An early animal-related tearjerker featuring a blind man and his faithful poodle. The French production was exported to the international market.
Nice to see groomers were cheap
French films were dominating the international market in the years leading up to the First World War and it’s easy to see why with productions like this in the lineup. One has only to flip through the pages of any trade periodical to see the sheer number of French productions that were released in the United States.
This little picture, it seems, was exported for the American market at least twice: once in 1907 and again in 1911 by producer George Kleine. Kleine made it his business to fill the enormous demand for French and Italian pictures in America and he was doing quite well with it until the war interrupted his exporting. (It’s hard to transport films when the sea is full of U-boats.) Undeterred, Kleine entered into a distribution contract with several older studios that were losing market share and a direct production agreement with Edison. I just might know a thing or two about the pictures that resulted from that little arrangement. Spoiler: I released a complete Kleine/Edison program on DVD thanks to the Library of Congress’s preservation efforts.
The Library of Congress is also responsible for the release of this little gem. The Faithful Dog was one of many unidentified pieces of film that was showcased at Mostly Lost, an event designed to track down the titles of these pictures. Obviously, it’s one of the success stories of the event with the print being identified as the 1911 Kleine release.
The picture itself is simple but effective: a blind beggar’s only friend is his little black poodle. When her master falls ill, the dog runs to get a doctor and then fills the prescription at the druggist and returns with medicine. It’s too late, though. The beggar has died.
(This is less than a reel so… I guess a spoiler?) The beggar is given a pauper’s funeral and the little dog lies on his grave. Refusing to leave or eat, she quietly passes away.
So, obviously this picture is an unabashed tearjerker and it does its job just as well 110 years after its initial release. The little poodle does indulge in some “Aren’t I a good girl?” hamminess but plays the final scene in such a convincingly miserable manner that it completely undid me. (Snuffle, sniff, I’m not crying, you’re crying.)
I have a weakness for black poodles anyway, they’re comical little individuals without the tearstain issues of their lighter counterparts, and I would love to have one just this size and color. I must say, though, the beggar’s predicament would have been more convincing if his little pet had not been so impeccably groomed with a shaved muzzle and little pompoms on its ankles. Apparently, medicine was prohibitively expensive in France but dog grooming was practically being given away. (For more poodle antics in French cinema, I highly recommend checking out Judex. The title character delivers a stern message of warning to the villains by means of his toy poodle.)
I do find it interesting that English reviews of 1907 refer to the dog as male when, not to be vulgar, but in most scenes, it seems to be missing the necessary components for that assumption to be accurate. I know poodles are fluffy but not THAT fluffy. I think they might have used two dogs to play the part because in some scenes it is a boy and in others it is a girl. It’s not unusual to cast multiple animals to make one genius dog. Unless this poodle has been crossed with a frog and we have a Jurassic Park situation on our hands. (Disclosure: Would watch Jurassic Poodle.)
(And, no, I don’t really want to argue about dog loins this fine Sunday morning. I just wanted to make a Jurassic Park joke involving poodles.)
However, these are relatively minor flaws and the whole picture works as a heartstring-plucking bit of entertainment. The amusingly titled Revised List of High Class Original Motion Picture Films (1908) praised the picture as “Reverently treated and perfectly photographed, this film subject will win a foremost place among the animated picture dramas of the year, will strongly appeal to the sympathies of every audience, and is certain of a long run wherever exhibited.”
Incidentally, if you wanted to purchase a copy of The Faithful Dog when it was initially released, it would set you back the sum of $64.08. Before you get too excited, that’s $1,700 USD in today’s money. I would love to know how well the picture sold compared to other releases of the day (hundreds of copies sold = blockbuster) but if Kleine went back to the well and re-released it in 1911, that does indicate a certain amount of success.
And, of course, the dog-related tearjerker is still a viable film property. The very similar tale of faithful Hachiko, who waited at a train station for ten years in hope that his late master would return, was adapted for the big screen. (And whitewashed. But that’s another story for another day.)
The Faithful Dog is a simple production but it works as a lachrymose tale of woe. Maybe not the best picture for animal lovers or anyone who has lost a pet recently but well worth checking out for everyone else.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of Undercrank Productions’ Found at Mostly Lost Volume 2 collection with a piano score by Ben Model. The whole disc is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys taking a deep dive into the obscure. As you can see from the screencaps, the print shows its age but is quite watchable.
Disclosure: I received a screener of this release and Mr. Model’s scored my DVD.