Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Cecil Hepworth & "Rescued by Rover"

Lassie and all of her legendary cinematic canine companions owe a debt of gratitude to a filmmaker named Cecil Hepworth and a collie named Blair.

Cecil Hepworth
Cecil Hepworth
In 1905, Hepworth made one of the first true narratives to come out of British cinema - “Rescued by Rover.” The film’s plot is simple enough -- Baby (played by Hepworth’s daughter) is kidnapped by a beggar while out for a stroll with her nurse. When the news is broken to the rest of the family (father played by Hepworth himself, mother played by Hepworth’s wife), loyal Rover (played by Hepworth’s dog Blair) makes it his mission to save the baby, traveling across streams and through London slums in the process. Because of Rover’s determination, the baby is saved and the family is happily reunited.

Rescued by Rover
"Rover" and the "Rescued"
Yes, the plot is simple, but this film was the first of its kind. This tale of man’s best friend predates and, indeed, makes possible the antics of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and the hundreds of doggie stars to follow them. Blair’s shining moment in this film would also pave the way for animals stars like Vitagraph’s Jean and Keystone’s Teddy. In fact, Teddy would go on to star in a film parodying the melodrama tropes of being tied to the train tracks and rushing to find help, starring none other than Gloria Swanson as the damsel in distress.

Jean, the Vitagraph dog | Mack Sennett with Teddy
But the idea to make the family pet the hero wasn’t the only innovation Hepworth introduced to film. In fact, Hepworth was one of cinema’s earliest pioneers, and had been experimenting with the medium since at least the late 1890’s. “How it Feels to be Run Over,” made five years before “Rover,” was innovative and experimental by putting the audience (through the lens of the camera) in the shoes of an unfortunate pedestrian.

Also from 1900, “Explosion of a Motor Car” features Hepworth’s attempt at trick photography (a technique that was to become synonymous with Georges Melies).

“Rover,” on the other hand, doesn’t feature any experimental camera work or trick photography, instead it is innovative in its storytelling. Although it’s a short film, only about six and a half minutes long, it features a lot of clever, coherent editing and cutting to help keep the story moving. The flow from scene to scene is logical and helps keep the narrative understandable, while the clever cuts that shorten Rover’s journey help keep the momentum going and keep the audience riveted. D.W. Griffith would go one to perfect the race to the rescue, but keep in mind, Hepworth achieved this technique in 1905. That’s two years before Griffith appeared in his first film and three years before he began directing!

To say this film was popular would be an understatement. At a time when many films were still one and two minutes long, and featuring brief scenes that had more of a documentary quality to them than narrative, Hepworth gave audiences a fully formed, engaging and fast-paced narrative. The film was so popular that it had to be remade two times to keep up with demand and replace worn out negatives.

You can watch “Rescued by Rover” in its entirety below, and  keep an eye out for another post about Hepworth. I have a feeling we'll be revisiting him in the future.