Madame Blanche, Beauty Doctor (Thanhouser, 1915)
Bob (Harry Benham) is a college boy who’s “squandered [his] fortune”. He goes to his guardian (Riley Chamberlin) in search of fresh funds. Mr. Southwick is a businessman of some sort and it’s quite plain that he has little faith in his charge’s financial acumen. All the same, he makes Bob the offer that he’ll give him a position next week with a salary equal to whatever money he can make elsewhere this week.
Southwick’s stenographer, Betty (Mignon Anderson), is sweet on Bob and lets him in on a secret: although Mr. Southwick is the boss of the company, Mrs. Southwick (Ethel Stevens) is the boss of the money. She’s just come in to draw $500 for beauty treatments to recover her “youthful charm”.
Bob poses as Madame Blanche the Beauty Doctor and launches a targeted ad campaign (targeted at Mrs. Southwick, that is) promising to make any woman look younger than her daughter and claiming to be endorsed by all the crowned heads of Europe. When Mrs. Southwick arrives at Madame Blanche’s parlor, another client is ahead of her in line. She watches the ancient looking woman step behind the curtain. Out of view, Betty takes off the wig and old-age makeup. When Mrs. Southwick sees her again, she looks 40 years younger. Once it’s her turn, Mrs. Southwick readily consents to Madame Blanche’s fee.
Next week, Bob returns to the office and tells Mr. Southwick that he’s ready to take the job for $500 a week.
I first saw Madame Blanche, Beauty Doctor (1915) theatrically at a film festival, and although it was over a decade ago, I remember it being a very light 35mm print — light to the point that the image was so blown out that it was barely possible to discern what was going on. The Thanhouser video, though looking like a VHS transfer, is a great improvement quality-wise. This time around, I found the cinematography to be quite impressive for a 1915 short comedy. It effectively mixes medium shots with close-ups and makes good use of shallow focus for the inserts that draw the eye to the intended subject. I particularly liked how the waiting room scene was handled: Mrs. Southwick needs to be present, and the audience needs to see Betty colluding with Bob, but Mrs. Southwick shouldn’t see Betty until after the “treatment” is finished. To fulfill all three requirements without resorting to a stagey-looking aside, the scene is shot with Mrs. Southwick sitting in front of a mirror. She’s looking in a different direction, but from our angle, we see Betty and Bob.
As far as the actors go, I wasn’t feeling Harry Benham in the role of Madame Blanche. Benham can’t pull off being a woman, and further, he can’t pull off being young (if IMDb is to be believed, the guy was only 31, but it’s a hard 31). Mrs. Southwick would have to be blind to fall for the disguise. I also didn’t care for his constant mugging for the camera, especially when compared to the much more subdued performances turned in by the rest of the cast.
On the whole, though, I enjoyed the film and would recommend it.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Thanhouser