At The Whitney Museum of American Art Friday, December 4, 2009, 7.pm.
THE WOMEN’S FILM PRESERVATION FUND
At The Whitney Museum of American Art Friday, December 4, 2009
The Women’s Film Preservation Fund is honored to be part of the
Whitney Museum’s 2009-2010 homage to Alice Guy Blaché.
On December 4th, 2009 the Whitney screened three films by Alice Guy Blaché which the Women’s Film Preservation Fund had helped preserve. These charming comedies were all made at her Solax Studios, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Mixed Pets is the earliest extant Solax Film and A Fool and His Money is the first American film featuring an all African American cast. Matrimonys Speed Limit one of the Fund’s first films, was part of its inaugural project in 1995.
The Screening was followed by a discussion and Q & A. The panelists were:
Drake Stutesman (editor, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media and co-chair of The Women’s Film Preservation Fund) introduced the evening and moderated a conversation with Diana Little (preservationist, Cineric), Kim Tomadjoglou (Preservation Director for the Whitney’s Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, film historian and programmer), and Mona Jimenez (Cinema Studies professor and Associate Director of NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program).
The Women’s Film Preservation Fund was established in 1995 in association with MOMA to preserve films in which women have played a significant creative role. Since its founding, this important initiative – the only fund of its kind in the world – has supported over eighty films made between 1912 and 1990. WFPF annually screens at MoMA, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Tribeca Film Festival. They also partiipate in panels, conferences and seminars in venues such as Columbia University, NYU and CUNY. Fore more information go here.
The preeminent entertainment industry associatio for women in New York City, New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) supports women calling the shots in film, television and digital media. NYWIFT energizes the careers of women in entertainment by illuminating their achievements, proviging training and professional development activities, and advocating for equity. Membership includes more than 2,000 women and men working both above and below the line. NYWIFT is part of a network of 40 women in film organiation worldwide, representing more than 10,000 members.
ABOUT THE FILMS
Mixed Pets (1911) 35mm, 8-10 min, silent, B/B/Color
This film is a recent discovery, and I saw it for the first time at the opening of the Whitney Retrospective. It is a broad farce with a large cast: the middle class married couple, played by Romaine Fielding (in what might be his earliest extant film appearance, if not his first film role) and Marion Swayne, their maid, played by Blanche Cornwall, and their butler, and actor whose name I don’t know but who appeared in other Solax films, often wearing wigs and fake whiskers. The household is rounded out by a generous Uncle, a little dog, and a baby. The baby is actually the maid’s, who is secretly married to the butler; they are suddenly forced to bring the baby to their place of employment and hide it in the cupboard, the same place where the mistress of the household alternately hides the puppy her Uncle has given her until she can convince her husband to let her keep it. She writes her husband a notes telling him to check out the surprise in the cupboard and please forgive her; the husband finds the baby and surmises the worst, while the maid and butler think their baby has gone missing. When all is cleared up the husband is very relieved to find that the baby is not his wife’s and lets her keep her dog; we are left to assume that the servants are also allowed to keep their jobs.
It’s incredible to watch Marion Swayne and Romaine Fielding in this this film. Their performances are very theatrical, and it is clear that in just a year under Alice Guy’s tutelage they matured greatly as film actors; just compare this film to Marion Swayne’s role in Matrimony’s Speed Limit or Romaine Fielding’s in Greater Love Hath No Man.
A Fool and His Money (1912) 35mm, 10 min, silent, B/W/color
Alice Guy Blaché produced and probably directed at least one film aimed at black audiences, which in 1912, (and until the 1950s), saw films in segregated theatres or in segregated areas within mostly white theatres. This film, A Fool and His Money (Solax 1912) was discovered by David Navone, an engineer in California, when he bought a trunk from an estate sale and then discovered four reels of nitrate film locked inside it. All of them are films made in the early teens by French filmmakers working in Fort Lee.
“Race pictures” were aimed primarily at black audiences who had grown weary of the “good old darkeys” and dancing pickaninies of mainstream cinema and who were later outraged by the success of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. These audiences could be targeted in an economically efficient way because their viewing was primarily restricted to all-black theatres that arose after the 1897 Supreme Court Ruling mandating “separate but equal” racial segregation in the U.S. Most of these theatres were clustered in the of the “chitlin” belt, the vaudeville houses catering to black communities in the South. In 1919 there were 300 race picture houses in the U.S.; ten years later that figure had rise to 461.
About five hundred Race pictures were made between 1915 and 1952, with the peak of production occurring in 1921-1922. These were also Oscar Micheaux’s (b. 1884, d. 1951) most successful years as a film producer (he made over forty feature length films between 1919 and 1948). Because of this, and because he was the only silent Race filmmaker to make the transition to sound, he has come to emblematize the Race picture movement as a whole. Micheaux’s work was long neglected, but recently several books on both his novels and his films have appeared.
Although it is now easier to find material on Micheaux, it is harder to get a sense of the context from which the Race picture movement emerged. The first Race picture producer was probably black showman William Foster who started the Foster Photoplay Company in Chicago in 1913. Foster began making films for colored audiences following the model of Hollywood genres but with all-black casts, backed with white funding. At least half a dozen race picture producers operated in the Chicago area alone.
The first mention of A Fool and his Money is in a full-page ad that Alice Guy’s company, Solax, took out in The Moving Picture World on Sept 21, 1912, and it simply says “Darktown Aristocrats Released Friday, October 11th”. The use of the term “Darktown” to refer to primarily black neighborhoods was apparently a common one, as the Historical Feature Film Company of Chicago, which produced two-reel comedies aimed at both white and black audiences in the mid-teens released a film in 1915 entitled Money Talks in Darktown.
The Solax film was advertised rather differently in the October 5, 1912 issue of The Moving Picture World :
A FOOL AND HIS MONEY
(The new title for Darktown Aristocrats)
RELEASED FRIDAY, OCTOBER 11th
James Russell, the Cakewalk King, is featured in this attraction. The story is a satiric comedy dealing with the pretensions of colored folks. The way they try to ape and imitate their white brothers forms the basis of the story. A negro laborer suddenly gets in possession of a lot of money and there goes the pace.
When we look at the film, however, we can see that the emphasis is not on blacks “aping their white brothers” but on what is the proper way for someone – here, a black laborer but the argument could just as easily be applied to immigrants such as Guy herself – to better their social and economic standing. The change in emphasis shows that the film may have been conceived by Alice Guy and her production team with a black audience in mind but that the adcopy was later crafted for The Moving Picture World by the Solax publicist, H.Z. Levine.
It was probably also Levine who provided The Moving Picture World with the following plot synopsis, which were usually based on the script (which means there are often discrepancies between plot synopsis and finished film):
A FOOL AND HIS MONEY (oct. 11th).—Sam Jones is a laborer – a wielder of the white-wash brush. He is in love with Lindy Williams. Having saved up quite a little money, Sam buys some swell second-hand clothes and goes to Lindy’s home. Lindy’ people are quite prosperous, her father having retired from his job as “Public Porter.”
Lindy is a coquettish ebony beauty and trifles with Sam’s affections. She plays Sam against Bill Johnson and finally, in despair Sam retires from the field. Walking along the road beaten and despondent, Sam finds a lot of money. Now, he vows, he will show them! He buys full dress clothes and other swell duds, an automobile and jewelry. Like a peacock he begins parading himself before Lindy and his rival, and, as can be expected, coquettish Lindy transfers her affections to him. Sam makes hay while the sun shines and proposes to Lindy and basks in her smiles. After his acceptance he sends out invitations to a reception, on which occasion he plans to announce his engagement.
During the reception Bill Johnson and his pal, Slick Mr. Tighe, concoct a scheme to break Sam. They invite him to a poker game and by cleverly stacking the cards and passing aces under the table with their naked toes, Sam is relieved of his fortune. When Lindy is apprised of this she gives Sam the cold shoulder and offers her arm to Slick Mr. Tighe, the possessor of all of Sam’s wealth.
I don’t have any documentation so far that shows that Alice Guy directed the film herself – it could have also been directed by Edward Warren—but in many ways this film follows Guy’s standard operating procedure: the title, like many others produced by Guy during her career, refers to some idiom or myth, in this case, “A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted.” The film is a straightforward comic rendering of this axiom. Guy made many films that depicted the evils of gambling. In this film, however, gambling is given a comic treatment.
The opening scene, which shows Sam in his painter’s overalls hard at work, and the closing scene, showing a sadder and wiser Sam back on the job, intimate that Sam has been punished for aspiring to rise above his class. But the film also shows a sophisticated black middle-class enjoying themselves in an elegant setting. This aspect of the film caught the attention of the reviewer for The Moving Picture World, who said: “It’s a love story with good darkey comedy, human and fresh. There is a darky evening reception and dance that is something quite new. We think that it will please everywhere any pictures of darkies would be acceptable and commend it as a first rate offering.”
The father, who is the source of the wealth in this elegant household, is clearly described as a retired Pullman Porter – one of the few ways that black men could cross class lines, though it took long years of dedicated work. In other words, Sam is not a transgressor because he aspires to be rich and marry a rich man’s daughter, but because he wants to enjoy the privileges of wealth without working long and hard for it as Lindy’s Pullman Porter father did.
Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913) 35mm, 14 min, silent, B/W
Starring Billy Quirck and Marion Swayne as an engaged couple; she is an heiress and he has a thriving business as a stockbroker. The film starts when he loses all in a crash and breaks off the engagement because of his poverty. She offers him all of her money, but he refuses and leaves. She then fakes a telegram from a law firm telling him that a distant uncle has just died and has left him a fortune, provided he is married by noon that day. This gives him about ten minutes to find a wife, and he runs out and proposes to the first woman he sees, and then the next, and the next, and the next. Curiously, he proposes to two strangers before he goes to the home of his former fiancée, who is out getting a preacher. After finding that Marian is not at home, he proposes to several more women, including one who is veiled; when she lifts her veil he sees that she is black and flees. Finally Marian, preacher in tow, catches up to him, and the two are married in the time it takes a stop light to turn green, while a steamroller honks at them impatiently. Back at home he triumphantly shows her the telegram, and she confesses to the ruse. He wants to storm out angrily, but he can't because she won't give him his hat. In the struggle to recover his hat they end up in each other's arms.
This film goes a little deeper into the issue of marital equality than did A House Divided which starred the same actors: is a man less of a man if he isn't financially successful? Does it endanger the marriage partnership if the woman makes or has more money than the man? It was Alice Guy Blaché who made most of the money during her marriage. Her answer to the question in this comedy seems to be that the strength of marriage is (or should be) based on the emotional relationship and not the financial one.