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.

17 responses

  1. The late John Huntley once told me that he intended to write a monograph entited ‘Dogs into Sausages’, named after the G.A.Smith film, and I offered to publish it. We sketched out the contents, but sadly, it was never written. It would have made a great companion piece to your unwritten ‘First Film Dogs’.


  2. there was this wonderful book I bought a while ago, “Anthologie du cinéma invisible”, which published unfilmed screenplays and dreams of films from various artists across cinema’s history: films that never made it into films. There’d be a great book to make from unwritten articles (“la recherche invisible”?), scholarly musings that never quite made it into print form. Already we have 2 fascinating candidates…

  3. There’s a whole book on books that were never written, or which have been lost – Stuart Kelly’s The Book of Lost Books. Warmly recommended.

    As for dogs into sausages, this of course was a popular theme after the Lumières pioneered it with Charcuterie mécanique (1896) (or did the gag exist in cartoon form before then?). Essentially you feed your dog (or any dog) into a machine, and out come sausages. A brutal metaphor for the cinema, you might think.

  4. So then “Ham and Bud at the Sausage Factory” is just another example of that traditional cinematic theme? Hmmm. I may have to sit through it again.

    Wait…no, I don’t.

    This was another great post, Luke. I think you should add a new feature to your Festival of Lost Films– panel discussons of lost books in between showings.

  5. Ham and Bud were a bit late in the day with the sausage/dog theme. Here’s a quick list of the films I know that told the same gag:

    Charcuterie mécanique (Lumière, 1896)
    Making Sausages (G.A. Smith, 1897)
    The Sausage Machine (American Mutoscope and Biograph, 1897)
    Dog Factory (Edison, 1904) (available from the Open Video Project)
    Ham and the Sausage Factory (Kalem, 1915)

    News on the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films coming soon…

  6. Luke: You made a good observation about dogs in early movies. I hope we’ll see the paper some day. As to cats, they have always been under-represented in cinema, other than animated cartoons. The strays are too elusive and even the trained ones are not very cooperative.

    Joe Thompson ;0)

  7. One inspiration for the paper-that-never-was was a talk I saw given by a (I think) Belgian academic at a Domitor conference, where he discussed the nature of animals in early films. It was one of the more awful experiences of my conference-going career, as in painfully po-faced terms he told us about how animals were caged within the cinematic frame, and brought to be an arsenal of theoretical concepts that to me just pointed up how a certain kind of scholarship blindly puts its apparatus before its subject – or the cart before the horse.

    So ‘First Film Dogs’ was meant to be a comic version of this experience, except that the more I looked into it the more I saw that there was an interesting point within the absurdity. I never could work out the right balance between satire and discovery, and in the end it probably exists best as a ‘lost’ paper.

    As for cats. Well, I can see we have the makings of a series here. There’s a controversy over the identity of cats in the films of G.A. Smith so incendiary that I don’t know if I dare type it. But I might.

  8. At some point in the last five years, watching for days films in preparation for the A Hundred Years ago programm for Bologna, the stray dogs suddendly came to the foreground and stayed there. I became deeply fascinated by his effect, dragging into the frame the rest of reality, (a) by what you call the canine space, and (b) puncturing the past by what with your kind permission Iwould like to call canine time. Stray dogs are very good about leaving the past and crossing over to the present, they make a mess of the time order. How wonderful to find this discussion here! And the budding of the theory of a cinema of distractions!
    Unluckily not particularly gifted in theory I had started something of an unsystematic survey of early film dogs, collecting those I met and checking the index of Bousquet’s Pathé Catalogue – I don’t remember now the amount, but the dimensions must have been 100 films with CHIEN in the title against five CHATS.
    By the way probably there are not more dogs in British films than elsewhere, but i feel there are clearly more pet cats there. And two of the few pathé cat films are really non-f.
    Dogs in fiction as early stars, as natural stars, lots of them. Dogs (and many now lost professions of dogs) to be seen in nonfiction films, lots of them. Dogs in Comedies: There seems to be a strong tendency for a cluster in comedy: where there are dogs in comedies, babies and / or policemen will also appear . Sometimes there are all three of them, sometimes just two elements.

    Stray dogs indeed.

    The top stray dog of 1908 in my collection appears in an Italian medical film LA NEUROPATOLOGIA, by Dr. Negro and Ambrosio’s Omegna as a camera man. It depicts a masked woman doing a hysterical crisis, helped and forced by two doctors. It is terrible and impressive document, a mise en scene of the scenario by Charcot. The dog comes in for a brief sniff and look and disappears.

    Now this is very strange. I’ve been asked as “a specialist on mediality and animality” a few weeks ago to talk about dogs in early cinema at a congress on dogs-in-the-arts in Vienna next spring. How did these people knew that one of my few true questions concerns the dogs in early films? It was one of the happiest days of my life. But now i think that maybe they got the wrong name and adress. I will ask for permission of using the cinema of distractions of cours aknowledging authorship and quoting the bioscope.

  9. Well, all I can say is, go where the dogs lead you. I’m delighted at the interest yet another half-written-paper-converted-into-a-blog-post has attracted. Maybe we have beginnings of a school here – or should that be a pack?

    I think for the cinema of distractions we have to distinguish between stray dogs that shouldn’t, diegetically speaking, be there, and dogs one will find in the indexes of Bousquet and the like. Or rather, as I’ve tried to suggest, we trace a line that goes from the unintentional (primitive?) to intentional, or classical, film dog. Of course, in the spirit of the new empiricism in early film studies, I need to report that I did some investigation into the numbers of stray dogs in London at the time, and essentially there were far more stray dogs (and cats) wandering about the place than there would be in later decades. There were over 36,000 stray dogs and cats picked up by Battersea Dogs home in 1895 alone. Statistically speaking, it was that much more likely for a dog to be wandering in front of a film camera (even an open-air studio set) in 1900 that it was in 1910 or 1920…

    And I like the idea of canine time.

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  11. Yes, the stray dogs form their own category in the survey of early film dog types, distinguished from dog protagonists in fiction and nonfiction (and also from the occasional mise-en-scène dog, see PREMIER PRIX DE VIOLONCELLE from 1907, on-line on european film treasures). The “Zufallshund” (“accidental/unintentional dog”) is one sign of a cinema with open borders yealding unlimited discoveries for a centrifugal perception.
    The result of your empirical research is staggering. People at the time must have had dogs in their fields of vision all the time when in the streets. Possibly the strays wandering in and out film images blended perfectly into “given surroundings” for those making films and for the public. (Ok for confiscating 36’000 cars a year!)

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  13. In the February 2017 edition of Early Popular Visual Culture there is an essay by Pao-Chen Tang, entitled ‘Of dogs and hot dogs: distractions in early cinema’. It is an entirely serious and wholly reasonable and intelligent study of some of the themes suggested above, and even uses the phrase “cinema of distractions”. There is no indication that the author, who won the 2015 Domitor Student Essay Award for the essay, was aware of the Bioscope discussion of the topic.

    No Zufallshunde though, more’s the pity.

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