|Flashback: New England Director Larry Trimble|
| by Joe Gallo
Throughout history we hear tell of the "Dog-Hero": the faithful mutt who drags little boys out of burning buildings, or the loyal hound who sacrifices his life for that of his masters. But how often have you heard of a dog being the catalyst for his owners career in film? The first documented case we have on record is that of New Englands silent film director, Lawrence Trimble, creator of the screens first leading canine, "Jean, the Vitagraph Dog."
Born in 1885, Trimble grew up in Robbinston, Maine, a small town on the Canadian border. Growing up in a provincial town had its advantages. He developed a taste for the outdoors and a love of animals; especially dogs. Around 1907 Trimble moved to New York City-along with his dog, Jean-to pursue a career in writing. According to Anthony Slide, author of THE BIG V, around 1908 "Trimble sold an animal story to a New York magazine which sent him to (the) Vitagraph (Company) to write a story on film-making. Trimble appeared on the lot with his dog, Jean, just as the Company was in need of a dog to play a scene with Florence Turner." Consequently both dog and master were asked to stay, and soon became leading members of the Vitagraph stock company. Trimble negotiated a $25 a week salary for Jean, and, most likely, a more substantial contract for himself.
In 1908 Vitagraph was a burgeoning film company which would soon become one of the most successful and enduring studios in the industry. Over the next 18 years Vitagraphs stars included the likes of Rudy Valentino, Norma Talmadge, and Rex Ingram. Preceding them all was Florence Turner, "The Vitagraph Girl," the first star of the silver screen. Turners presence was such that the youthful Talmadge once said of her, "I would rather have touched the hem of her skirt than to have shaken hands with Saint Peter." Although the saucy Talmadge never stood a chance with Saint Peter, she did, however work occasionally as Turners stand-in.
Jean proved to be nothing but an asset to Trimbles career. Soon after breaking into the business, Jeans popularity rivaled that of Vitagraphs human stars. Jean was now graced with the title, "Jean the Vitagraph Dog," and was paired with Turner for a score of films between 1908 and 1913, all of which were directed by Trimble.
In 1910 Trimble, Turner, Jean and a small film crew spent several weeks shooting at Cape Shore near Portland, Maine. All of the films on record starred "the Vitagraph Girl" and "the Vitagraph Dog" in a series of one and two- reelers such as JEAN AND THE CALICO DOLL, JEAN AND THE WAIF, and JEAN GOES FISHING.
According to Northeast Historic Film Archives director, Karan Sheldon, "Film companies seemed to like Maine. Vitagraph, Edison, Lubin, all worked here. Local people would get involved with construction, set-building, and feeding and lodging film people." Until the mid-teens when all of the big studios headed West, Maine was an ideal location. "Most people came in the summer," Sheldon says, "so it was partly a holiday. Also, technically, productions werent so demandingyou didnt have to worry about soundand they were short films. A lot of films were made here and, of course, most of them were lost. Sometimes all that is left are still photos or just the screen play, or maybe the music that was written to accompany a film that didnt survive."
In all, Trimble shot more than half a dozen films on the coast of Maine. Among them was another "Dog and Girl" movie called THE SAILORS SACRIFICE, which may be the only New England film that survived. "The only reason we have a copy of it," Sheldon says, "is because a film curator discovered it at a film festival in Italy. She recognized the coast as being that of Maine." Eventually Sheldon procured the film. Although Sheldon dates "The Sailors Sacrifice" as 1908, no reference to the films existence could be found.
By 1910 Trimble became Turners exclusive director. Between the years 1911-1913, Trimble was busy directing most of Vitagraphs major stars such as the worlds first matinee idol, Maurice Costello; the wildly popular comedian, John Bunny; Florence Turner and Jean, among others.
Although Trimble and Turner were making up to $5000 a week, Turner felt the studio had too much control over her destiny. In 1913 she, Trimble and Jean, left Vitagraph and moved to England where they established Turner Films, Ltd. with Trimble as director in chief. Their success was pre-empted by the Great War, and Trimble returned to the states in 1916. By then Trimbles life was troubled. He was apparently at odds with Turner and most definitely at odds with his screenwriter wife, Jane Murfin, whom he would divorce in the late 1920s.
His break with Vitagraph must not have been a bitter one because he, Jean, and Murfin soon moved to California, where the Company had relocated in 1911. Another blow came Trimbles way when Jean died in 1916. Soon after Jeans death the company tried to create a new dog sensation, "Shep, The Vitagraph Dog," but Jeans dog tracks were too big to fill. Shep wound up working for Vitagraphs competitor, Thanhouser Films, and was predictably promoted as "Shep, the Thanhouser Dog."
Florence Turner returned to the states in 1916, but the industry had changed and the old "stars" had faded. She never regained her fame, or her fortune.
Trimble continued to turn out films for Vitagraph and even developed a new dog act. In 1920 Trimble and Murfin scoured the U.S. and Europe for a "star-quality" dog. It was in Germany when Trimble fell in love with Etzel von Ceringen, a three year old military attack dog . According to Trimble, the dog "had never played with a child, had never known the fun of retrieving a ball or a stick, had never been petted, in short, had never been a dog."
Etzel von Ceringen was graciously renamed "Strongheart," and the first "Police Dog Hero" was born. Trimble bred the Shephard with the auspicious, Lady Jule, and together they sired many puppies who followed in their fathers paw prints. Stronghearts career was cut short in 1928 due to an injury suffered when he fell against a hot studio light. Within a few short weeks a tumor formed and Strongheart went the way of Jean.
Trimble seemed to love dogs more than he did film-making. In 1925, at 40 years of age, he retired from the film industry, eventually becoming a trainer of seeing-eye dogs.
When Trimble joined Vitagraph in 1908 the industry was still a growing one. By 1925 the business end of film became formulaic. Vitagraph was the first mass market film studio and, roughly speaking, their motto was, "Give the people what they want!". Early on they established widespread and dependable distribution of their product. They also learned how to exploit "the star sytem" for monetary gain. In 1926, Vitagraph was sold to Warner Brothers for $735, 000.
Not much is known of Trimbles life beyond 1925. But it seems certain that his life among dogs was as rewarding as his second marriage was a happy one. In 1941, Lawrence Trimble married Marion Constance Blackton, daughter of Vitagraph co-owner, J. Stuart Blackton. The couple made their home in Los Angeles where Trimble died on February 8, 1954; one week shy of his 69th birthday. He left behind a sizable catalogue of lost and forgotten films, all of which would never have been made without the intervention of "Jean, the Vitagraph Dog."