Alice Guy was one of the pioneers of cinema. She began as a director at Gaumont shortly after it opened in 1895; produced some of the first, if not the first narrative films; and directed the first film with a big-budget, La vie du Christ (1906). In 1907, she moved from France to the US and in 1910 founded her own production company, Solax. Over her quarter century career, she made some 400 films, few of which survive today. I’ll be looking at one of her Solax short dramas, The Girl in the Arm-Chair (1912).
Peggy Wilson (Blanche Cornwall) has recently become an orphan and a ward of the Waston family. She’s also inherited the late Robert Wilson’s vast fortune, which puts her very much in Mr. Waston’s favor. He would like his son, Frank (Mace Greenleaf), to marry Peggy, but Peggy “is not his style” and “her money is no inducement”.
Frank falls in with a bad crowd. After a night of drinking and poker, he finds himself $500 in debt to one of his new friends. Unable to pay, he’s forced to borrow “five hundred dollars at five hundred percent interest” from a stereotypical Jewish money lender. When the money lender comes to the Waston house a week later, Frank is still unable to pay. The money lender becomes very threatening. They argue in what I suppose is Mr. Waston’s study, where he keeps his safe, the door to which happens to be ajar. Frank, scared by what the money lender might do, steals money from the safe to repay his loan.
What the two of them didn’t know was that they weren’t alone in the room. Peggy was curled up in the armchair napping when the two came in and awoke when the shouting began, just in time to witness the theft. Although Frank doesn’t care for Peggy, Peggy has already fallen in love with him. She decides to cover for Frank, leaving a note claiming that she took the money and enclosing a check to replace it.
That night, Frank has a nightmare which prompts him to confess everything to his father the next day. Mr. Waston, who bought Peggy’s ruse and wasn’t aware that anything was amiss, realizes Peggy must know and be covering for Frank. He insists that Frank marry her, which he agrees to do.
It amazes me that this film is from 1912; its crafting is remarkably advanced. It’s unusual to see such a three dimensional use of space in a film of this era. In the first scene, it’s established that the study set is divided roughly into three planes, and that the plane nearest the camera (where the armchair sits) is visible to the audience, but isn’t visible to the characters occupying the planes behind it. Later, it uses that spatial division as part of the story – Peggy witnessing the crime without Frank knowing.
I do have some issues with the filmmaking. The way the film is structured, it isn’t entirely clear what Peggy did until well after Frank’s confession. Honestly, the whole second half is rather confusing on the first watch. Some of the scenes could be re-ordered, and something you’ll rarely hear me say, it could have used some more intertitles. It’s an awfully talky film to be silent, and only once are we told what’s said. That was Guy’s style, though, and it isn’t particular to Arm-Chair.
I love the nightmare sequence. It uses some elaborate special effects for the time – double and triple exposures and lap dissolves – to show a swirl of cards circling Frank’s bed and ghostly gamblers making bets over his headboard. Very effective and interesting to watch.
I liked The Girl in the Arm-Chair. I have varying opinions of the Solax comedies I have in my collection, but I’ve so far been impressed by all the dramas I’ve seen.
My rating: I like it.
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