The Cruel Mother (1906)
Alternate Title: La Marâtre
I found this short from Alice Guy to be confusing at first, then disturbing in its implications, and then I went back to uncertain. I believe it was intended as a kind of social commentary film, although exactly what that comment is meant to be is a little obscure.
The movie begins with a woman tidying up what appears to be a ramshackle hut. There is a child on the floor, and a man is present, and occasionally gives some assistance, giving the impression of a family unit. But the woman leaves the job half-done, then gathers up and leaves the man alone. He seems forlorn. The next scene takes place in the woman’s apartment, which has much nicer walls with wallpaper and is generally more orderly. She is ironing and the child is in a nearby crib. The man walks in, much more nicely dressed than he was in the previous scene, and gives the woman a gift, which she accepts gratefully. The man now proposes, and, after a moment of surprise, the woman agrees. He puts a ring on her finger.
Now we see the whole mixed family together. The man has a son, some years older than the woman’s small daughter, and the hovel is much tidier than before, but seems crowded with so many people living there. When the man goes out, the woman grabs the boy by the arm, and makes him do most of the housework. Later, when the father comes in, the boy runs to him, but the father scolds him and (I assume) tells him to listen to his new mother. Finally, the boy goes out and runs to a graveyard – clearly visiting the grave of his real mother, and clarifying the relationship a bit. The father goes to the police, concerned because his son has run away, and they quickly bring him the boy they found in a cemetery. The boy resists returning home and the police show the father why: his arms are covered in bruises. Now the father brings the boy home and yells at the woman, grabbing her by the arm and shaking her. The boy tries to calm things down.
The French Wikipedia claims that this movie is based on “Cousin Bette” by Balzac but I haven’t read it and the English plot summary is no help in figuring out the confusing parts of this story. Possibly French audiences of the day would have no trouble. So far as I can see, the solution to the abuse of the boy is to abuse the wife, ensuring that the cycle of abuse will continue, but it’s possible (and suggested by the French writeup) that the ending is meant to suggest the possibility of a healthy reconciliation. It’s also not clear to me why the “cruel mother” is cruel in the first place – she seems to treat her own daughter well, so she becomes a kind of “wicked stepmother” for no apparent reason. It didn’t help that I had to spend the first half of the movie figuring out each character’s relationship to the others. Possibly this movie was shown originally with narration or Intertitles which have been lost. At any rate, presented as it is, for me as a modern American with no context, it was one of the stranger things I’ve seen from Alice Guy, and even somewhat frightening at first.
Director: Alice Guy
Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville
Run Time: 6 Min, 30 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).