If someone tells you "Sam was home alone with Rover" you immediately assume that what is being described is a person named Sam who was at home with his dog—a dog that is not necessarily named Rover. The name "Rover" has come to be a generic label with the meaning "a dog". For that reason, I suppose that it was inevitable that after I published an article listing the most popular 100 dog names in the English language [click here to see that list], that people responded to the fact that the name Rover was not on that list. I soon began to receive questions as to why, if Rover is not actually used as a common name for dogs, then why should it become the general label that we use for any dog.
Historical mysteries, especially those involving dogs, fascinate me. So I started out to investigate why the name Rover has come to mean any dog, in the same way that John Q. Public or Joe Six-Pack have come to be labels meaning any average person. Along the way I encountered some fascinating information about the early days of filmmaking, and unearthed a treat that I will share with you before the end of this article.
Although in the early days of filmmaking a viewer might see an occasional scene involving a dog, the first film that actually starred a dog acting a role in a fictional story was called Rescued By Rover. It produced by Cecil Milton Hepworth in 1905. Hepworth was a dour man personally; however he did have a flair for comedy in his movies. The entire film is only around 6 ½ minutes long, but it does have a real story and is considered to be quite significant in film history. It has a real beginning and a cinematic arc involving a crisis and finally a resolution. It is considered to be a landmark because, in addition to being the first film to actually star a dog, it is told through a series of related and continuous shots, the kind of scene changes that are used in today's cinema.
Rover and the baby girl
The story is really quite simple. It opens with Rover, played by Hepworth's collie dog, Blair (who looks much like Lassie) sitting at a fireplace with a baby (actually Hepworth's daughter). In the next scene we see the baby's nanny taking her out for a walk in a pram, accompanied by Rover. Along the way the nanny stops to flirt with a soldier and a drunken beggar woman steals the baby. Rover and the nanny run home to tell the baby's parents (played by Hepworth and his wife) the bad news. However the clever dog Rover uses his keen powers of reasoning to deduce that the beggar probably lives the poor section of town. Rover races to the other side of town, a journey that involves a long run and also swimming a river. He checks out the various houses until the baby is found. Once Rover locates the baby he races back home, and convinces the distraught father to follow him and together they rescue the child.
Rover tries to bring help
Silent films were the perfect medium for canine actors, since, although dogs can't speak, neither can the human actors. That means that both dogs and humans must act out their parts in the drama using body language and in this regard the clever Rover did amazingly well. The film was a low-budget effort, costing only $37 to produce, however it made Hepworth a rich man. It was so popular and so many prints were made of it that the negatives of the original wore out. As a result Hepworth had to reshoot the whole film, reproducing it shot by shot. That second set of negatives also wore out, and Hepworth had to remake the movie yet a third time. The astonishing popularity of this film also had an unexpected side effect. The name Rover, which had rarely used as a name for dogs before this film, eventually became one of the most recognized names for dogs in the English speaking world.
There are not many copies of Rescued by Rover still around. When Hepworth's Company closed most of the copies of their film negatives were sold and melted down for their silver content. Fortunately, however, (and here is the treat that I promised you) there is a good print (lacking only the title shot and the credits) which is available on the web, and you can see it for yourself here.This film might appear to be a bit hokey and simplistic viewed through our modern eyes which are accustomed to complex cinematography, but you can still see in it the forerunners of what would be many subsequent dog movies starring familiar names like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie.
Given the great success of Rescued by Rover, Hepworth made a follow-up movie in 1908 also starring Blair. It was called The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper. Although it does not have as strong a storyline as the first one, it does have a hilarious special effect in which the dog actually drives the stolen baby home in the kidnapper's own car. There is also a print of this which you can see, although it lacks music.
Blair (or Rover as we know him) eventually starred in many of Hepworth's pictures. He was important enough so that when he died the film company put out a newsletter which announced, "the Hepworth Manufacturing Company has just suffered quite a severe loss in the death of their famous old dog Rover. This faithful animal had been Mr. Hepworth's constant companion even before the Hepworth Company had been founded, and was the general pet of the studio at Walton-on Thames. He was the first animal to play an independent part in a cinematographic film and was the hero of many pictures… Many others beside the Hepworth Company will deplore the death of this old favorite."
The astute reader will notice that the company's announcement does not refer to the dog using his true name, Blair, but rather his fictional stage name which has come to represent all dogs, namely Rover.