The Ocean Waif (1916)

This late movie from Alice Guy-Blaché’s Solax studio seems to be an effort by her to imitate the success of Mary Pickford, with a less-expensive actress. The story, as well as the performer, do manage to evoke some of the charm of Pickford’s better work.

Not Little Mary

Doris Kenyon is Millie, a young orphan who washed up on the beach one day and is being raised by “Hy” Jessop (William Morris), a gruff fisherman with all the social graces and basic decency of Huck Finn’s Pappy. She is also loved from afar by the seemingly simple-minded “Sem” (Fraunie Fraunholz), who hates to see her abused by her foster father, and tries to defend her. She runs away to a nearby abandoned crumbling mansion, which, though filled with rats, is not much worse than her regular squalid digs. A wealthy author by the name of Ronald Roberts (Carlyle Blackwell) decides to lease said mansion, seeing it as the ideal romantic atmosphere to work out yet another best-selling novel, and he brings along his valet, Edgar Norton. Clearly, the three are on a collision course with wackiness!

This being a fairly brief silent film, said wackiness gets underway pretty quickly, with Millie hiding out in the mansion and fooling the butler into believing there is a “lady ghost.” Norton gives quite a number of good scare takes before Roberts figures out that there’s a real girl hiding out. Once she’s been discovered, Roberts takes her under his wing, with the usual result of an impoverished young girl’s awakening attraction to an older successful man (see, for example, “Stella Maris”). In this case, he more or less reciprocates, but with the added complication of a fiancé who comes to visit at an inopportune moment, causing Millie to run back to her foster father, who now notices her blooming womanhood for the first time. Luckily, Sem intervenes once again to rescue her, conveniently getting himself killed n the process to avoid any further romantic triangles. Ronald’s fiancé decides she’s more interested in marrying “the Count” who has been wooing her single (presumably widowed) mother, thus allowing the two stars to live happily ever after.

Your…fish…has arrived, sir.

This is pretty light fare, and as I’ve suggested it’s rather derivative, so doesn’t hold up against the best work Guy-Blaché was putting out from Gaumont in the 1900s. It is undeniably more sophisticated in terms of film techniques and storytelling, but only in the sense of having kept up with the industry as of 1916, not in terms of any innovations. Still, there are some nice touches. I actually think the best performance is the comic turn by Norton as the butler. I could actually hear his nasally-British voice as he showed his fastidious snobbishness at the surroundings and locals of the seaside. Anyone who watched (or read) “Jeeves and Wooster” will instantly recognize his archetype here. Norton would continue playing butlers of this type well into the sound period, so he’ll be recognized by many classic film fans. One nice bit has the waif’s first night at the mansion intercut with the author’s night in a luxurious hotel nearby, emphasizing the differences in their backgrounds and the lives they’ve known. I was actually rooting for Sem, myself, who seemed to have more genuine feelings for Millie, and who is the only one who really puts himself on the line for her. I suppose that the difference in their intelligence would have prevented a healthy relationship, but I’m not sure that falling for the first rich guy you meet is much better.

Director: Alice Guy-Blaché

Camera: John G. Haas

Starring: Doris Kenyon, Carlyle Blackwell, William Morris, Fraunie Fraunholz, Edgar Norton

Run Time: 40 Min (with some missing footage, I believe)

You can watch it for free: here.