Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: gender

Trial Marriages (1907)

This short from Biograph draws from then-recent controversy in the news to create a rather over-the-top slapstick comedy. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the weak production values at the studio prior to the arrival of D.W. Griffith.

A man is shown in medium-shot, reading a newspaper. Whatever he reads causes him to grin, and then to erupt in laughter. The next shot shows an insert of a (real) newspaper headline: “Mrs. Parsons Advises Trial Marriages.” What follows is a sequence of such “trials” on the part of the man, who we now presume is a bachelor looking forward to enjoying a string of low-commitment affairs. The first is labeled “The Crying Girl” in a forward-facing intertitle. The scene is set as the girl, apparently reading the same article in a newspaper, confers with her father in a small apartment. The father appears happy to have her off his hands, and he invites the bachelor in and introduces them, encouraging his daughter when she pulls back a bit in the initial handshake. Then he leaves the young people alone. The bachelor makes what efforts he can to woo her, but ultimately it is the father who returns and proudly shakes hands with him. After an edit, we see their home life, evidently in the same apartment. The girl cannot stop crying. The former bachelor tries to calm her, but eventually becomes annoyed and she runs offstage, soon to be replaced by her father, who angrily seizes the man and beats him, ultimately throwing him through the window.

The second affair is with “The Jealous Girl.” This “girl” appears a bit older, and their romance is comparably affectionate, she throws her arms gleefully around him when he proposes. An edit takes us again to their home life, this time showing a dining room in what looks like a comfortable home. There is a maid, who brings out a service with tea and food. The wife looks disapprovingly as she serves her husband. After she leaves briefly, the man moves to the maid, holding her shoulders and speaking softly. The wife comes back in and goes ballistic, throwing everything on the table at her husband, hitting him with a chair, and turning over the furniture. The next sequence is “The Tired Girl.” This time, we skip the romantic scene and begin in what seems a relatively squalid combined living-dining room. The man is running a floor sweeper across the floor, while the woman (the youngest-looking so far) reclines on a divan. She occasionally rises to give a big yawn with her arms, and then returns to a horizontal position. The man brings her some tea, then puts on an apron starts doing the dishes, breaking each one as he finishes. The woman gives him her teacup and goes back to sleep. Finally, he forces her upright and puts the apron on her. She reluctantly moves toward the basin. An edit finds the man in the coal cellar, where he is sawing a log (a visual pun?). The wife comes down the stairs and asks him to move a heavy tin of coal up the stairs, without offering to help. He makes it about halfway, then the tin crashes down on top of him.

For the final affair, we see “In Union There Is Strength.” Here, we return to the pattern of first seeing the romance, but this time the single woman brings along a brood of children, presumably from a prior trial marriage. The kids are loud and disturbing, and make it impossible for the couple to be alone. Despite this obstacle, the next scene finds the man in a kitchen, struggling with domestic duties while the kids run around and cause chaos. When an older daughter causes a shelf full of dishes to collapse, the man, at his wits end, prepares to administer a spanking. At this moment the wife appears and begins the most violent scene in the film, literally destroying the entire kitchen by throwing the man about the room. When he collapses, she sits on him and weeps. The final shot is the man in a hospital bed with bandages and bruises, holding a newspaper and shaking his fist at it angrily. “Never Again” reads the intertitle.

In November of 1906, Elsie Clews Parsons, the wife of a prominent Republican congressman, published a sociological study of the family. Towards the end of the 300-page text, she speculated that American families could be made healthier if young women would wait longer before having children, and if relationships between young people could be of a less “permanent” basis than lifelong marriages. She suggested something fairly similar to modern dating: premarital sex, birth control, co-habitation, and easy separation, all predicated on the assumption of no children being born during these “trial marriages.” The moral outrage she triggered resembled a modern Internet flame war, with epithets, death threats, and refusal to listen to opposing viewpoints. Much of it centered around the idea that she was undermining the decency of young women, who were supposed to remain chaste until marriage according to the morality of the day.

The real Elsie Clews Parsons

Biograph, always willing to rip its subject matter from the headlines, eagerly leapt into the fray with this parody. They avoided raising serious questions about the morality of young women by suggesting that men would be the worst victims of this arrangement. We see our bachelor systematically feminized and weakened by the process of his marriages. It’s notable that he winds up doing housework fairly early on, especially in light of earlier films like “Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce” or contemporary ones like “Troubles of a Grass Widower” that use this “unnatural” gender-reversal as a source of comedy. But the real comedy comes from the ways in which he is abused by the wives. Again notably, at the beginning of the film it is the girl’s father who attacks him, but by the end the violence comes from his wife.

The movie is pretty poorly-made, even by the conventions of 1907. The sets are bare-bones and props are only brought in to be smashed, not to add any atmosphere. The “glass” window the man is thrown through is clearly made of paper. The stairs look like they were thrown together at the last moment and one doubts if they would hold both actors at the same time. Apart from the opening and closing shots, the camera is held at a great distance from the actors, who must broadly pantomime to get their emotions across. None of the story is told through lighting, effects, or editing. Compare this to “Troubles of a Grass Widower,” from the next year, in which Max Linder uses the conventions of the time to create an effective farce. There are far fewer laughs to be found here, though it is certainly representative of what the troubled studio was putting out at this time.

Director: Francis J. Marion

Camera: Billy W. Bitzer

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Troubles of a Grasswidower (1908)

For my contribution to the “Food in Film”  Blogathon, I’m taking  a look at an early example of a typical gender-bending situational comedy: one in which a man is left to his own devices and has to perform “women’s work” for himself, including shopping for food and cooking. Max Linder runs with this premise in this Nickelodeon-Era comedy.

Unhappy home life.

The movie begins with Max having a meal with his wife. Max reads the paper and ignores her. She seems bored and agitated. She tries to speak to him and he ignores her until she snatches the paper away. He demands it back and she gives it to him but begins crying. Max puts his fingers in his ears. This causes her to get up, throw her napkin down and stalk across the room, to where she puts on her hat, takes her coat and leaves. Max gets up and dances a jig, then reads his paper.

The next scene begins with the intertitle “back to mother” and we see the wife enter a room and meet another woman who gestures with sympathetic horror. Then the intertitle says “washing the dishes.” We are back with Max, who has finished his paper. He gathers things from the table on a tray, pouring unfinished glasses of wine back into the decanter. As he piles up more and more of the service, it becomes increasingly awkward or him, and soon he is embracing the tray to keep it all from spilling off. He walks delicately into the kitchen, putting the tray on a cutting board, and brings over a basin of water. We cut now to a closer shot of Max gingerly wiping off the dirty dishes with a dripping brush. It finally occurs to him to put on some gloves, but he is just as delicate with the dirty items when he is wearing them. When he tries to wash a bottle, he can’t figure out how to get the brush inside to scrub. Finally, he takes the whole tray down to the street, where there is a hose in a bucket and he sprays all of his dirty dishes with the hose. Satisfied, he now returns to the kitchen, but he’s not paying attention when he tries to put the tray on the cutting board and it drops, all of the now “clean” dishes shattering on the floor. He sweeps them up with a broom, but then loses interest and leaves in annoyance.

Eeeww!

The next scene is labeled “the market” and it calls attention to the fact that men at this time were not expected to act as consumers. Max is in his silk hat and a topcoat and he approaches the front of a grocer’s, where a woman immediately comes out to serve him. She piles various goods on him and takes his money, but he has no bag or other method to hold his purchases, so once again he stands awkwardly embracing the items. He walks off, but as he reaches the corner he sees a young lady of his acquaintance, so he puts some of his haul behind him and holds the rest behind his back as he speaks to her. A street kid sees the goods he has left on the ground and snatches them, running off, and Max immediately pursues, which reduces his lady friend to laughter. Max catches the kid after a short chase and throws his carrots at him before retrieving his other groceries, all of which have now been on the ground at least once. Picking things up, he of course loses his hat, and there is quite a challenge getting his load back under control.

The next scene is “cooking dinner” and it is the real crux of this movie’s relevance to this blogathon. Max brings all his goods into the kitchen, still wearing his silk hat. He tries to move the basin of water but winds up spilling it all over. He takes off some of his fancy outer clothing and puts on an apron. Then he takes out a large bird for cooking and begins to pluck it. The camera once again switches to a closer angle, and indeed we seem to be in a completely different room as we watch Max’s half-hearted effort to pluck the bird. He takes out some scissors and snips off pieces of the wing, but the bird seems half-prepared at best when he puts it in the pot. He breaks an egg with a knife and drops it in, but most of the shell goes in with the edible part and he tries to scrape it out. He throws in various vegetables and peels a potato over the pot (so most of the peel goes in as well). He pours a copious amount of wine over the pot and sprinkles some spice. Then he lights a match and starts the fire underneath the pot, and makes a show of stirring the mixture. Then he seems to forget about it as he starts polishing a shoe right there on the counter. He spills most of the shoe polish and tries to spoon it back into the bottle, then he remembers his meal and stirs it with the same spoon. He tastes it and adds some more pepper, which makes him sneeze the pot off of the oven.

Clueless in the kitchen.

The next scene is labeled “Housekeeping.” Max comes into the bedroom and starts to undress, but he notices that the bed is a mess, he moves mattresses and sheets around, generally making the bed lumpier than before and them climbs in with most of his clothes on. The next morning Max cannot find his favorite tie. He gets out of bed and puts on a collar, then he starts looking in every possible place, including the bed, the dresser, and under the bed. Each place he looks, he throws the neatly folded contents on the ground, then moves on. He begins tearing up the drawers in the study and the sitting room, even looking inside potted plants. The house is rapidly becoming a disaster area, and this only reaches new extremes when he topples a secretary. Now his wife and her mother arrive to find him in the wreckage and he pleads with her to return to him.

The trope of the reversal of gender roles was a common one in comedy, right up to the Golden Age of television: “The Honeymooners,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Flintstones” and many others would use it decades after this. Max Linder probably didn’t invent the idea: in the nineteenth century gender determined the division of labor to an enormous degree, which would lend powerful comedic possibilities for use on the vaudeville stage and elsewhere. What this movie emphasizes for us is that even seemingly simple tasks like shopping and clearing the table (never mind the more obvious cases of cooking and washing dishes) were imagined as beyond the capacity of a man. The grocer’s is an alien environment for Max, and he daren’t allow a young lady friend to see him carting groceries. Food, in short, was entirely a woman’s domain, from the conception to the aftermath. All a man knew how to do was hold a knife and fork. That said, it struck me that Max was very “French” in his failed attempt at cooking – he even thought to use some seasoning on the bird, something which escapes first-time cooks today!

This has been my contribution to the “Food in Film” blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to head over and check out the other entries!

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Miller’s Daughter (1905)

This early attempt at melodrama from Edwin S. Porter lacks sophistication, but manages to tell a story effectively through sequential editing. While not one of the bigger hits the Edison Studios had in 1905, it does show an attempt at increased sophistication and heightened drama from the studio, as well as a larger budget than many early films.

The movie tells the story of a girl who is seduced by an artist and loses the respect of her father when the man turns out to be married. As it begins, we see her picking flowers by the riverside when a tramp attacks her. A man (the artist, as we learn later), rushes up and pushes the tramp into the water, rescuing her. In the next scene, she sits in a field of cows and another man proposes to her, but she refuses. Then we see her sitting before a waterfall while the artist paints her. He comes over and flirts with her and she laughs and smiles happily. Then we see a barn dance where she and the artist attend and speak with the local pastor. The dance is similar in some ways to the one in “Watermelon Patch,” but without the racial undertones. An oddly dressed “spinster” is the source of some humor as she attempts to imitate the dance steps others are managing – finally falling when she tries a backflip. The next scene shows the artist and the woman riding horseback together.

Then an Intertitle announces the tragedy by introducing “Wife & Child of the Artist.” These characters emerge from a house and go over some of the same ground we saw the couple riding horses through. They go to the woman’s father and tell him who they are. He pantomimes his outrage at his daughter’s folly. Then we see the artist and the daughter speaking to the preacher, when the family rides up and confronts the artist. The daughter runs back to her father’s house, but he rejects her. She waves her arms about to express her sorrow and despair.

The “third act” begins with a title card that tells us that the daughter has attempted to earn her keep by taking in sewing, but the company repossesses the sewing machine when she cannot make payments. We then see her reduced to poverty, in a very nice shot of New York (around 23rd street, I think), with her wandering the streets in rags. Another scene shows her haunted by double-images of her father while she walks alone and friendless. A title card describes a missing scene in which she tries to reconcile with him, but he again refuses to have anything  to do with her. Finally, she walks across a bridge over a freezing river in the snow and makes the decision to jump. The man who had proposed to her in the beginning of the film sees her fall in and jumps in after her to save her. An Intertitle tells us there is “A Lapse of Two Years” after which she and the rescuer are happily married with a child. The father comes to visit his grandchild, and the movie end with him embracing his daughter.

According to Charles Musser in “The Emergence of Cinema,” this movie was based on a popular melodrama called “Hazel Kirke,” which shares some elements that classical music fans will know from Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin.” The story was therefore probably familiar enough to audiences that they could follow it even with only these few Intertitles, and perhaps some live narration from the exhibitor. I found it harder going, not least because I didn’t get that the fellow who rescues her at the end is the same one that proposed at the beginning, nor was there any indication that he was the man her father wanted her to marry in the first place. Without that, the resolution is difficult to understand, but with it, it becomes clear that the daughter has redeemed herself by re-submitting to paternal authority.

I made a point of emphasizing the over-acting in this movie. This is the kind of acting modern people think of when they hear “silent melodrama.” The daughter clutches her breast to show her sorrow, the father waves his arms wildly to demonstrate rage. Most silent acting is much better than this, but this was a very early attempt to draw an audience in to the emotional state of the characters without dialogue (as one would have on stage) and it is rather awkward. The lack of any close-ups or other cinematic devices to increase empathy doesn’t help. The casting choice for the title character seems a bit odd to me as well. I’m sure she was meant to be somewhat “plain” and simple, but she actually seems rather old for the part and is at least as broad-shouldered as the male characters, making her seem somewhat large and matronly. Her face, from what we can see at the distance the camera maintains, is heavy and stern. In short, she’s not the sort of demure, pretty actress we would expect from later Hollywood, which is part of what makes this movie seem strangely distant to a modern viewer.

These factors may have turned off viewers at the time as well. This was actually one of the less successful releases Porter made for the studio that year, far less so than the more action-oriented films he is remembered for.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 13 Min

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

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!

The Danger Girl (1916)

This short from Keystone is the first Gloria Swanson movie I’ve reviewed for this blog. It’s probably not the sort of thing most people think of when they think of Gloria, but it does demonstrate her versatility and comfort in front of the camera.

danger-girlThe movie begins with a quarrel between Myrtle Lind and Bobby Vernon. Myrtle’s in a rather unflattering Mary Pickford-style wig, which I guess signals us that she’s a “good” girl. Bobby quickly falls into the orbit of “bad” girl Helen Bray, who may be deliberately imitating (or parodying) Theda Bara’s performance in “A Fool There Was.” She’s going riding, and invites Bobby along after brushing off “Last Season’s Suitor” (A. Edward Sutherland).  Gloria shows up driving recklessly with her brother Reggie Morris (for some reason known throughout as “Honey Boy”). Reggie is hoping to hook up with the danger girl, and Gloria develops an interest in Bobby when he helps her change a tire. When all the men start gravitating to the danger girl at a party, Gloria decides to take matters into her own hands by dressing as a man and distracting her. Myrtle ends up with Reggie, once the danger girl is no longer in play, but Gloria has to avoid the attacks of Last Season’s Suitor until Bobby drives a bus through the plate-glass window of the café they’re at and rescues her. Finally, all the “good” people are happily paired up.

danger-girl1This movie is a bit hard to keep up with, in part because the prints I was able to find were of poor quality, so it’s hard to tell actors apart, but in part because the characters don’t have enough personality or back story to identify with. The danger girl is distinctive, and once Gloria’s in her masculine attire, she’s easy to track, but the others seem quite interchangeable. I’m still not 100% sure I kept the division between Myrtle and Gloria straight before the “drag” sequence, and I gave up even trying to tell Reggie from Last Year’s Suitor, although Bobby Vernon is generally recognizable.

danger-girl2For a Keystone comedy, I was a bit surprised at the “adult” approach to comedy for the first two-thirds of the movie, although once we get to the café the Mack Sennett chaos does kick into gear. The theme of women in “masculine” attire goes a bit beyond just the explicit drag sequence: the danger girl’s riding outfit includes pants and a blazer, giving her a “hard” look, and Gloria puts on overalls when she has to work on her car. I suspect this was titillating to a 1916 audience, who didn’t often see women in pants. Some of the most interesting scenes involve Gloria in the “male” domain of a saloon, where she has to figure out how to stand at the bar, and avoid being groped by a fat drunk.  We do get some basic camera movement and reasonably sophisticated editing, certainly if one compares this to the Keystone Chaplins of 1914, but it was hardly cutting-edge in production values.

Director: Clarence G. Badger

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gloria Swanson, Bobby Vernon, Helen Bray, Myrtle Lind, A. Edward Sutherland, Reggie Morris, Josef Swickard

Run Time: 20 Min

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

What Happened on Twenty Third Street, New York City (1901)

This short comedy is a wonderful location shoot of my home town, allowing a window into the past by showing a city street on an average day at the turn of the century. It also repeats some of the tropes of gender and voyeurism that we’ve grown accustomed to in Edison movies.

what-happened-at-23rdWe see a busy city street, looking directly down the street from the edge of the sidewalk. Crowds of people pass by in all directions. There are electric streetcars and many horse-drawn vehicles in the street, but no motorized vehicles are in evidence. A boy in a cap stands to the left of the frame, staring directly at the camera, and one man, who crosses in front of it suddenly steps back as if he were told to get out of the shot, but for the most part people act naturally, as if the camera were not there. A number of people jaywalk by crossing the street in the middle, not far from the camera’s position. A couple, quite distant at the beginning of the film, approach it slowly through the running time. Finally, when they are just close enough to be centered in the shot, they step over a grate in the sidewalk and the woman’s dress is blown up around her ankles, rising almost to her knees before she grabs it and demurely holds it down and steps off the grate. She looks embarrassed at first, but suddenly bursts into hearty laughter at the end.

New York's Flatiron Building

New York’s Flatiron Building

Before I get into analyzing this film, I want to talk about an odd piece of Americana. A fascinating architectural structure, known as the Flatiron Building, is located at Twenty Third Street and Fifth Avenue in New York. This building, because of its odd shape, famously channels a great deal of wind onto the nearby sidewalks. Supposedly, a certain class of New York male began to congregate there to observe women’s dresses blown up by the wind, because it offered a rare sight of female legs. The story goes that the phrase “23 Skidoo” comes from these men being regularly rousted by policemen on patrol. This may all be more or less legend, but this movie adds some credence to the idea that Twenty Third Street was associated with opportunities for voyeurism and exhibitionism, and offers its audience a safe opportunity to engage in it. What really stands out to us today is the wonderful location shooting, and the chance to see fashions, architecture, and vehicles of a previous century in excellent detail and under more or less documentary conditions. Nearly all of the men are wearing straw hats and neckties, and most of the women do wear long, heavy dresses that conceal their bodies from view. One interesting question it raises is whether the “star” of this movie was played by a woman or a man in drag, as was the case with many Edison pictures. Imdb credits a female actor, but the Library of Congress does not specify. Either way, she definitely breaks character at the end when she bursts into laughter, I think because of some comment a passerby has made. Of course, she would have been in on the joke from the beginning, so her apparent embarrassment is an act, whatever her gender identity may have been.

Director: Edwin S. Porter possibly with George S. Fleming

Camera: Unknown, possible Edwin S. Porter or George S. Fleming

Starring: A.C. Abadie and Florence Georgie

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Old Maid Having Her Picture Taken (1901)

This is an early comedy short from Edwin S. Porter, who would become the chief director for Edison Studios in the early twentieth century and the creator of the famous “Great Train Robbery” just a few years later. While this is a far less sophisticated film, it remains interesting as a stage in the development of American film and its celebrated director.

old-maid-having-her-picture-takenWe see a proscenium-style view of the interior of a photographer’s studio, with photo samples on the wall, a full-length mirror, a chair for portraits, and a camera to one side. A woman with a pinched face speaks to the photographer, who leaves her alone after a few seconds. She turns to look at the samples, and the display suddenly crashes to the floor. She then looks and the clock, and its hands suddenly spin crazily before it also comes crashing down. Then she checks her look in the mirror, which seems fine until she holds her fan up to her chin, and then it shatters. The photographer returns to see the destruction, and hastens the woman into the chair, perhaps hoping to avoid further chaos. He poses her, and she once again raises the fan to her chin. Suddenly she is flung back and a moment later a puff of smoke emerges from the camera, which has exploded because of her ugliness.

There are a number of interesting points about this movie. In “The Emergence of Cinema,” Charles Musser reveals that the old maid is actually Gilbert Saroni, a “professional female impersonator,” apparently a vaudeville actor who specialized in ugly women. It’s a reminder of both the fact that early film was largely a male-dominated world and also that camp humor is older than Gay Liberation, though arguably its meaning is different in such a world. On the subject of both gender and sexuality, the Edison catalog ends its description with the line, “The picture finishes up with the old maid tipping back in her chair and losing her balance, displaying a large quantity of fancy lace goods. A sure winner.” This once again emphasizes the degree to which Edison was comfortable appealing to “vulgar” interests in its movies and ad campaigns. The movie is shot in a very typical style for the period, with a single shot from a single angle, with exits and entrances (by the photographer, at least), and a series of effects occurring for real in front of the camera. No camera trickery here: this could have been performed on a stage just as it appears. A final observation is the problematic timing of the explosion: the old maid observably reacts before the camera has exploded, but it never occurred to Porter to do a re-take.

Director: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter or George S. Fleming

Starring: Gilbert Saroni (or “Sarony”)

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

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

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.

The Consequences of Feminism (1906)

Alternate Title: Les Résultats du féminisme

This role-reversal comedy from Alice Guy may surprise modern viewers with its perspective on gender. Even the title seems like something far more recent than 110 years ago, and yet it survives as a commentary from an earlier age.

Consequences of FeminismThe movie begins by showing a group of men in a small room together, all apparently working on sewing hats. We notice that the men have longer hair than is usual for the period, and some of them are wearing flowers in their hair. They move effeminately, with hands extended and graceful steps. A woman comes into the room, dressed more or less normally for the period. She apparently wants to buy a hat and one of the men gets a hatbox out for her, but while she is waiting, she checks out the men and pinches one of them on the cheek. The man selected to carry the hatbox gets up and smears cream on his face in front of the mirror, then delicately picks up the hatbox and minces out the door. The next scene shows him walking on the street (a set, unfortunately, not one of Guy’s shots of contemporary Paris) past a café. A woman is at an outdoor table and sees the man, and gets up and comes over to him, trying to force a kiss. Another woman, seeing him harassed in this manner, comes over and breaks it up, the offers her arm to escort the helpless man away. This woman leads the man to a park bench, convinces him to put down the hatbox and sit with her, and now she tries to take advantage of him. While he struggles, two other men walk by, look and see what is happening, and quickly run away from the scene.

Consequences of Feminism1Next, we see the man at home. A woman lounges in a chair reading a newspaper while he sits at a sewing machine and another man does the dusting. The woman and the other man leave, but the man from before seems to be waiting for something. He takes out a photograph and kisses it, then he answers the door and the woman from the previous scene comes in and kisses him. She leads him to the couch and gets on her knees. The man seems overcome with emotion, but insists on writing a note before going out. The next scene shows the two of them in a hotel room, the woman ardently trying to show her affection while the man seems to have second thoughts. She starts to take his clothes off eagerly, and he faints. She runs to get him some water.

Now, we cut to a bunch of women in a bar. Some of them are reading newspapers, others are gathered around a table. A woman comes in wearing pioneer-clothing and carrying a gun. She is greeted heartily by the other women, who pour her a drink and pound her on the back. Now a man comes in, carrying a laundry basket with linen, and tries to ask her a question. The other women grab the items out of the basket and throw them around the room, laughing at his distress. He flees the scene in terror. Another man comes in, leading two small children and goes to the woman sitting in the corner, she chases them out as well. Now the women close the bar door to prevent all these male intrusions on their domain. At last, we see the women from the hotel sitting at the outdoor café as various men with baby carriages stroll by. The men begin to congregate, comparing their children and chatting. Finally, the man from the hotel walks by with several children in tow. One of them runs over to the woman, and the man pleads with her for his honor. She rejects him and all the other men band together in support of their wronged comrade. When the man slaps the woman, all the men gather round and shame her for taking advantage of his weakness. Then they march into the bar en masse and drive the women out, taking over and drinking to their hearts’ content.

Consequences of Feminism2It’s very tempting to over-analyze this film, to read more into it than Guy likely intended, in light of modern politics and perspectives on the history of gender and sexuality. Let’s back off for a moment and recall that she was trying to make something that would entertain her audience, most of whom would be presumed to be male. She probably knew that most would read this as a vicious parody of feminism’s aspirations to put women in men’s place and vice versa. No doubt she intended that it would be read that way, and made the women strong and the men weak to suggest that this reversal was “unnatural” and comical. But, it’s hard to avoid realizing that what she is doing here is commenting on the inferior position women had to tolerate at the time. By making men the objects of sexual harassment and exploitation, she forces her male audience to see how unpleasant it is, and how few choices women have when confronted with it. Moreover, by showing the men at the end banding together for their rights, she has (inadvertently? Subversively? It’s hard to be sure) validated feminism as a tactic and suggested its necessity.

Girl Power!

Girl Power!

The other thing that stands out about this movie is all of the signals the men put out regarding sexuality, which a modern audience reads as their being “flaming” or openly gay. Gay men existed at this time, of course, but they were far less open, even in liberal France, and again it’s hard to know how much we are “reading backward” when we interpret their behavior in this manner. Obviously, Guy was making them as feminine as possible to show her future dystopia in which men and women have traded places. Did she hire female impersonators as actors? That would make the longer hair and obvious facility with feminine roles more logical. Certainly, there were cabarets by 1906 in which this sort of thing went on, but I don’t know whether Guy would have had access. It’s possible that she used wigs and directed “straight” male actors until she got what she wanted.

Whatever the case, this is a very unusual film for the period, and one of the few Guy made that really speaks to her being a woman in a largely male industry.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy  or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 7 Min

You can watch it for free: here.