Kino Lorber picks up the ball they got rolling with their Blu-ray anthology Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers by adding three new Blu-rays under the same rubric. Two are devoted to Alice Guy Blaché and the third to Julia Crawford Ivers. Let’s examine them in historical order.
Alice Guy Blaché
Alice Guy, who became Alice Guy Blaché after marriage to Herbert Blaché in 1907, was the first woman filmmaker and one of the first narrative filmmakers in the world. (We will refer to her as Guy, her first professional name, in order to avoid confusion with her filmmaker husband and business partner.) She told the story of making the first film with two shots, The Cabbage Patch Fairy (La Fée aux choux, 1896) by editing in camera, shooting one scene and then the other. She was apparently confusing two different movies she made not far apart, both about finding babies in cabbage patches using the same set and same actress, so the two-shot film in question is actually Midwife to the Upper Class (Sage-femme de première classe).
Actually, the 1896 version is lost but we have a remake from 1900 or 1901, running just over a minute, and then the third “midwife” version with two shots running closer to four minutes. The 1900 version shows the cabbage fairy pulling two wailing naked babies from behind large fake cabbages and laying them on the ground before striking more arty poses. As with many early films, the actor breaks the fourth wall to gesture at the viewer, including us in the action.
The midwife version adds a couple shopping for a baby, and the man is played by a woman in drag. There seems to be some dispute about whether Guy plays this man. This version produces no less than five naked babies who are left to cry and squirm in the foreground. Fortunately or not, nobody heard of child protective services yet. The onscreen prints date both films to 1901, while the liner notes and other sources agree the midwife film is from 1902 and the fairy film from 1900. Welcome to the wonderful world of early cinema scholarship.
The miracle is that anything survives to watch. Guy had to fight tirelessly to claim her position in film history, as memories of the early silent era were vanishing or being rewritten as the nitrate disappeared on an old-hat form that few were saving or watching. Even the most important women filmmakers, of which none were more vital than she, who supervised production at Gaumont for years, were being left out of histories written by men.
The two existing cabbage movies are here in Alice Guy Blaché, Part 1: The Gaumont Years. In fact, they’re joined by yet another film recycling those damned cabbages: the bizarre Madame Has Her Cravings (Madame a des envies, 1906). A very pregnant woman goes around stealing food and drink (and a pipe) from strangers. She’s shown partaking of her swag in medium close-ups dropped in from another universe, the blank white background perhaps suggesting her private world of oblivion, before we go back to the master shots of irate citizens and her hapless little husband pushing a baby carriage. The message is that a pregnant woman’s desires are disruptive to the social order, and also that this is natural.
Madame Has Her Cravings (Madame a des envies, 1906) (IMDB)
These films evidence the claim that Guy often made films about women, putting them in the center of the frame, and that she often made films about the condition of womanhood and gender norms. Thus, The Results of Feminism (Les Résultats du féminisme, 1906) offers a bracing vision in which warning is indistinguishable from fantasy. It imagines a rigid reversal of norms in which women behave with irresponsible boorishness at pubs while effeminate men mince around like sissies, wearing flowers in their hair and taking care of babies. The sight of a man fainting in the arms of a powerful woman is priceless, and does as much as anything to expose the absurdity of conventions taken for granted.
Perhaps the inverse or complement of centering women in the frame would be the “female gaze” at work in a one-minute actuality from 1897, Bathing in a Stream. It’s simply a lyrical shot of bathing beauties enjoying nature, but these beauties are slim men in trunks. A bathing male is central to the plot of a later comedy as well. We can wonder if such elements would be more common in a world with more women directors.
A sequence of four comedies showcase the era’s tendency for slapstick mischief and escalation. The most riotous is The Drunken Mattress (Le matelas alcoolique, 1906), in which a drunken man gets sealed up in a mattress. The large washerwoman (a man in drag, another common element in these films) wrestles with it all over town in various locales.
A series of six films belong to Gaumont’s early attempt at synchronized sound with musical performances called Phonoscènes. Although one of these films is also an early color process, these straightforward proscenium shootings of supposedly naughty nightclub songs with scratchy recordings remain the most unprepossessing items in the set. A more amusing example features a crowing rooster in the bonus items.
The 20 “bonus” films, running longer than the main program, consist of some major material from Guy’s French Gaumont era, although in some cases she was more the producer or supervisor than necessarily the director. These include trick films, dances, brief melodramatic anecdotes, and comedies. In a serious programming oversight, these bonus items don’t have a “Play All” option. Most important is the monumental 1906 epic The Birth, the Life and the Death of Jesus Christ (La vie du Christ), which we discuss in some detail in our review of the Gaumont Treasures set. Several of that set’s selections are here, though both sets also have unique items.
This disc also includes The Coming of Sunbeam (1913), a one-reeler from Guy’s American period, when she and her husband founded the Solax studio from 1910 to 1914. The story finds a hard-hearted old curmudgeon reformed by the innocent joy of an orphan girl, who turns out to be his presumably out-of-wedlock granddaughter, leading to reconciliation and redemption for the outcast mother. Although such sentiments are very typical of the era, it’s also typical of Guy to focus on women who are treated poorly and achieve recognition. Some firelight shots are very high-contrast in a Rembrandt manner, and the whole thing is enacted in a direct, un-exaggerated style.
More Solax films can be found in Alice Guy Blache, Volume 2: The Solax Years. With more than four hours of material, these 18 films form the most comprehensive collection of her American period in one place, therefore placing the disc among this year’s major silent releases. The disc gathers two films from 1911, eleven from 1912, four from 1913 and one from 1914, and they’re arranged by theme or genre.
All these films, sometimes tinted, are presented in the mature style of cross-cutting with occasional relevant closeups and explanatory title cards (usually at the start of a scene rather than interrupting it) that was now established for film narrative. More pertinent is their mastery of mise-en-scène, where clear yet complex events are staged in depth, with action or points of interest in different planes (background, foreground) and crossing from one to another.
The five films assigned to “Comedy, Cross-Dressing, and Courtship” include two entries in which two chums have too much fun dressing up as women and creating confusion within complicated crime plots; one also involves an actor’s dual role. Another film, His Double (1912), finds the hero impersonating his effete mustached rival even to an early example of the “phony mirror gag” where one person pretends to be the other’s reflection. (The liner notes are under the false impression that the actor plays two roles in a split screen, which clearly isn’t so. In the stairstep scene referred to, they even cross in front of each other.)
A Comedy of Errors (1912) features a quick-witted wife dealing with a jealous husband and a rival neighbor. Starting Something (1911), which lacks much footage at the start, is slapstick nonsense whose characters include a mannish suffragette who hangs up signs for a woman president. These films generally feature a woman who saves the day by catching the crook, fooling her father or husband, or using sense.
In the three “Westerns”, Parson Sue (1911) is lacking so much footage that the whole climax is missing, but we grasp that the heroine in black skirts is an unusual clerical figure taming the rowdy cowboys’ drinking and such, and that their attraction to “godliness” has something to do with her availability as a single woman. The town is already provided with saloon gals in skirted cowgirl outfits, but Sue attracts by her novelty and contrast.
Frozen on Love’s Trail (1912) seems to be a Klondike tale, though shot around Fort Lee, New Jersey, location of Solax and other studios during the immediate pre-Hollywood era of New Jersey’s supremacy in film production. The story partakes of the contemporary genre called “Indian romances”, for the hero is an Indian (apparently a white actor with realistic dark makeup) who faces racial prejudice from the military figures, especially from an unsuccessful suitor to the heroine, until he shows them up by sacrificing himself (“the duty of a redskin”) to save her. She winds up remorseful that she allowed the other men’s prejudice and jealousy to affect her.
Broken Oath (1912) finds a military officer dismissed dishonorably for conduct unbecoming (molesting the heroine with his attentions) and plotting revenge by threatening to hang her protector (binocular framing as she gazes through the instrument at the scene) unless she says she’ll marry him. The plot’s morality hinges on the point that agreements under duress and blackmail aren’t valid, so she conks him on the noggin when he assumes he’s on easy street. The film is actually named after this detail, so it must have seemed an original wrinkle. The narrative uses natural locales very attractively, and there’s interesting play with adjacent inside/outside spaces.
Next come five social dramas of varying far-fetched melodrama, and most of them make a point of contrasting rich and poor with no gradations between. A Terrible Lesson (1912) finds a man cut off from his wealthy family because he marries an actress. In A Man’s a Man (1912), the poor man is a Jew who suffers tragedy at the hands of the rich man, who learns a lesson in humility.
Making an American Citizen (1912) finds a Russian immigrant learning that in America, you can’t treat your wife as a pack animal and hit her without some male stranger butting in to give you a beating; he needs six months of hard labor to reform. The Thief (1913) shows a colonel disguising his poverty at a reunion. Most inflammatory, literally, is The Strike (1912), which resolves labor unrest when the factory owner rescues the family of a worker who was going to bomb the place!
The last five items are billed as features, which in this case just means longer than one reel, except for one. The two-reel The Sewer (1912) is credited to director Edward Warren with set design and script by Henri Menessier. Those designs are impressive; when the hero wanders for several minutes through the title location, he goes slowly so we can appreciate the striking atmosphere. Evidently Menessier constructed the script for that very purpose; he’d also designed the Christ film.
The one-reel The Detective’s Dog (1912) is most interesting for anticipating the wild conventions of later serials, both the American and French type. The detective is actually tied to a buzz-saw by baddies, because that’s more diabolical and laborious and time-consuming than shooting him. These proto-serial qualities are shared with The Sewer and the two-reel Mr. Bruce Wins at Cards (1914), where the hero transforms from a callow husband and gambler to an action hero when he escapes from a deathtrap-room in a plot lifted bodily from Wilkie Collins’ 1852 story A Terribly Strange Bed.
The hero in all three films and many of the others is the same tall handsome actor, while the same petite dark-haired woman usually plays the heroine — as in the two-reel The Girl in the Arm-Chair (1912), for another example. This story of a redeemed gambler’s debt and the heiress who loves him is another example of good in-depth staging. We also get a nifty nightmare of superimposed playing cards circling the frightened hero.
The 45-minute epic Dick Whittington and His Cat (1913) is a kind of period folktale (based on a real historical figure) featuring a boy hero (played by a girl), shots at sea (including a ship on fire and sinking), a dream sequence of superimposed insets, a sultan’s harem, a desert with horses, and a frantically edited montage of close-up rat massacre, with the cat forever scurrying out of frame, that indicates no participation by the ASPCA.
This charmer features more elaborate sets by Menessier, repeating his motif in The Sewer of arches within arches. And as with the red-tinted fire scene in The Strike, Guy lingers on the fiery ship, getting visual value for money so audiences can sit back and enjoy conflagrations after everyone is safe. Also as in The Strike, Guy shows objects making noise, whose sounds are then imagined by the viewer. In short, it’s both a summation of Solax devices and an ambitious step forward.
Julia Crawford Ivers
In the Teens and Twenties, Julia Crawford Ivers was a busy writer and production assistant on many films, associated mainly with Paramount. She’s thought to have directed four of her own scripts, and what survives of two of them are on this Blu-ray along with two one-hour features she scripted but didn’t direct. All the items are tinted Library of Congress prints with new scores and all are melodramas typical of the era. The main feature gives us a smart heroine who shows sympathy with the lower classes, especially women and children, while the other films focus on male heroes.
The headline item is Frank Lloyd’s The Intrigue (1916), a romantic spy tale most intriguing for the ideas it anticipates. Most prominently, the story features a resourceful spy-heroine that we’d call a Mata Hari type, even though the real Mata Hari wouldn’t become notorious as a spy until the following year. That’s coincidental, for Countess Sonia Varnli (Lenore Ulrich) resembles any number of clever women spies who populated melodramas at this time, including Civil War stories.
The film is cognizant of a Euopean war, as represented by one remarkable wide-shot of before-and-after carnage at a battlefield. The countries involved aren’t named, and the surnames like Varnli and Baron Rogniat (Howard Davies) don’t have obvious nationality but seem like ambiguous never-never names that just sound foreign. The closest hint that one side may be German is the spiky helmets, yet it’s the Countess’ side that ruled by an Emperor (Herbert Standing). Very confusing, and deliberately. In neutral America, Hollywood was still determined not to offend any of its potential audience. Only after the US entered the war in 1917 would we witness an onslaught of films about the “beastly Hun”.
The opening cards state: “When war clouds hang over the world, the minds of scientists naturally turn to things that pertain to war. Guy Longstreet, a young American scientist, has almost perfected his wireless X-ray apparatus, which is expected to kill, with mathematical precision, at a distance of 25 miles.” The apparatus is a big sleek gleaming double-barreled cannon-thing with a small magical TV screen and electric lightning bolts (sometimes generated, sometimes scratched onto the image) we associate with the Tesla coils devised by Kenneth Strickfaden for James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931).
That’s certainly prescient, not only of today’s long-distance satellite murder technology but of the countless death-ray and TV McGuffins that drove the plot of many an adventure melodrama and serial through the 1940s and beyond. Movie scientists were inventing this weapon continually. This particular bland scientist (Cecil Van Auker), who gets in a snit when the U.S. Army takes a pass on his amazing device, reveals himself as both gullible to “a certain foreign power” and susceptible to Sonia’s essentially wholesome erotic appeal for pacifism. He looks naive and misguided, despite the heroic square jaw, and perhaps this is a subliminal political comment.
Sonia doesn’t want him to switch sides but to destroy the weapon. When she points out that it will slaughter thousands of people and her words are illustrated by enactments and split-screen effects, he responds as though such a reality never occurred to him, even though he’d eagerly killed a sheep in demonstration–and what happened to that sheep feels like careful symbolism. One subtle detail about the imaginary soldiers is that they’re dressed in British style, not German. The film may seem neutral but close study offers implications about which foreign power is so double-dealing with Longstreet.
Anyway, the flaw in his machine is a reliance on an unnamed rare mineral found only in America that burns out the contact points, so there’s much impractical backing and forthing in the action that can make you think the scientist is rather jumping the gun, as it were. Such elements explain why Ives’ standard plot is less intriguing than the minor details decorating it, such as the attention to poor immigrants on the transatlantic crossing.
The central fact of Sonia’s cleverness lies in her willingness to stay a step ahead of her enemies by switching places with her maid. She exploits appearances and conventional attitudes, as though she anticipates that the Baron will hit on her as an immigrant waif and conveniently offer her a job as eavesdropping maid before putting the moves on her. Historian Anthony Slide’s commentary points out that the actual maid is played by future star Florence Vidor, and that her husband, future director King Vidor, can be glimpsed as Sonia’s driver.
Cinematographer James Van Trees, who happened to be Ivers’ son and shot several of her pictures, provides clever in-camera superimposition effects. Director Lloyd is an important if underrated figure, several of whose films of this era have survived and would be worth gathering. Another from this same year is Madame la Presidente, the only film of Ziegfeld Follies sensation Anna Held. Today, she’s best known for having been played by Luise Rainer in Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld (1936).
Pallas Pictures, distributed by Paramount, devised The Intrigue as a vehicle for popular stage star Lenore Ulrich, who would respond to the war by modifying her name to Ulric. Slide opines that, as was also stated by contemporary reviewers, it hardly comes across as a great part for her, although he notes she does a better job as the maid than as the Countess. This good tinted print, with a new score by Ben Model, shows off a standard if well-directed mainstream melodrama with some felicitous effects, and the thing moves too quickly and briefly to outwear its welcome.
Three bonus items begin with a deteriorated fourth reel from Ives’ The Majesty of the Law (1915). The main plotline is a clear enough story of stolen funds and the ill-fated attempts to restore the cash, and the few unexplained cutaways to other characters in the midst of unclear sufferings contribute unwitting poetry. A brief moment of racial humor is the only unfortunate element.
The Majesty of the Law (1915) (IMDB)
Conversely, the fourth reel of Ivers’ A Son of Erin (1916) is missing and must be bridged over with explanatory titles. That fact and some passages of nitrate decay may be what prevents this film from headlining its own disc, but I believe this good movie is the most thoughtful and satisfying in the set. Ivers’ plotting and direction are equally good, with this script putting The Intrigue in the shade.
This Pallas Production begins by laying on the blarney in Ireland, presented as a bucolic land of “simple souls” who spend their time smashing rocks, lifting bales, lugging bags of feathers, raising animals, and conversing in broadly Oirish title cards. Bluff and brawny Dennis O’Hara (Dustin Farnum) and his darling Katie O’Grady (Winifred Kingston) have the wealth that matters and their only problem is dealing with rudeness from the horse-riding landlord (Jack Livingston) of British surname who tries to force his attentions on Katie.
The titles contrast this context ironically with the golden land of opportunity in New York, depicted as a place corrupted by the graft of political ward bosses working hand in hand with police and dishonest contractors. “Protection” money is forked over by small business owners, including a Jewish pawnbroker (presented non-stereotypically) and a presumed madame. This material comes straight out of the day’s muckraking and social reform, and it’s not presented as a simple problem of evil or vicious people but as a system that must be resisted with organization and integrity.
Under the impression that he can be hired as a “polaceman”, Dennis makes the crossing and gets a job working construction with “wops” and “dagos” (terms used in dialogue by jaded characters), with whom he smilingly gets along without prejudice, so that the corrupt police do hire him to help canvas East Side votes, and the tenement residents soon love him for his honesty and sense. When he’s instructed to make the “protection” rounds, he finally “wakes up”, leading to a resolution about crusading for reform candidates.
Meanwhile, back in the old country, Katie must show her mettle in fighting off the landlord by herself instead of being rescued, and the ending is poignant and satisfying. The film has made serious and complex observations while still promoting the mythology of the melting pot, immigration, and local boys making good.
Another Farnum/Kingston vehicle is the modern western hybrid Ben Blair (1916), directed by William Desmond Taylor and scripted by Ivers from Will Lillibridge’s novel. Taylor is unfortunately most famous for his unsolved murder. Ivers, one of his lovers, was briefly suspected; she wrote many of his scripts.
The complicated, eventful plot begins with a wealthy New York plutocrat (Herbert Standing) buying a ranch “out west” for the health of his married son Scott Winthrop (Lamar Johnstone), to the dismay of Scott’s snooty sticklike wife (Virginia Foltz) and the delight of their spunky daughter Florence (an unknown child actress).
At the same time, we’re treated to a lengthy tragedy of the western neighbor they have yet to meet. Rankin (Frank A. Bonn) moons disconsolately over the fact that his wife took off with a no-good, gambling, drunken, violent varmint named Tom Blair (Fred Burns). She gave birth to Tom’s son Ben (Gordon Griffith), who’s already several years old when his mama dies of something or other and Ben barely and not very credibly escapes from a fire set by Tom, whereupon Rankin adopts him in the informal way of the period’s movies. Then we finally flash forward several years to the adult Ben (Farnum) and Florence (Kingston) and a lot more stuff happens, culminating in Ben traveling to New York to foil Florence’s engagement to an effete city rat.
A lot of almost randomly inexplicable cross-cuts to various things make us wonder if footage could be missing or out of order, unless this is really a narrative style. For example, the big excitement of Ben capturing his father in the desert and then sparing him from a lynching is intercut with lots of New York business and then dropped. Perhaps these elements exist to distract us from the point that nothing in the story is ever very convincing.
Not many viewers today will be pleased by the way our hero bullies our heroine (who’s nothing but bad judgment) instead of letting her discover her suitor’s unsuitability for herself. Her spunkiness has no positive application, unlike the spy-heroine of The Intrigue or Kingston’s supporting role in A Son of Erin. On that score alone, it’s easy to understand why The Intrigue is the headliner. All of that said, many compositions in Ben Blair are very pretty, making use of water reflections and chiaroscuro’d doorways, and anyway we’re glad to have more than two hours of bonus material. Bring it on.