The first dog to have a leading role in a motion picture wasn’t Strongheart, Rin Tin Tin, or Lassie. It was Jean, a Collie (some sources say she was a Border Collie), the Vitagraph dog.
As the story goes, Vitagraph Studios was filming a “moving picture” with Florence Turner when the director needed a dog to play opposite her. Laurence Trimble, who happened to be there with his dog, was an aspiring writer and actor who was present because of an article he’d sold to a magazine about movie-making. Laurence suggested Jean, and a star was born. Jean was such a success that she laid the foundation for dogs in movies for the next hundred years. In her three year career, she would go on to star about 20 short films (often directed by her owner) in which she usually played a beloved pet. In America Comes Alive, Kate Kelly wrote of Helen Hayes’ memory of working with Jean when Hayes was an eight year old: “I had long curls, and they let me play the juvenile lead in two pictures in support of Jean, the collie. Jean was the famous dog of the day, and I was very thrilled.”
Jean died in 1916, and Kelly goes on to add in her article that while Trimble’s next dog, “Shep” didn’t work out, the next dog he found, did. “Etzel von Oeringen” had been a military dog that Trimble had to retrain, but the dog went on to become known as the huge dog star, Strongheart.
Jean the Match-maker is thought to be the earliest of Jean (the dog’s) silent movies to survive. You can watch the thirteen minute film here.