The next time you giggle or get a warm fuzzy feeling from some incredibly cute dog video on Instagram or Facebook, you can thank a collie from Maine.

Colorized postcard image of “Jean the Vitagraph Dog” from Maine, who starred in silent movies seen around the world. Image courtesy of Maine in the Movies

Lovable mutts and noble canine companions have tugged at our heartstrings on film, TV or social media for well over a century. But the very first American dog movie star was Jean, a tricolor Scotch collie from Maine who starred in some 25 silent films from 1910 to 1916. She was the longtime pet of Laurence Trimble, who grew up on a farm in the Down East town of Robbinston, went to New York City with his dog to become a writer and stumbled into the infant film industry. Thanks to Jean, he made a career out of it.

Jean’s movies for the Vitagraph studios were shown around the world. Her likeness was on postcards and posters, and the birth of her six pups was reported in the fan magazine Motion Picture World. She was billed as “Jean the Vitagraph Dog.” Jean is being reintroduced to Mainers this month through the movie “Jean the Match-Maker,” which is being shown as part of a statewide film festival called Maine in the Movies. The festival, timed to celebrate Maine’s bicentennial, features 35 films with Maine connections through March 15. “Jean the Match-Maker” will be shown more than a dozen times at venues around the state.

The festival’s print of “Jean the Match-Maker” was found in New Zealand in 2010, evidence of how far and wide Jean was known in her time. The film has been permanently preserved by the Library of Congress and the National Film Preservation Foundation, further evidence of the importance of Jean’s groundbreaking films. While other early dog movie stars – Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and Toto, for instance – are better known, Jean led the way for them all.

Jean, a Maine-owned collie, in a scene from the 1910 film “Jean the Match-Maker.” Screenshot courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation

“It seems like such a fluke, that this dog and director from Maine ended up entertaining people all over the world,” said David Weiss, executive director and co-founder of Northeast Historic Film, a nonprofit film archive in Bucksport. “She really was an international phenomenon.”

FROM MAINE FARM TO MOVIE FAME

Trimble, the son of Irish immigrants, was born in 1885 and grew up on a farm in Robbinston, a tiny town near Eastport and across the water from Canada. He had started trying to train the family’s farm animals after seeing a traveling circus, with performing animals, come through Maine, said Tom Wilhite, a longtime TV and film producer who lives in Camden and who helped organize the Maine in the Movies festival. Wilhite’s research on Jean and Trimble included corresponding with Trimble’s grandniece, Pearl Hart.

Trimble was also an outdoorsman with an adventurous spirit, who wanted to become a writer. Around 1907, when he was about 22, Trimble decided to take a train to New York City and try his luck at writing for magazines and newspapers. Jean had been a family pet and Trimble decided to take her along with him, according to his grandniece.

He was working in New York, writing for various publications, when he visited the Vitagraph film studios in Brooklyn to write a story about movies. The American film industry, as a means of mass entertainment, was only a decade old and most people working in it were learning as they went.

Maine native Laurence Trimble with his dog, Jean, who became America’s first dog movie star. Photo courtesy of Raynes Family Collection

On the day Trimble arrived at the studio, one of Vitagraph’s biggest stars, Florence Turner, was making a movie with a dog, but the director couldn’t get the dog to follow directions. Trimble said he had a dog that could do everything required in the film, and the next day he brought Jean to the set.

“In those very early days of the movies, it was often a case of people being in the right place at the right time,” said Wilhite.

Once studio officials saw all that Jean could do – untying knots was a specialty – they offered her a contract “on the spot and threw in a screenwriting contract for Trimble just for good measure,” wrote Susan Orlean in her 2011 best-selling book “Rin Tin Tin,” about the legendary silent-film dog star whose career began a decade after Jean’s.

LEADING THE PACK

Film historians generally regard Rover, a British dog who starred in a 1905 short film called “Rescued By Rover,” as the first dog to become widely known to movie audiences, said Anthony Slide, a British-born film historian and author living in Los Angeles. But Jean was the first American dog star, Slide said. More importantly to the evolution of animal films, Jean proved that dogs could pull in audiences and make money for studios.

“With Jean, the studio realized how a dog could be a box office draw,” said Slide. “She was a nice-looking, homey dog. People could relate to her.”

Orlean wrote that Jean became so popular in her time that she was at one point earning Trimble the equivalent of about $50,000 a week in present-day dollars.

A poster for the 1911 film “When the Light Waned” starring a Maine collie named Jean. The film’s title is also listed in German and French. Poster courtesy of Q. David Bowers Collection, Northeast Historic Film

Jean’s films, like so many of that time period, were short, about 12 to 15 minutes long, with easy-to-understand stories. Her 1910 debut “Jean the Match-Maker” has a plot that includes two “working girls” on a vacation, camping in a tent near the farm where two bashful brothers live. The brothers want to talk to the girls but are painfully shy. So Jean acts as the go-between, bringing baskets of food to the girls, carrying notes between the girls and the brothers, and nudging all of them to get better acquainted.

The movie was shot in Maine, around Casco Bay, in 1910. Trimble had packed up a film crew and actors and headed to Maine that summer to film several Jean movies, including “Jean the Match-Maker” and “The Sailor’s Sacrifice,” Weiss said. One of the child actors who made movies with Jean in 1910 was 9-year-old Helen Hayes, making her film debut. Hayes went on to an 80-year career in film and on stage and earned the nickname “The First Lady of American Theatre.”

“Sailor’s Sacrifice” is about a woman struggling after her seafaring husband is lost. At one point in the film, Jean digs for clams on a Casco Bay mudflat to help the woman survive. Weiss, of Northeast Historic Film, said various Casco Bay and Portland landmarks can be seen in the 1910 films, including the B&M Baked Beans factory in Portland.

Jean’s talent for tear-jerkers was on display in the 1911 film “When the Light Wanes.” According to a description originally in Movie Picture World magazine, two artists, Ann and Gordon, go separately into the picturesque countryside to paint. But Gordon is shy (a theme in Jean’s films) and so Jean carries her master’s card to Ann. Later, Gordon loses his eyesight and heads to a river where he contemplates suicide. Led by Jean, Ann finds Gordon and convinces him that life is worth living.

FAME IS FLEETING

Trimble served as a director of Jean’s movies for Vitagraph, but by around 1913, he and his wife, screenwriter Jane Murfin, wanted more control over their films. So with Jean, they moved to England to start their own studio. But it failed, and so did Trimble’s marriage. He left his wife, and England, and came back to America with Jean. But the dog, who was about 14, died later that year.

Laurence Trimble, a native of Robbinston, who owned and trained America’s first dog movie star. Photo courtesy of Maine in the Movies

Trimble kept working in films as a director in Hollywood until the late 1920s. He developed another dog star, a German shepherd named Strongheart who appeared in several outdoor adventure films. His first, “The Silent Call,” came out in 1921, a year before Rin Tin Tin, also a German shepherd, made his screen debut.

After his film career, Trimble was president of a foundation that supplied guide dogs for the blind, including injured war veterans. He also spoke to school and church groups about how to care for dogs. He died in 1954 in California.

Over the next week, “Jean the Match-Maker” will be shown at venues in Damariscotta, Bucksport, Skowhegan, Waterville, Waldoboro, Freeport, Brunswick, Stonington, North Haven, Rockland and Eastport. A new score by Los Angeles film and TV composer Mikel Hurwitz will accompany the film.

Because it’s relatively short, “Jean the Match-Maker” is being shown with other films with Maine connections. On Monday, it will be shown at the Alamo Theater in Bucksport with “It Happened to Jane” (1959) a Doris Day comedy about a widow running a restaurant supply business in Maine. On Tuesday, it will screen at Spotlight Cinemas at The Strand in Skowhegan with “Carrie” (1976), the horror classic based on the book by Mainer Stephen King. On Saturday, it will play at Evening Star Cinema in Brunswick with “Blow the Man Down,” a 2019 mystery filmed in Harpswell about a small town’s dark secrets. For a complete listing of all the “Jean the Match-Maker” showings and all Maine in the Movies screenings, including dates, times, prices and venues, go to MaineMovies200.com. Maine in the Movies is a collaboration between the Maine Film Center and 19 other arts and education organizations and independent cinemas.

Maine in the Movies is showcasing films from over the years with all kinds of Maine connections, including writers, composers and animators who worked on them. It also focuses on films that were inspired by Maine.

But of all the Maine connections to film history, Jean’s is just little different – she was the lead dog of American movies.

 


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