Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Alice Guy Blaché

Alice Guy-Blaché: Mother of Film

For many years, film historians and critics ignored the contributions of women to early cinema. Despite this, one name often did show up, at least in parentheses or a footnote: that of Alice Guy, who had been the head of production at Gaumont, one of the world’s leading film studios, from 1896 to 1906, after which she moved to the United States to found Solax with her husband, Herbert Blaché. As women’s history and the influence of feminism finally began to make some headway into film studies (much later than in other fields), various writers “discovered” Guy and turned out hagiographical re-assessments of her work. Suddenly, from a footnote, she became the “inventor” of narrative cinema, the one person with the insight to see the camera’s potential for telling stories, the most important director of her time.

Alice Guy

I rather think the time has come to make a realistic assessment of Guy’s work. She is, to begin with, much more than a footnote. She was one of a handful of creative people who created the body of “early film” in the final years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. During that time, she made at least 350 movies (these are what survive in archives today), and quite probably closer to 1000. She took chances with new technologies, and made some important experiments in both color and sound film. Her output is comparable to any male producer of the time, and it is clear that recognizable “pioneers” of cinema, such as Georges Méliès and William K. Dickson, borrowed from and learned from her works, as she also borrowed and learned from theirs. If you are interested in the history of film, you owe it to yourself to check out some of what she did.

On the other hand, she did not invent sliced bread. Some of her defenders have made some pretty strong claims, claims which I would say do not hold up. There are not 300 extras visible in her magnum opus, “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ.” I counted maybe 30-45. “The Cabbage Fairy” is not the “first narrative film.” It has no story, in the sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end, whereas the Lumière brothers’ “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” which came out four months earlier, does. As Fritzi Kramer, kind hostess of this blogathon, likes to point out, the “first” anything in film is notoriously difficult to prove and probably not as important as it sounds in the first place.

Alice Guy was a secretary to Léon Gaumont in 1895. At the time, his still photography company had failed, but he was still managing the inventory with a small staff, and was looking into motion picture technology. He invited Guy along to a demonstration by the Lumières, and agreed to put Guy in charge of what he no doubt thought would be a pretty minor film-production operation, “so long as it did not interfere with her other duties.” As Guy proved the lucrative advantages of film production, that quickly became her primary responsibility.

Whether it’s the first narrative movie or not, “The Cabbage Fairy” is a very interesting contribution to early film. Lea at Silentology has recently discussed the importance of the féerie show in French theater, and its apparent influence on the work of Méliès. Féerie was a ballet spectacle that was usually based on fairy tales or mythological sources, and emphasized stage magic, elegant costume, and fantastic situations over plot. “The Cabbage Fairy” may not be a narrative in the strictest sense, but it is a tableau that fits the concept of féerie perfectly, right down to having a fairy as its central figure! Guy did beat Méliès to the punch in this area, at least, and I have no doubt that Georges watched Alice’s movie with profound interest, although he probably would have made a féerie movie sooner or later, given his interests and talents, whether or not he saw it.

I watched and reviewed about 80 of Guy’s films from Gaumont last year, which may not make me an expert, but it gives me some sense of that period of her career. Honestly, it took me a while to warm to them. A lot of the really early stuff is just short dance movies or “trick films” that aren’t as well-executed as those of Méliès. As I worked through them, though, I began to see that they weren’t so much copies of other filmmakers work as they were part of a “discourse” between the pioneers of early cinema. Like blues or jazz musicians, they were listening to each other, then “riffing” off of what the others did. Somewhere along the way, Guy developed a more discernible voice, especially in her comedies. She had a quirky, idiosyncratic sense of humor that often involved taking logical premises to some crazy kind of extreme. The later comedies I would even call “surreal,” although that term hadn’t actually been invented yet, when they start involving mattresses that take on personality, beds that steer themselves through the streets of Paris, or footraces in which the participants trade clothing!

One of the more recent academic discussions or Guy talks about the importance that cross-dressing has in her films. This is probably nowhere more obvious than in her movie “The Consequences of Feminism,” which shows a future world in which effeminate men are dominated by masculine women. It cleverly pretends to be a critique of feminism when it is in fact a feminist critique of patriarchy and rape culture. In a “A Sticky Woman,” a masher is punished for kissing a woman at the post office when his mouth sticks to hers – because of all the stamps she has been licking! A lot of her movies take on a different aspect when you consider that she was a woman in a leadership role in a male-dominated industry at a time when women were expected to submit to male authority.

The final thing to consider about Guy’s Gaumont period was her early experiments in sound film. There are a few examples on “Gaumont Treasures,” and also a clip of Guy at work on a sound stage. These are comparably static images, as one might expect from a sound film in 1905 (it was still a problem in the early thirties), and generally just show a single song or dance number. It’s still fascinating to be able to hear the voices of performers in such early films, and gives a bit of insight into the musical culture of the period as well. Felix Mayol, in particular, is a very unusual discovery from the early twentieth century – a gay man with a very sophisticated sense of humor.

Who’s this?

In many ways, then, Guy pushed the boundaries of cinema at a time when nothing was established. She took chances, she tried new techniques, and she helped to define what “the movies” would really be about for the next 100 or more years.

This has been my contribution to the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Click on the link to check out all of the other contributions!

Early Women Filmmakers Announcement

This is just a quick post to let my readers know that I will be participating in the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently! I plan to do a writeup of the career of Alice Guy Blaché, whose movies I covered extensively last Spring/Summer.

Here are links to a few favorites from that cycle:

The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ

The Drunken Mattress

The Consequences of Feminism

Alice Guy Films a Phonoscene

And, of course, the obligatory banner (starring Mabel Normand, another favorite woman filmmaker, who I’ve written about before):

early-women-filmmakers-blogathon-mabel-normand-banner

Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913)

gaumont-treasuresLink to Worldcat for Interlibrary Loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/429915190

It’s been quite a while since I’ve reviewed a DVD collection of Century Films, although for quite some time I’ve been reviewing the individual movies in this one. It consists of three discs, each with a different filmmaker from the pioneering days of the French film industry. The discs feature the work of Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret, respectively. The vast majority of these movies are shorts, and all of them are rare outside of this collection. Each has been cleaned up and presented in the highest available quality, given new English-language intertitles, and is accompanied by appropriate non-distracting music.

Cabbage FairyThe movies give a great perspective on the development of cinema. Anyone only familiar with the “usual suspects” of early film (Méliès, Porter, Griffith) will receive a wonderful education as to what was going on at the same time as the more well-known pioneers. The Guy disc includes some commentary that helps contextualize her work, while the Perret and Feuillade discs both have short documentaries about their work. For Guy, we get over 60 of her short movies, including a good number of sound experiments and “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ,” a 33-minute featurette. For Feuillade, there are 13 films, representing a great range of his work, far beyond the crime serials he is mostly remembered for now, with dramas, film-poems, light comedies, and historical reenactments. Perret is represented with two longer pieces, “The Child of Paris” and “The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador.”

Bout_de_Zan ElephantIt’s a little disappointing, after having so many movies from Feuillade and especially Guy, to wrap up with only two samples of Perret, especially since the documentary shows clips from at least a half a dozen others, but it does make sense in terms of run time. Because the other filmmakers worked in short and very-short formats, the length of each disc is about the same. It does leave you wanting to see more of Perret, though, and hopefully someday I will. The other criticism I have is that the index for the Guy disc is hard to navigate, so that if you want to examine each film independently (as I did), you spend a lot of time wading through pages of movies you’ve already seen.

mystere-des-roches-kadorThese are really minor criticisms, however, of a really lovely collection. Vital viewing for any Century Film fan.

The Dirigible “La Patrie” (1907)

Alternate Titles: The Dirigible “Homeland,” Le ballon dirigeable “La Patrie”

First, I should explain about the title. Most sources will refer to this by one of the above “alternate” names, but I was stuck with a quandary. As this is an English-language blog, I usually translate the titles into English or use a standard English title as my leading title. But, it seems wrong to me to translate the name of a ship, person, or (in this case) dirigible. We don’t talk about “The sinking of the Germany” when we mean the Deutschland, now do we? So, I’m calling it “La Patrie,” but translating the rest of the title to English.

Dirigible La PatrieSo, with that out of the way, what is this movie? It is a brief actuality film of a dirigible, or what modern Americans would probably call a “blimp,” being backed out of a hangar and launched for a voyage. All of the footage is taken from the ground, although one shot before the launch is close enough to see the captain and his crew clearly. As the movie progresses, the dirigible gets higher and further away. We also see one shot of the crowd of well-dressed men on the field watching the launch.

We haven’t seen a lot of actuality footage from Alice Guy in the collection I’ve been working through for the past four months, but I don’t know whether that’s because she didn’t shoot that much, or it hasn’t survived, or if Gaumont and Kino thought that would be of lesser interest. This is fun for modern viewers because the dirigible is something of an antique in a world of jet flight, and because of the idea that a crowd would gather to watch one launch. It’s nicely shot, but doesn’t offer much more than a quick window into a past event.

Director: Alice Guy (possibly with help from Louis Feuillade)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

On the Barricade (1907)

Alternate Title: Sur le barricade

This is the last narrative short I have from the collection of Alice Guy movies I’ve been reviewing since March. While most of them have been comedies (the ones with any story at all, that is), this is at least an attempt at a more dramatic, even action-packed movie, with a sentimental ending.

On the BarricadeA young man and his aging mother are eating a meal in a house whose door allows a view into the street. We can see uniformed men rushing by with guns, but the pair continue to eat. An intertitle reminds us that “Even during the revolution, it was necessary to provide for the household.” The young man gets up and takes an empty milk bottle. His mother urges him not to go out, she fears for what will happen if he gets caught in the fighting, but he insists. He goes out and we cut to a shot of some people building a makeshift barricade in the street, using parts of a wagon, bricks, baskets, and barrels. The young man approaches from behind the barricade, and the revolutionaries try to shoo him off, warning that the army is approaching from the other direction, but he says he needs to get milk for his mother (another intertitle), and they let him pass rather than argue further. The barricade keeps going up after he goes through.

Now we see a corner further along, with a large factory in the background. The boy runs up to the corner, and peers around as another group of revolutionaries retreats, forced back by the advancing troops. We see three of them get shot before the others retreat, the boy running along with them. They run down an alley, but the army pursues, and soon we are back at the barricade. The army is shooting down the revolutionaries, and the boy picks up one of their guns, but the soldiers quickly leap the ramshackle affair and take the survivors prisoner. At the officer’s command, hasty firing squad is set up, but the boy pleads to be able to take the milk to his mother, and gives his word to return. The officer grants him permission, and the boy runs off. We see his mother, pacing and fretting at his absence, and then he runs in with the milk. He puts the milk on the counter and hugs his mother, but then he insists he has to go. He goes back out the door and she follows. Meanwhile, the firing squad are finishing off some other captives, and the boy runs up just after one is shot. The officer seems surprised at the boy’s return, but doesn’t hesitate to order his men to take aim. Then the mother runs in front of the guns, and the soldiers refuse to fire at an old woman. She pleads with the officer and even he seems moved, ordering the men to volte-face and sending the boy and woman away free.

On the Barricade1There’s a continuity problem with this movie, in that the boy, coming from his mother’s house, first approaches the barricade from behind, but when he returns to the firing squad, he and his mother approach from the other direction (they exit back in the original direction, walking towards the camera). This doesn’t really make sense, unless he’s running around the block for some reason before coming back, but I don’t know how sensitive a 1907 audience would be to this detail. It would depend largely on how careful theatrical productions were to match exits with entrances. Of all the French movies I’ve seen from this period, this is the first to be set during the revolution of 1789, perhaps the most important event in European history to this time. From that point of view, it’s interesting to think about how Guy went about selecting locations in Paris that would look enough like they did 100+ years earlier to work for the audience – although I’m not certain that the factory with the name painted on the side was likely in 1789. This movie avoids dealing with political questions or the international implications in favor of a small, human story that reminds me of the sort of war movies D.W. Griffith made during his time at Biograph. It’s a bit hard to imagine anyone returning to a firing squad after being allowed to leave unguarded, but this is presumably meant to heighten our sense that the boy is honorable and good, and thus make us identify with him. For me, it doesn’t necessarily work as well as the bizarre comedies where inanimate objects come to life and so forth, but it is an interesting piece.

Director: Alice Guy, possibly with help from Louis Feuillade

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Irresistible Piano (1907)

Alternate Title: Le piano irrésistible

This is another of Alice Guy’s slightly surreal comedies about apartment life, as with “The Cleaning Man.” This is one of those comedies that takes advantage of the silence of the film in order to suggest sounds to the viewer’s imagination.

Irresistible PianoA man in a tall hat and a formal suit is moving into an apartment, and the moving men bring in his piano. As soon as they leave, he takes off his hat and sits down to play. The moving men bring in more furniture, but they begin to dance along with the rhythm of the piece. We cut to the apartment downstairs, where a couple is taking tea, and they also begin to dance. They dance out of the door and we cut back to the original apartment. They come in, apparently intending to complain, but they continue dancing instead. Another couple is engaged in housework, but they are also compelled by the music to begin dancing, and they also dance out their door to find its source. Now we see a group of women working for a dressmaker, sewing and making clothes. They also get the bug and start dancing, heading out to find the jamboree going on in the upstairs apartment. Finally, a passing policeman hear the noise and goes to investigate, but he also begins compulsively dancing. When he enters the room it is a huge party of people dancing to the piano. The pianist tries to end his piece, but the crowd will have none of it – they force him back to the keys. They seem to slow down as the piano player becomes increasingly tired, and he finally stops, slumped over the piano, and all the dancers stop and look at one another.

Irresistible Piano1This movie is a fairly simple one-trick-pony, but it does involve multiple set-ups and shots edited together in sequence. The fun part is that we can’t really hear what the music of the pianist sounds like, though we can see its rhythm in the movements of the dancers. In that sense, it may actually work better without a soundtrack, just allowing your imagination to supply the music. It’s interesting to me how often silent movies rely on the sound that characters would hear to augment their story – as if having to work without the sense of hearing made filmmakers more creative in its depiction. The characters in this movie seem to vary from middle class (the first couple and the dressmaker), to working class (the second couple and the dressmaker’s employees), and perhaps part of the point is the unifying nature of music.

Director: Alice Guy (possibly with help from Louis Feuillade)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

The Rolling Bed (1907)

Alternate Title: Le lit à roulette

I found this comedy by Alice Guy a bit confusing – it could have used a few explanatory intertitles to clear things up – but it does stick to some of the themes we’ve seen before, including the plight of the poor, objects that seem to take on lives of their own, and the streets of Paris. Once again, the performance of the main actor manages to make it funny, even when it’s not entirely clear what’s going on.

Rolling BedThe movie opens on a stage depicting a poor man’s apartment. The landlord is there, and he shows him papers. When the man turns out his pockets to show he can’t pay, the landlord walks offstage and brings back a policeman and another man I think might be a bailiff. They instruct him to get out. He begins clearing away his furniture, but the largest object is a huge wooden bed. Finally, he pulls the bed offstage. The next shot shows him pulling it out the front door of a building and onto the street. It is much larger than him and difficult to move, although it is on wheels, which helps at first, until it starts rolling down the hill after him. He manages to get it to stop in front of a café, where it causes quite a commotion, with people running up to see it and pulling at the sheets, mattress, and pillows. To defend his property, the man gets into the bed, but this only seems to delight the crowd more, and it keeps growing until two policemen come up and push the bed along, seeking to clear the crowd. Once they get it going with the man on it, it keeps rolling of its own volition, with no control.  It takes the man down a staircase, knocking over a pole at the bottom, and then rushes towards a large wagon on a track, piled (I think) with coal. The man and bed roll off after the cart (you can actually see a locomotive pulling it but I’m not certain if that’s intentional), but the next cut takes us to a street where the bed is rolling alone toward a line of policemen assembled to stop it. The bed knocks them all down, and they are then chased by local dogs. The next street shows a store with various pieces of furniture out front. A man distracts the owner while a group of ruffians jump into a large cabinet, a wardrobe, and a grandfather clock. These items then begin to “walk” away, before being hit by the bed. The owner, the ruffians, and various citizens now begin to fight. The movie ends without further resolution.

Rolling Bed2At first, I was confused by the eviction scene, because I thought the men would be there to repossess the furniture, so it made no sense for the poor man to take out the bed. It still makes no sense for him to take that, but leave all his other possessions, but I assume that’s part of the comedy. The part that still makes no sense to me is the apparent “theft” by getting inside tall pieces of furniture and then walking off with them in broad daylight. Would no one in Paris have noticed a grandfather clock walking along by itself? Finally, it’s confusing that there’s no final resolution for our hero – he speeds off the screen and then the narrative of catching the thieves takes over. It’s possible that some part of this movie is lost. A narrative attributed to the “Gaumont catalog” suggests an ending in which he has managed to procure a chauffeur’s uniform, and people assume that the bed is his car. At any rate, what we do have to watch is made funnier by his flailings as the bed rolls out of control. He looks like a clown, and manages some good moves which work even at the distance the camera is generally set. I always like these movies that actually use the streets of Paris, and it’s pretty obvious that most of the crowd is not made of actors, but just from kids and people that happened to be on the street that day. At one point, a worker passes close to the camera while shooting and looks directly into it – I’m sure he wasn’t a planned part of the movie. This gives a good chance to see the styles of ordinary people on the street at the time, and also a good look at some of the more sloped streets the city had to offer. The furniture store, with its wood-framed windows, is especially appealing.

I doubt this guy was in the script.

I doubt this guy was in the script.

Director: Alice Guy (possibly with help from Louis Feuillade)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Four-Year-Old Hero (1907)

Alternate Title: Une heroine de quatre ans

Another apparent collaboration between Alice Guy and Louis Feuillade, this short takes us out into location shooting on the streets (and parks) of Paris. The story is light and domestic in nature, and some use of cross-cutting is made to heighten tension.

Four Year Old HeroThe opening shows a typical stage set designed as a room in a middle-class family’s home. The father sits at a large desk in the center of the room and writes on papers, while over to one side we see the mother and a small girl. The nanny enters from a door behind the mother, and she gets up and helps the daughter into her coat. The nanny takes the child’s hand and leads her out the door. An Intertitle now comes up to tell us they are “on their way to Buttes-Chaumont Park.” Now we see our first exterior shot, a fairly tight shot of a doorway through which the nanny and daughter leave. They leave that shot on the right, and a nicely matched over-the-shoulder shot cuts in to give us the impression that they have simply walked across the street to the park. In the establishing shot of the park we see several other “characters,” who I suspect are not extras but just people who happened to be in the park that day. The next shot is tight on a bench and the path in front of it, and the nanny stops here to rest, quickly dropping off to sleep while the child takes out her jump rope and begins to play. Soon, she is jumping down the path away from the negligent nanny.

Four Year Old Hero1The child merrily hops her way through the park and another Intertitle appears, with the word “Apaches.” Now we see two rough-looking men beating up a third man near a gate. The girl enters through the gate and, thinking quickly, ties her jump rope to the gate at ankle-height, so that when the ruffians try to get away, they trip and fall into the bushes. Rather than wait for that to happen, the child runs off. After we see the expected trip-and-fall, we cut to a shot of the little girl running to a policeman for help. He gets to the scene in time to arrest the muggers, and also returns the jump rope to the girl, who skips away. The next intertitle introduces a “poor blind man,” who is walking near a canal. He tries to cross on a bridge, which is not fully extended. The print is damaged here, so it’s hard to see, but I think the child manages to extend the bridge so that the man does not fall into the canal. Next comes “drunkards in danger.” Here, the girl closes a gate in front of a trio of stumbling men before they manage to walk in front of a train. After the train passes, we see them strewn across the gate, snoozing happily. Now the little girl realizes she is lost, and approaches a policeman, who takes her into the station. At this point the nanny wakes up and realizes her charge is gone. Her search for the child is cross-cut with her interactions with the police, and their making phone calls to find her home. Finally, when she reports her error to the parents, the phone on the father’s desk rings. He picks it up and speaks to the police, who have his daughter. A policeman takes her home and she scolds the nanny, pulling her by the ear.

Four Year Old Hero2This domestic comedy never becomes terribly tense, because we always know the little girl is all right, but its focus instead is on transmitting the idea that the little girl is “wiser” than all of the adults around her. There is, however, some good editing and camerawork, and we happily escape from those phony-looking sets for much of the picture. The use of Intertitles is interesting, but a bit odd. There haven’t been very many in the Guy movies I’ve seen up to now (although that could be because they’ve been lost, which happens a lot with titled prints), and it seems to me that several of these are superfluous. I suppose they may have wanted to identify Paris’s famous park, but was it really necessary to tell us the muggers were “Apaches” or that a man walking with a cane was a “poor blind man?” To me, these titles seem to interrupt the action more than inform it. As with yesterday’s “The Cleaning Man,” the story here focuses on the actions of a single character (the little girl), and her performance could make or break the picture. She comes across as sweetly precocious, but never annoying, which is quite a trick under the circumstances. No doubt the lack of sound actually helps here, because she doesn’t have to remember lines, just act like a child, which was obviously no problem. If she was really 4, she’d by 113 years old today!

Director: Alice Guy (possibly with help from Louis Feuillade)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run  Time: 5 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Cleaning Man (1907)

Alternate Title: Le frotteur

This is another of Alice Guy’s late-period comedies with Gaumont, or at least it is according to the Kino/Gaumont release of Gaumont films, although again there are online sources that attribute it to Louis Feuillade. I’m inclined to think that these movies may have been collaborations, as Feuillade was coming up the ladder at Gaumont and Guy was soon to leave.

Cleaning ManLike, “The Fur Hat,” this movie also begins on an interior stage set with obviously fake props, in this case it appears to be the living room of a middle-class apartment, with a desk in the center of the room. A man is working at the desk when another man, in somewhat frayed clothing, comes in and offers to do the floor cleaning for him. The homeowner agrees, and he and the maid leave the room. As soon as they are gone, we see that the cleaning man has a very serious commitment to his job, and a very casual attitude toward the possessions of his clients. He hurls the desk and chair aside, oblivious to the damage they may suffer. He scrubs madly at the floor, knocking over a flower vase and other furniture, and whenever they get in his way, he tosses them aside as well. Soon, we cut from this scene to the dining room of another apartment, where a man and his wife appear to be enjoying breakfast. They seem to notice a commotion from above, and then their ceiling lamp begins to shake and bits of plaster start raining down on them. They run to the window and yell, and a policeman comes in their door quite soon afterward. At this point the lamp has crashed down and a good deal of plaster is strewn about the room. They all exit with the apparent intention of investigating upstairs.

We now cut back to the cleaning man, who is dancing about madly on the floor, continuing his work. The maid comes in and expresses amazement at how clean the floor looks, but as soon as she steps on it, she slides out of control. The cleaning man is unable to keep from slipping as well, and soon the room is filled with tumbling bodies as the owner, the police, and the downstairs neighbors arrive. Suddenly the floor, either because of the number of people or because it has been weakened by the thorough cleaning, gives way and everyone slides until they fall through the hole, crash through the floor of the ruined apartment downstairs, and finally tumble onto a man sleeping in a bed on the ground floor. The policeman arrests the cleaning man, who manages to cause further damage to the sleeping man’s furniture on his way out the door.Cleaning Man1

Although what we see is really a pretty simple edited sequence between three stationary long-shots, this movie works largely due to the manic performance of the actor in the title role. This is an example of how, even at this stage, proper casting could make a huge difference to a movie’s success, and why the star system began its rise shortly thereafter. The cleaning man’s lanky frame adds to the effect of his gesticulations and bizarre dance-like movements, and you can almost believe that he has scrubbed the floor so smooth that it has become frictionless (and undermined) at the end of his performance. His callousness toward his client’s possessions is also very funny. It’s interesting to note that this movie came out at a time when hygiene and cleanliness were becoming associated with middle class existence, and that brought with it a certain austerity in terms of furniture and decorative knick knacks, now seen as “dust collectors.” This movie touches on that, as well as the common wisdom that “you are most likely to slip and hurt yourself when the floors have just been cleaned.”

Director: Alice Guy, possibly with assistance from Louis Feuillade

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Fur Hat (1907)

Alternate Title: Le Bonnet à poil

Another light comedy from the end of Alice Guy’s Gaumont period, this is a step backwards on technical and creative levels from what she put out in 1906. It still manages to be funny, however, and to lightly comment on social mores and gender relations.

Fur HatWe see a typical stage-style set of a kitchen, with obviously fake walls and appliances. A large cabinet takes up much of the right side of the set. A maid is setting out some food on the table, when the bell rings, indicating that someone is at the servants’ entrance. She reacts with excitement and runs to answer. She then re-enters along with a man dressed in a soldier’s uniform with a tall fur hat with a fur plume on top. This is her guest, who she entertains and gives free food to. Then the bell rings again, and she realizes someone else will catch her with the soldier. She hurriedly hides him in the cabinet, but his hat is too tall, and it knocks off the board which tops the cabinet and the plume sticks out, looking sort of like a furry animal’s tail. A new woman enters (I think she may be the cook, or possibly she is meant to be the mistress of the house), and she scolds the maid for being lazy and not getting work done. She sends the maid out of the kitchen and starts to work on preparing a meal. All the while, the plume of the hat is moving about in very silly ways, making sure that the audience doesn’t lose track of it, although no one onscreen notices it. Finally, the woman looks up and sees it, and she tries to climb a chair to look over the top of the cabinet, but it isn’t tall enough. So, she moves the table, places the table on top of the chair, and peers over the top, but she loses her balance and falls in. The plume continues to move about, now in a somewhat suggestive manner, accompanied, briefly, by the ladle the woman was carrying. Next, the butler comes in, leading a young lady friend, and they start to dine together, but the maid comes in and “catches” them at the same illicit activity she was previously engaged in. Now, the cabinet begins to hop about and “walk” across the floor, making everyone panic. The butler gets the key from the maid and opens it up, and the two inhabitants tumble out (the soldier snapping into a salute as he does). The woman from the cabinet now sees the butler with the girl and starts hitting and kicking him, and the maid has a similar reaction to finding her soldier in a cabinet with another woman.

Fur Hat1There’s a very similar sequence involving getting free meals from the servants and having to hide in a kitchen in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Count,” which makes me think that either Chaplin had seen this movie, or a close imitation, or that this concept was widespread in Vaudeville, where both Guy and Chaplin could have encountered it separately (I feel like I’ve seen another variation on it as well, but can’t recall the specific movie right now). This version, unfortunately, lacks Chaplin’s timing and originality. It also reminds me, in some ways, of “The Drunken Mattress” but doesn’t run with the concept the way that movie does. Instead, what we see is basically an older style of movie: all of it in one shot and location, with an unmoving camera stationed at a distance from the actors, framing a “stage” on which they perform, make entrances and exits, etc. It’s surprising to see Guy move backwards in this fashion, and what I have to assume is that Gaumont decided she was spending too much money and told her to go back to making one-shot films. This could be part of why she left.

As I suggested, however, this movie still has some interesting aspects. The “help” here are shown as taking advantage of their position to “steal” food and wine from their masters and conduct their affairs in the kitchen. The authority figure (whether she’s a higher-placed servant or a mistress) interrupts and intervenes, but cannot actually prevent the shenanigans, and even appears implicated in them herself. The men are punished for their indiscretions, while the women are the agents of punishment, even though they also are guilty. The audience is encouraged to fantasize about what may happen within the cabinet, but nothing explicitly “vulgar” is shown, so it depends on the type of imagination possessed by the viewer. As in “The Drunken Mattress,” there is an implication that the cabinet, and indeed also the plume, takes on a life of its own once the person is out of sight, which has a somewhat surreal effect. It’s still interesting what Guy could do under these limitations, but it’s not one of the real standouts of her career.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.