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Film: Shep’s Race with Death
Director: John Harvey
Performers: Mrs. Whitcove, J.S. Murray, Marie Rainford, Marion and Madeline Fairbanks, Shep (the Thanhouser Collie)
Breed featured: Old-Time Scotch Collie
Production information: Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1914 (USA)

Mother-in-law has come for a visit. She clearly favors one of the two Stearns twins over the other, and doesn’t care for Shep the family dog at all. Resenting the attentions lavished upon her sister, one twin pulls a prank on grandmother, with Shep’s help. Unfortunately, this gets the dog in trouble, much to the embarrassment of both young girls. Unable to let their innocent pet take the blame, the guilty twin has no choice but to confess.

Refusing to suffer further abuse, mother-in-law takes the favored twin away, leaving the other home alone with the father. The twins and Shep pine for each other.

Interestingly, the strength of their emotional bond is such that Shep seems to immediately know something is amiss when a horse gets spooked and sends one sister careening through town in a runaway buggy. Shep leaps into action, outruns a car, intercepts the buggy and pulls it off the path of an oncoming train. Crisis is averted and household favor reclaimed, just like that! What a good dog, after all!

In her study of Pets in America at the turn of the 20th century, author Katherine Grier devotes one of the best chapters to the emergent “domestic ethic of kindness” that was increasingly conveyed through entwined representations of pets and children. Pets, as argued, would naturally instill a sense of benevolence in children by developing emotional bonds with soft creatures who needed human protection and would reward that love with their useful companionship. Accompanying this shift in public discourse from dominion over animals to benevolent stewardship, animals were increasingly imagined as emotional and “moral” actors in their own right. While dogs and other whimsical critters abound in early film, I find that these clips featuring the Thanhouser Collie are some of the best visual narrations of this philosophical ethic.

The opportunity to live with and love pets seemed to have been denied to mother-in-law’s generation, though social progress has allowed the parents to consciously grant this luxury to their daughters. In the end, after brave Shep has saved the girl, mother-in-law is pushed out of the frame and the story as the nuclear family celebrates their reunion. This is one aspect that makes Shep’s role decidedly “modern” (for its time), even as this type of Collie is now considered old-time, vintage stock in comparison to the rise of the Rough Collie after Lassie.

The twins themselves are the very picture of good upbringing, doubled figures of grace and civility befitting their social class; their elegant dog just completes the picture. There is no “evil twin.” Shep’s presence amplifies the fact that both are good at heart, and thus they thoroughly defend their dog’s status as the third “sibling” in their family. It is significant, after all, that the large Collie sleeps (and plays) in bed with the girls. The closeness of this relationship is explicitly condoned. The cold and unfeeling mother-in-law is the one who fails to understand, and cruelly separates the family.

Lesson learned: Ditch the mother-in-law, and never doubt the dog.

“Shep’s Race with Death” can be viewed here on the Thanhouser collection’s online library. As a bonus, here’s the first video that I saw starring the Thanhouser Collie, a macabre tale that similarly riffs on the theme of an enduring relationship between a child and her dog… even beyond the grave. Pertinent information listed below the embedded clip.

Film: A Dog’s Love
Director: John Harvey
Performers: Helen Badgley, Arthur Bauer, Ethyle Cooke Benham, Fan Bourke, Shep the Dog
Breed featured: Scotch Collie
Production Information: Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1914 (USA)

Shep also stars in a couple other titles that may be reviewed at a later date.

Hat tip to Dave of Prick-Eared for bringing these clips to my attention.

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