how the dog, Mannie, keeps trying to leap out of the frame only to be drawn back into it); to the passing dogs that enthusiatically take part in early chase films; to the triumph/defeat of Hepworth’s Rescued by Rover (1905), where the dog’s natural motion is contained entirely within the cinematic narrative. Did the sequel to that film, The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper (1905), where Rover gets to drive a car, indicate canine empowerment or slavery? What price the freedom of early cinematic form, when all that results from it in the end is Rin Tin Tin and Lassie?

The critical theory at this stage consisted mostly of a series of such questions, without a key, but I began to work on the concept of ‘canine space’. There was more going on in these early films than first appeared. There was a central performance, or news event, which the original catalogues declared to be the subject matter, but this could not necessarily be what the audience saw, nor was such a dictate bound to be obeyed by those appearing in these films. Anyone familiar with early films will know of the puzzled glances from passers-by that characterise street scenes, of the distracting matter which suggests that the camera operator was not in full command of the subject. In such circumstances, dogs run free. What adds to the fascination, reinforcing one’s belief in the essentially liberated nature of early films, is that stray dogs can be found in studio films of the period. The drama is enacted, the comedy routine performed, and in the background a dog watches, or wanders past, or joins in if it so desires, and this is accepted as part of the total action. ‘Canine space’ is therefore that other space, that world onto which the camera has intruded.


Rover (played by Blair) and Cecil Hepworth in Rescued by Rover (1905)

I never did write the paper. It was intended as a spoof of early film studies, but I couldn’t quite get the humour right. I was scheduled to give the paper at a British silent film festival some years ago, but in the end got up and apologised to the audience and said that the paper was beyond me. But I gave them enough of the argument that it probably affected the rest of the festival, as people starting spotting stray animals in every film, and ever since I’ve had people send me images or information on roving animals which they’ve spotted in some silent or other. A chord was touched.

It’s not a phenomenon entirely restricted to the early cinema (there a renowned stray dog in Joseph Losey’s Accident for instance), but it is a noticeable characteristic of early film which could make one think about the special free nature of film at that time. A cinema where dogs run free is a cinema that has not yet been pinned down, one that lets us look at the edges. You could call it the cinema of distractions. You could theorise about it seriously – there is perhaps some parallel with Roland Barthes’ concept of the ‘punctum’, the oddity in a photograph that shouldn’t really be there but which draws your attention away from what the photograph is ostensibly trying to convey.

Maybe I’ll write the paper one day. Maybe it’s the sort of paper that’s not meant to be written. Maybe we’re always going to be looking at the centre, while at the edges, or wandering across the frame, another kind of story passes by, always eluding us even though it may for a moment catch our eye. I don’t know. Try asking a dog.