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Mädchen in Uniform, Germany 1931

Posted by keith1942 on May 19, 2023

I was able to see this film in a 35mm print at a Festival and then later at the Lincoln Centre in New York. It is a recognized classic: of German film: of gay movies: a predominately women production: and an early sound film. It is set in an oppressive girl’s school, dominated by traditional Prussian values, where female desire produces resistance and rebellion to authoritarian control.

At the start of the film young Manuela von Meinhardis (Hertha Thiele), 14 years old, is enrolled at the a boarding school for the daughters of aristocratic and generally wealthy military families. Apparently all the girl students and all the German teaching staff have surnames preceded by ‘von’ this was the traditional identification for the nobility. We do not learn the surnames of the manual staff but one can assume they do not enjoy the preposition ‘von’. The Headmistress (Emile Unda) is a repressive figure who aims to inculcate a traditional subservient role on the girls, as

‘God willing … mothers of soldiers”.

The repressive regime is symbolized in many ways. For the majority of time the girls have to wear black and white striped dresses rather resembling prison dress, and black pinafores. Hair is short and plaited; the short hair is like the fashion of the 1920s, but any longer hair is pinned back in buns, even for the teachers. Manuela is first seen wearing a hat, but later her hair is shown as tied back in a loose lock; she soon has her hair pinned in a bun.  Clothes from past students are re-used, so Manuela gets an ill-fitting dress. Intriguingly it includes a hidden heart symbol by the previous owner for a teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg. We learn that books bought in by students are banned; the volume that Manuela carries is not identified but an illustration on a page suggests melodrama, even the gothic. The regime is organised on military lines and the food is generally basic, rather as for infantry.

“Prussians are raised on hunger.” [The Headmistress].

The milieu of the film is set in the opening. A bell chimes over a blank screen followed by a series of exterior shots of Prussian architecture, the sound of military bugles and then chiming bells. These types of images recur throughout the film, rather in the manner of the ‘pillow shots’ common in films by Ozu Yasujiro. We then see marching troops and there is a cut to a line of regimented girls, in the striped dresses, filing though a park.

There follows the interior in an office where Manuela’s aunt has bought the young girl. She is seen by a Fräulein von Kestern, who seems to be the assistant to the headmistress; we later see her bringing bills for signature to the head. Manuela stands by the window, possibly watching the line of girls marching by. We learn that her father is an officer whilst her mother died whilst she was young. The aunt stresses her sensitivity and emotionalism; and in an unexpected gesture Manuela offers a handshake to the surprised teacher.

Manuela is shown round by Marga (Ilse Winter), a young pupil who we find is both a teacher’s pet and generally supportive of the values of the school. Manuela finds out about the uniform and regimentation of the school., As the pair visits different areas the school building appears as a labyrinth of corridors, hallways and two stairwells; one reserved for staff and visitors, the other a high square structure frequently presented in a high angle shot looking down the stairwell and with guard rails on its sides. It runs to six levels but we only see two or three of these; dormitories, staff rooms, including that of the head: and the ground floor hall class rooms, dining rooms: with the kitchens seemingly in the basement.

The young women that Manuela meets clearly find the regime repressive; all come from a similar background with the double-barreled surnames including the ‘von’. One particular rebellious girl is Ilse (Ellen Schwanneke); when we first see her in a choir she is singing her invented words to what is likely actually a hymn. In the dormitory she shows Manuela her pin-ups on the back of her cupboard door, including a popular film star with ‘sex appeal’. Two other girls gaze with rapture at a photograph of an almost naked male. And a group the girls all express their admiration for what we discover is the one liberal teacher in the establishment, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck); ‘The Golden One’.

Manuela is considered fortunate in being allocated to the dormitory under her care, where Ilse also sleeps. It is a sign of Ilse’s rebellious character that her bed is the only one that is not in line with the uniform layout. We see the nightly ritual where Bernburg stops at the bed of each girl and kisses her chastely on the forehead. Ilse, in the next bed to Manuela, grows in excitement as her turn approaches. And when it is Manuela, whose emotionalism is already apparent, the young girl throws her arms around Bernburg who kisses her, not on the forehead, but full on the lips.

It becomes apparent that Manuela develops a serious crush on Bernburg. The teacher tries to discourage this whilst also in other ways encouraging it; for example, by giving Manuela a slip to replace her own tattered garment. We see a class under the tutelage of von Bernburg. She asks Edelgard (Annemarie von Rochhausen), Manuela’s fellow student, to recite a verse from a German hymn;

“Oh, that I had a thousand tongues and a thousand mouths …”

taken from a Passion hymn by a Lutheran theologian Johann Mentzer. Manuela is asked to continue it with the second verse, she becomes tongue-tied. Whilst the hymn is addressed to the deity the passionate words might express Manuela’s emotional desire for Bernburg. This scene includes one of two instances of a lap-dissolve between Bernburg and Manuela.

Meanwhile there is a rebellious spirit among the girls, notably on the part of Ilse. She defies the rules by writing and smuggling a letter home complaining about the inadequate food. The letter comes back undelivered and Ilse is disciplined. At a teacher’s meeting it is apparent that Bernburg is the odd one out,

“I want to be a friend of the girls”;

espousing liberal views frowned on by the head, who is supported obsequiously by the other teachers.

Ilse and Edelgard in line

Matters come to a dramatic head when the school performs Schiller’s play Don Carlos as part of a celebration for the headmistresses’ birthday. Ilse, as punishment for her letter, is removed from her role as Domingo in the cast. Ilse packs to return home but von Bernburg persuades her to stay and watch the play.

Manuela, displaying acting talents, is cast as Don Carlos. The play is selected as a classic of German literature. This rather overlooks the play’s expression of liberal values and opposition to censorship. In fact, during refreshments for visiting guests one woman wonders if Schiller is

‘sometimes rather free’.

We see three short scenes from the play The stand-in as Domingo tells Don Carlos,

“Give us Freedom of thought.”

Then Don Carlos faces the Queen, “your mother”: she is in fact his step-mother for whom he has unrequited love: Faced down he retires without expressing his passion. The performance apparently ends here rather than with the rebellion in Schiller’s original.

The play is a success warmly greeted by the audience of girl students, teachers and guests., including praise for that by Manuela. Von Bernburg tells her that she has the potential to become an actress. Later, Manuela asks Ilse about von Bernburg’s response during the play, to which Ilse responds

“the way she looked at you, you can’t imagine…”

Whilst the guests have tea with the Headmistress the girls are served a punch made in the kitchen. Most of the girls find it unpalatable but Manuela, high on emotion, drinks copious amounts and is soon drunk. She then declaims to the assembled girls, telling of von Bernburg’s present of an undergarment and ending,

“ She loves me.”

followed by

“Long Live our beloved Fräulein von Bernburg.”

The last is heard by Fräulein von Kestern who comes to see what all the noise is about.

This leads to the final reckoning for Manuela and von Bernburg. Manuela’s is not expelled because of an unexpected visit by a Royal princess, [possibly a Grand Duchess], and the headmistresses desire to avoid a scandal. This event sees all the girls change their stripped dresses for long white ones. The girls plan to tell the princess of Manuela’s travails but their nerve fails them.

The headmistress calls von Bernburg to her office where there is a confrontation. Von Bernburg tells the headmistress

“What you call sing, Headmistress, I call the spirit of love.”

The headmistresses response is that there can be

“no more contact between you and her.”

Returning to her room von Bernburg is met by distraught Manuela. Ignoring the headmistresses’ stricture she sends Manuela to her room. There she tells the girl that she is to be segregated in an isolation room and that she, will not be able to see her;

“You’re not allowed to love me in that way.”

Manuela leaves; von Bernburg starts to follow her but is confronted by the Headmistress who tells her that

“I will not permit revolutionary ideas …”

and that von Bernburg will leave the school that day.

The distraught Manuela heads for the stairwell that connects the various floors for girls and staff.

This is a four-sided tower, six floors high, a stone or concrete structure with metal railings all the way up; it has a different and starker looks that the other parts of the building. . As Manuela climbs the stairs she recites the ‘Our Father’. Meanwhile, the other girls realise that she is missing and start to search for her. Soon they are running round the building, in and out of rooms; there is a growing hysteria as if Manuela’s heightened emotional state has affected the whole school. Manuela reaches near the top of the stairs, climbs over the railings and is clearly preparing to jump. A high angle shot down the stairwell shows girls on every landing. Her close friends, including Ilse and Edelgard, climb up and pull her back over the railings.

The headmistress arrives and asks,

“Did everybody go mad?”

To which von Bernburg responds

“The girls have prevented a tragedy.”

Manuela and her friends remain at the stop of the stairwell, the girls crowding down the staircase along with Miss von Bernburg. The headmistress turns and descends the stairs past the shocked girls and then walks slowly down the ground floor corridor in a reverse shot which ends with a fade-out to ‘The End’.  There is an air of defeat in her manner. Yet it is not clear what will happen now to Manuela or whether von Bernburg will remain or leave the school. It seems likely that the hegemony exercised over the school girls will have been severely damaged.

The film presents a critical view of traditional education in Germany: of the Prussian values that remind influential in Weimar Germany, even after the changes following World War I: and celebrates a subversive set of relations between women. Manuela becomes a disruptive force in the authoritarian school: the absence of a mother means that she is more exposed to the dominant Prussian military masculine culture. She arrives in a school where there is already a groundswell of resistance both to the repressive culture and the mean-spirited provisions. The possibilities of resistance are embodied in the character of Ilse; when we first see her she is already, in a guarded manner, expressing rebellion. The girls are involved in half-expressed sensual relationships. This is apparent in the desire expressed over imagery of the absent males in the school. But it is also there visually in the shots of pairs of girls involved in physical contact and in references in their dialogue to ‘crushes’ both on other girl students and on the teacher von Bernburg.

Miss von Bernburg is an ambiguous character; a point made in the first comment that Manuela hears from a fellow student Ilse,

“You never know how to take her. First she throws you a terrible look. Then, all of a sudden, she is awfully nice. She is also a bit creepy.”

Her first name is Elizabeth, only used once in the dialogue by the wardrobe mistress explaining a ‘heart’ symbol in the garment given to Manuela. In her official persona she combines an emphasis on discipline with a warmth towards the girls. In Manuela’s case she twice makes the point that their relationships is that between a teacher and a student. However, in her non-verbal responses she suggests something more. Isle describes her response whilst watching Manuela’s performance in the play. And twice in the film there is the use of an overlapping dissolve between a close-up of Manuela and of von Bernburg; a technique that suggests a powerful bond between the two women. Her rejoinder to the headmistress of ‘the spirit of love’ also suggests something of desire. Apparently the play had s similar ambiguous emphasis but that there were some productions which emphasised a maternal rather than a love relationship; clearly an attempt to tone down the subversive quality in the drama.

These characteristics in both the girl students and in the one liberal teacher are counterpointed by the headmistress and the subservient relationship with her by the other teachers. The headmistress emphasises traditional roles for the students and the other teachers appear to support this. There is also clearly a rivalry between von Bernburg and the other teachers which seems to relate to her greater effectiveness as a teacher and in her positive relationship with the students. It is interesting that the manual staff in the school, seamstress, nurse and kitchen maids do not seem to share the values of the teachers. At times their brief comments are caustic and in the case of Isle’s letter to home actually subverting the discipline of the school. There is a 1958 version of the play produced by France and West Germany. It appears to soften the subversion: the play performed is ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a less critical choice in the context of the school: and the plot synopsis suggests that it also softens the ending though including the attempted suicide.

The key influences on the film are the director Leontine Sagan and the writer of both play and film, Christa Winsloe. Sagan was a film actress and this was her first work as director. It seems that she bought a fairly co-operative approach to the production. Winsloe was assisted by another writer, Friedrich Dammann. Her play was titled Gestern und heute (‘Yesterday and Today’) (1930). she was known as a lesbian; and orientation that Sagan may have shared. Both women and Dammann left Germany after the ascent of the Nazi regime. However, the producer, Carl Froelich continued working in Germany right through the war and in the 1950s. Heitha Thiele, who played Manuela, also left in 1937. Dorothea Wieck did make some films abroad but continued living in Germany where she was married to a Baron reckoned to be influential in Nazi circles. All of these key characters contributed very effectively to the screen production.

The sets of the film were chosen by Sagan. Much of the film was shot in an actual boarding school though the impressive stairwell was found in a separate building. The actual geography of the school in the film is not that clear. There is a reception room on the ground floor off the hall where visitors are greeted. The Headmistress’s room is up the wide front staircase, presumably on the first floor. Oddly, in the final shot she does not appear to be going to her office, though it may be that the only access is the mains staircase. The classroom also appear to be on the ground floor. At least one dormitory is on the first floor, the others may be there or on other floors. The wardrobe is on the third floor and the hospital room may also be there. The rooms of the teachers seem to be on the fourth floor. What is on the fifth or sixth floor is not clear though the ‘isolation room’ is possibly up there. The square almost prison-like staircase appears a number of times, including the railings that line and surround it. At least one shot down the stairwell is used more than once, so it is not easy always to decide which floor is in use by the characters in this scene.

The opening credits only include Sagan, Winsloe’s play, Froelich and the lading cast members. The cinematography, by Reimar Kuntze and Franz Weimar. I would reckon that Kuntze was the main cinematographer; he had worked on [among other films] Walter Ruttman’s distinctive Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt / Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. The filming is sharp, using mainly frontal set-ups but also including many large close-ups. There are frequent pans and occasional tracking shots; the latter tending to track in on a character. The camera work also uses shadow very effectively. The dormitory scene where von Bernburg kisses the girls goodnight has a soft, romantic feel. But later we see Manuela visited by the headmistress and the shadow of bars falls across her. And there are the two distinctive lap dissolves of von Bernburg and Manuela.

The film was edited by the Oswald Hafenrichter, who later edited The Third Man (1949). The majority of scenes are brief and the film uses frequent intercutting between parallel settings and characters. Some of this is about plot; so there are cuts between the headmistress and von Kestern stressing economy to THE girls discussing food or the lack of it. Others highlight the operation of the school and its repressive qualities. So we see Ilse rehearsing a scene where her lines involve an intercepted letter which is cut to the scene where the Headmistress and von Kestern discover her secret letter. There is a stark scene when von Kestern confronts the girls after Manuela’s outburst. A close-up of von Kestern makes her look like one of Eisenstein’s villains whilst the reverse show shows the girls huddled against a wall. And there are an interesting selection of exterior shots. There is one shot of the girls outside the building on a Sunday afternoon. And there is the shot at the beginning when a shot of marching troops cuts to a line of marching girls in the school uniform. Preceding this has been a number of insert shots of architecture and statues with a Prussian and militaristic feel. This type of insert occurs twice later in the film, including a shot that precedes the girls being marched to prayers in the hall. These shots emphasise the dominant feel of conservative and militaristic values in the school.

The music is by Hanson Milde-Meissner, who had a long career in film. The music track includes trumpets and bells in the insert shots and both of these are repeated in the music that accompanies much of the action. At the end, as the Headmistress walks slowly down the corridor, w hear again a trumpet; this time with a melancholy air that resemble The Last Post.

All these contributions come together in a powerful and effective movie. It also offers a clear and subversive drama about sexual orientation and authoritarian control. The sexual element was something that occurred frequently in Weimar cinema. As early as 1919 a film entitled Anders al die Andern / Different from the Others dramatised the situation of homosexuals. However, the result was that new censorship laws were passed and the film was only allowed in specialised screenings; the Nazi later banned the film. A reconstructed version was screened as part of the Weimar Programme at the Berlinale. Subversive treatment of heterosexuality managed to pass censorship laws; notably in the 1929 Die Büchse der Pandora / Pandora’s Box.

In one way Mädchen in Uniform is a last example of Weimar’s liberal film output. And it was successful both in Germany and abroad. It did suffer from censorship. In Germany it was at first banned for young people, a revealing restriction. In 1932 there was a shorter cut version, but even this was banned by the Nazi. There was an initial ban when it was released in the USA but this was lifted. I have not found any indication that it was censored in Britain.

The quotations are from the English sub-titles in the BFI version of the 2018 digitised version from Deutsches Filminstitut & FilmmuseumThe original film was in early sound ratio, 1.20:1; not all video versions or stills are in this ratio.

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Alice Guy Blaché at the Kennington Bioscope

Posted by keith1942 on June 20, 2021

Solax – The House Built by Alice Guy Blaché.

June 2nd at 7.30 p.m. and available until June 30th on Kennington Bioscope You Tube Channel.

Women and the Silent Screen’ is a conference held bi-annually in New York City. Number 11 this year was on line between June 4th and June 6th. A series of programmes had papers and discussion on the work and art of women film-makers in early cinema; the central theme this year was ‘Women, Cinema and World Migration’.

Before the Conference there was tribute screening to the important pioneer of early cinema, Alice Guy Blaché and this was made available on the Kennington Bioscope. Alice worked as a secretary at the firm of Gaumont, soon to be come the first major production company in the new cinema industry. She was a pioneer in making short narrative films as the Head of Production at Gaumont between 1896 and 1906.

In 1907 she married Herbert Blaché and the pair moved to the USA to work for Gaumont in that territory. In 1910 she, with partners, formed the Solax Film Company, a production company based first in an ex-Gaumont Studio in New York and then in a new production facility in the film town Fort Lee, near New York. She continued directing and producing films up until 1920.

The programme streaming on the Bioscope offers nine titles from her period at Solax. The titles included present Alice Guy as producer, writer and director. A number of archives have contributed including producing newly digitised versions. As can been seen the surviving information available varies. The Bioscope also  offers musical accompaniments streamed alongside the titles. The programme is in two parts and runs for nearly three hours. Programme notes are provided on the Conference web pages. The streaming includes introduction by the Conference organisers and the Bioscope.

Frozen on Love’s Trail. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1912). running time: 13:30 minutes. Source Archive: Eye Filmmuseum. Music: Costas Fotopolous.

An early western. The print transfer has Dutch title cards with English sub-titles provided. The alternative Dutch title was

‘Self-sacrifice of a redskin’.

Mary is the daughter of the commander of a military fort. Set in winter, one day she is given a lift into the fort by an Indian courier delivering mail with a four dog team. Clearly smitten the Indian offers  Mary a necklace but when an officer, Captain Black, intervenes she is shamed into throwing the necklace away. Later the Indian is sent with important mail over a difficult mountain route. Out riding, Mary has fallen from her horse and is found unconscious by the Indian. He wraps Mary in his great winter coat, straps her to the sledge and staggers in the cold back towards the fort. Overcome, he sends the dogs on with the sledge and Mary to the fort. A search party discovers her and the dogs; and later, the body of the dead Indian. Remorsefully Mary searches and finds the necklace she threw away; the final shot.

This film was shot during a snow storm in the environs of Fort Lee. The use of the exteriors is impressive; especially in a sequence as the Indian staggers across a bleak and snow covered landscape. The cinematography is predominately in mid-height long shot. There are a couple of camera movements during the rescue but these are like adjustments rather than proper pans. The print does have some flaws due to deterioration over the years. Whilst the European migrant characters have names, the Native-American is only ‘Indian’ [or ‘redskin’]. However, as is common in early western produced in eastern studios  the representation of the Native-American is far more sympathetic than in the later Hollywood examples of the genre. However, it is nearly always the case that a Native American sacrifices for a European and does not really posses proper autonomy as a character. The character was apparently played by a European actor, Bud Buster, with added make-up. One review describes the character as a ‘half-breed’, which fits the look on screen.

The Native American does come off better than the dogs. Their intelligent completion of the rescue does not seem to have been lauded by characters in the film; nor by reviewers later.

Two Little Rangers. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1912). running time: 14 minutes: one reel, 300 metres. Source Archive: Eye Filmmuseum. Music: Andrew E. Simpson. The transfer had Dutch title cards with English sub-titles provided.

This is an action packed western with a fairly complicated plot. The film opens in the postmaster’s store where ‘Wild Bill’ Grey overhears information about a gold shipment. The postmaster’s two daughters note Bill’s interest with suspicion. Back at his cabin Bill is revealed as a wife beater, interrupted in his violence by ‘kindly Jim’. This motivates Bill to seek revenge.

When the postmaster sets out with the gold for the station he is accompanied by Jim and followed by Bill. The actions of the last are closely watched by the youngest daughter. Bill finds the postmaster alone and after a struggle pushes him over a steep cliff. Bill plants Jim’s knife at the scene and the  latter is arrested though innocent. However, the daughters suspicions lead to them following Bill and the older daughter finding and rescuing her injured father. Bill is pursued and wounded. Back at the store he confesses to the robbery and is forgiven by both the postmaster and Jim; he shakes hands with each in turn and then expires.

This is a really dramatic title and the the intensity is increased by the frequent use of close-ups, both revealing the emotions of the characters and showing important detail such as the knife or a clue of a piece of a torn shirt. The exteriors are impressive including the well-known Cliffhanger Point,  a sheer cliff overlooking the Hudson River. The acting is at times over-emphatic with Bill and the younger daughter in particular using melodramatic stances. The older daughter is played by a regular leading player with Solax, Vinnie Burns. She was noted for her stunt work and the rescue of the postmaster, involving a lasso down Cliffhanger Point is impressive.

This is the earliest example that I have seen of domestic violence in a plot. Countering the victim-hood of the wife is the dynamic actions of the daughters. They are smarter than the male posse when Bill flees justice. In the chase and fight with Bill the girls let off volleys of shots from six-guns and then set fire to the cabin in which he hides.

The tinting in the film survives including that of red when the cabin takes fire.

The Strike. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1912). running time: 11:10 minutes. Source Archive: BFI.  Music: Lillian Henley. Film Length 296.25 m (1 reel) (USA)

Set in a factory the lead character is Jack Smith, a union organiser. At the start of the film he is presented speaking powerfully to a meeting of the workers. He is supported by another character, not a factory worker, and labelled ‘Agitator. Jack visits the employer who dismisses the unspecified demands of the men. A meeting of workers outside is stirred up by the agitator and they stone the factory windows and then go on strike. A small committee of workers, at the instigation of the Agitator, plan to plant a bomb at the factory ‘at midnight’. Jack reluctantly draws the short straw.

Later we see him at home with his wife and daughter (Magda Foy). He conceals the bomb in a desk drawer and then leaves with the Agitator for a meeting. The Agitator carelessly flicks his cigarette end, missing the waste basket and a fire starts. At the meeting Jack addresses the workers. At home the wife puts the daughter to bed and then discovers they are both trapped in the bedroom by the fire. She is able to phone Jack with a telephone in the bedroom; a split screen shot. He leaves the meeting and races home. He is passed by his employer who drives him to his house and together they carry the wife and daughter to safety. The assumed explosion of the bomb is off-screen.

Next day, dressed in her Sunday best, the daughter brings a message to the employer from Jack.

“We’ve had enough of strike …… so let the whistle blow.’

The employer calls a clerk who is sent to sound the whistle. The employer leaves with the daughter, presumably to see Jack. The final shot is a close-up of the sounding whistle at the factory.

A ‘labour problem’ drama. Solax marketed it as “a big labor problem play, showing the human side of the employer,” Intriguingly there is an Australian film of the same title in the same year.

This is clearly a pro-capitalist and anti-worker property; likely reflecting that Solax itself was an example of commodity production and labour extraction. The pre-war years were a time of intense conflict between labour and capital. But the majority of violence was organised by the employer class, using vigilantes and the police in attempts to drive working class resistance away. Weighed in the Balance from the 1916 ‘Who’s Guilty?’ series has a rather different plotting of such violence.

In this version the workers, including Jack, are presented as suborned by an outside agitator; a trope that has had  a long life in mainstream film and on television.

The film offers a series of short scenes, both interiors and exteriors. The camera is predominately in long shot and mid-shot. Jack in particular is given to melodramatic gestures.There is tinting but, for example, the red at the fire sequence seems very muted.

A Man’s a Man. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1912). running time: 9.5 minutes, 300 metres.. Source Archive: GEM. Music: Andrew E. Simpson. A drama of social justice.

There are two men in this melodrama; a Jewish pedlar and a rich gentile ‘Joy Rider’. The latter carelessly knocks over the pedlar’s tray of goods and then runs down the pedlar’s daughter who is playing with other children in the street. In what is an immigrant urban area a mob gathers and proposes to lynch the Joy Rider. He seeks refuge in the rooms of the pedlar, whilst the daughter lies dying in the next room. Showing great humanity, the pedlar hides the Joy Rider and deflects the mob when they appear. Now the daughter has died and the pedlar sends the Joy Rider away, refusing his offer of money. A year later the two meet at the grave of the daughter. The now penitent rich gentile carries a bouquet for the grave.

There are other film versions of the basic plot; but the ethnic dimension adds interest to the film. The characters are to a degree stereotypical in their representation. The conflict and the emotions are rendered in stark opposition. The tinting of the film survives. The final shot seems cut off and too short for full impact.

Starting Something. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1911). running time: 10:30 minutes, 300 metres. Source Archive: Library of Congress/Lobster Films Collection. Music: John Sweeney. A suffragette comedy.

This is a knockabout farce and the suffragette theme is more a plot device than a central focus. The opening scene is missing but explanatory titles inform us that Jones and his wife indulge in cross-dressing. The situation is exacerbated by Auntie; clearly the suffragette character dressed in masculine wear. She also suggests to the wife that Jones needs mental treatment with hypnotism. A suggestion of poison leads to chaos involving Jones, Auntie, a servant, a policeman and, finally, the wife.

Pathé Frères appear to have borrowed heavily from the plot in a film of the the same title in 1913. And the Solax production likely borrowed plot from an earlier Gaumont title directed by Guy in France; The Consequences of Feminism / Les résultats du féminisme (1906) and running only seven minutes. It seems that both films feature the same male lead, unidentified. This probably also explains the knockabout quality; the film feels like an earlier slapstick comedy. The production was shot at the Gaumont Flushing studio in Queen’s Borough; before the move to Fort Lee.

Part 2.

The latter title and the final four titles were all provided by the Library of Congress. And at the start of the second part there is a short video presentation by staff there. This includes the archive at Culpeper in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills. The staff talked about preserving and restoring Alice Guy titles. And there is footage of the digital equipment and processes involved in transferring titles for on line use.

The Sewer. Directed by Edward Warren (Solax, USA, 1912). Produced with scenario by Alice Guy Blaché. Set design by Henri Ménessier. Running time: 18:40 minutes. Source Archive: Library of Congress. Music: John Sweeney. A crime drama.

Edward Warren was a US actor and director who started out with Solax and made films between 1912 and 1920. Henri Ménessier worked for Gaumont in France and then was sent to the US studio. He later worked with French film-makers in the USA, Albert Capellani and Léonce Perret. The notes on this title refer to its high production standards, quoting a US review:

“Every foot of the film brings a new thrill. In the long weeks of preparation, real sewers, manholes, rats, traps, switches, pulleys, divers and dens, mannikins and other contraptions used in the underworld, were gotten together with utmost care and attention to detail.”

Unfortunately the surviving print has suffered some serious deterioration and there are missing sequences described in this restoration by titles.

The film opens with wealthy philanthropists Mr and Mrs Stanhope distributing largesse to the needy at their home. They are visited by Herbert Moore who pretends to be a charity official but who is really a member of a criminal gang. We next see the gang at their hideout. They are teaching to young boys to pick pockets. This scene and a subsequent burglary are clearly modelled on Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Oliver Twist’; and the key young boy is called Oliver [Magda Foy playing a male part].

When the gang attempt to burgle the Stanhope’s Oliver is caught by the husband. However, moved by pity at this state he lets Oliver go. Back at the hideout the gang develop another plan which is overheard by Oliver.

When Mr Stanhope calls he is quickly seized and tied up. Then he is forced to sign a cheque for the gang and dropped by a trapdoor into a basement cell. But Oliver has secreted a note in his pocket with a key to a hidden door. He has also included a coin, made up as a mini-saw which Stanhope found on him in the earlier burglary.

Stanhope now has to escape via ‘the sewer’ of the title. This is an impressive sequence and, fortunately, there is no deterioration in the image. Menessier’s design captures the dank gloom and almost noir quality as Stanhope struggles through the underground passages. The gang are seized and the Stanhopes adopt the two boys.

Cousins of Sherlocko. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1913). running time: 12 minutes. Source Archive: Library Of Congress. Music: Colin Sell.

Mistaken identity leads to a criminal investigation.

This comedy involves cross-dressing; an action that was extremely popular in earlier comedies. A newspaper headlines informs the viewers that

‘Jim Spike is on the job again’.

When Fraunie sees the accompanying photograph he realises that he and Spike look similar. Shrugging of the issue he visits his girlfriend Sallie. But her father, having seen the article, throws Fraunie/Spike out of the house. The story now runs in parallel. In one Fraunie is seen and pursued by detective Sherlocko and his partner who mistake him for Spike. To avoid them Fraunie and his friend Dick dress as women. The film makes great play with the consequences including Sherlocko and partner making advances. Meanwhile Sallie, on a city ferry, encounters Spike himself. She temps him into attempting to rob  her and she is able to have in arrested. All the characters come together at a police station where confusion continues until Sallie explains who is who.

A rather knock about comedy. Out heroine Sallie is clearly smarter and more able than than the assembled males.

The Detective’s Dog. Produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1912). running time: 11:30 minutes, one reel of 300 metres. Source Archive: Library Of Congress. Music: Meg Morley.

One for Canine fans. Both the opening and closing scenes are missing and explained in on-screen titles. There is also some deterioration, as shown above, but only for a few shots.

Detective Harper’s daughter, (Magda Foy again), brings home a canine waif. She is so attached to this large Bernese Mountain Dog that the parents allow him to stay. Meanwhile the detective is on the trail of a gang of counterfeiters who both threaten storekeepers as well as passing fake bills. Not the brightest member of the Force Harper is trapped in the gangs basement workshop. In a trope found in other silent dramas and still on the go in the Bond era, Harper is tied to a plank inching towards a whirling circular saw. Meanwhile, Harper’s wife is worried a by his absence. The unnamed canine hero is given a coat of Harper to sniff. He sets off and soon finds Harper dangerously close to the saw but helps him break free. We learn the gang are captured and the dog is celebrated by the family.

Our canine hero offers a performance of restraint in the family home but is far more active in the rescue sequence. He is possibly the same dog as Pathé’s 1911 Fidèle / Fidelity but that was made in France by Léonce Perret. Did someone migrate with their companion or was this a relative in the New World?

Greater Love Hath No Man. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1911). running time: 15:20 minutes. Source Archive: Library Of Congress. Music: John Sweeney. 1 reel, 300 metres; without tinting. There is a 1915 film of five reels with the same title credited to Herbert Blaché; it looks like a mining drama.

This title is a western romance. Set in a mining town in New Mexico. Jake is smitten with the camp flower, Florence [Vinnie Jones]. We see them both in the town saloon as the mail arrives. There is news of a news superintendent for the mining. When he, Harry, arrives Florence is immediately smitten with him; poor Jake is spurned. The superintendent weighs the gold bought by the miners and pays out the value. Some Mexican miners, only identifiable as such from the title card, dispute his valuation. But he forces compliance at gun point. Meanwhile Jake sees the couple in a leafy spot embracing; he is distraught and leans against a tree as he cries. Harry and Florence also meet in the superintendent office. Thus they are caught together when the Mexicans attack the office. Helped by Jake they flee the mob. However, there is only one horse and Jake offers to hold off the mob whilst Harry and Florence ride for help. They find a troop of US cavalry. But Jake is out-gunned by the Mexicans and when they return he dies in Florence arms.

The film will have been shot at the Flushing Studio in New York. The interiors, especially the saloon, are well done. It is not clear where the exteriors were shot but they are very well done. The sequence where Jake watches the couple uses trees and greenery to good effect. And the clearing where we watch the gunfight as Jake holds off the Mexican mob is well done and really exciting.

The Solax Studio in Fort Lee

These early films have few credits. So the researchers have identified Alice Guy’s contributions as writer, director and, often, producer. Some of the cast are known and there seems to have been a stock company of faces including regular leading players like Vinnie Burns and regular character actors like the child Magda Foy. There is little information regarding the craft personnel. It seems that Herbert Blaché acted as production manager and cinematographer for the majority of these titles. One other craft person known is Henri Ménessier who was the set designer on many of these films. He had worked with Guy in France at Gaumont and was sent across the Atlantic  to the Flushing Studio; then moving with Guy to the Solax studio at Fort Lee. Clara Auclair discussed his work in one of the presentations at the Conference. She noted that he had a tendency to include alternative spaces alongside the central setting; allowing for particular plot developments. So in The Sewer we see young Oliver in an alcove listening as the gang plan their assault on Stanhope. This is crucial in allowing Oliver to assist Stanhope to escape the clutches of the gang and the final happy resolution.

The Conference organisers plan to make the presentations available date. This will provide an interesting and informative commentary to these fascinating early films. You can get a sense of this; full details on the Conference and screened titles and programme notes are on the web pages. The whole event is a welcome opportunity, especially during  a lock down where we are all missing cinema.

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