A Florida Enchantment (Vitagraph, 1914)
My look at silent films with gay themes continues with a “farcical fantasy” released in the summer of 1914:
Lillian Travers (Edith Storey) is a New York heiress whose fortune has just been turned over to her. Seeing nothing left to stand in the way, she jumps on the train to Florida to surprise her fiancée and begin arrangements for their wedding. His name is Fred Cassadene (Sidney Drew); he’s the house doctor at the exclusive Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine. Staying at the hotel is a flirtatious young widow, Stella Lovejoy (Ada Gifford), who delights in feigning illness for the doctor’s attention. When Lilly arrives, unannounced, she’s furious to find Fred and Stella apparently hand-in-hand in the hotel courtyard. Fred explains and Lily is placated… for the moment… but it seems something keeps coming up between Fred and Stella and Lilly’s suspicions heighten.
While all this is playing out, Lilly is staying with her spinster aunt, Constancia Oglethorpe (Grace Stevens). Connie is of old Southern stock and she tells Lilly the story of one of her ancestors, Captain Hauser Oglethorpe. It seems he was shipwrecked off the coast of Africa (the implication is that he was a slaver, although that isn’t explicitly said) and came away with a mystery: a box, now on display in Connie’s parlor, containing an enigmatic note that reads “In the duplicate of this casket, whereabouts unknown, lies a secret for all women who suffer.”
Lilly goes out with Bessie (Jane Morrow), the daughter of Connie’s widower neighbor Major Horton (Charles Kent), to hit up the local antique stores. She finds a box that looks just like her aunt’s, with a tag that claims it was found washed ashore a century ago. Lilly buys it and, from its contents, learns the rest of old Oglethorpe’s history: after the captain was shipwrecked, he was rescued by an African tribe that was curiously all male. The chief of this tribe, Quasi, told him that they recruited their numbers from the women of neighboring tribes. These women they fed a particular seed, which instantly changed them into men. Quasi gave Oglethorpe four of these seeds as a parting gift – Lilly finds the vial containing them in the box.
After the final straw breaks Lilly’s trust in Fred’s fidelity, she swallows one of the seeds. She grasps at her throat as it begins to take hold then, after a moment’s pause, stands up, hurls away the chair, grabs the box and remaining three seeds, dashes Fred’s flowers to the ground, and marches out of the room.
Lilly spurns Fred at the ball and begins courting Bessie. After a while, she gives a seed to her maid and the two return to New York to complete their transformation: Lillian Travers becomes Lawrence Talbot and Jane the Maid becomes Jack the Valet. Lawrence again visits Florida, this time to ask for Bessie’s hand in marriage…
A Florida Enchantment (1914) was adapted from a Broadway play of the same name, which in turn had been adapted from a novel by Archibald Clavering Gunter. The film is more popular now than it was when it premiered – audiences and critics alike panned it for being too absurd. In truth, it was never intended to be a hit in America. Like many of Sidney Drew’s “sophisticated comedies”, Vitagraph was banking on its assured success in France to buoy lackluster domestic returns, but unfortunately the First World War broke out during production and that market was cut-off. Enchantment lost Vitagraph a fair bit of money.
It’s interesting to see the dichotomy of reactions the film shows between same-sex attractions. When Lilly (still outwardly female) openly flirts with Bessie, Connie is a bit scandalized and Fred looks on in confusion, but there is no uproar. No one attempts to stop her, nor is she so much as criticized for her actions. When later in the film Fred swallows a seed and begins to act femininely, and angry mob literally chases him off the end of a pier and into a watery grave. It’s played for laughs in Enchantment, but you’ll see it repeated in serious dramas as well: gay women might get off lightly, but gay men have to die. Paul Körner, Claude Zoret, Franz Sommer – I can’t think of a single lead character who breaks this trend.
I like A Florida Enchantment a great deal. It was actually the movie that got me interesting in releasing my film collection on video and it became my first DVD. I’m presently working on it again and hope to have a new version out for its hundredth anniversary next year (and maybe a theatrical screening or two – we’ll see what the card’s hold). It’s a better transfer and the restoration software I’m using is much improved. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m already proud of it. Here’s a sneak peak of the new video:
My rating: I like it.
Available (old version now, new one sometime next year) from Harpodeon