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
Ethel Kirby (Edith Storey) is a New York actress on vacation in Texas. On the train to Lariat, she meets Florence Halley, who’s also on her way to Lariat to visit her aunt (Eleanor Blanchard). Halley had often lamented to her aunt how the days of the Wild West were over and the cowboys had been tamed, so as a surprise, her aunt has arranged a little reenactment of the old days for her return. The ranch foreman (Francis Ford) has organized his ranch hands into a posse and intends on kidnapping Halley from the stagecoach, but they mistakenly take Kirby instead. Kirby is locked in a barn and at first believes she’s actually being held hostage, but then she overhears the ranchers talking about how well the show is going and realizes that it’s all an act. She decides not only to play along, but to use her superior acting skills to outfox her pretended captors.
The premise, that of a civilized, modern West play-acting its wilder past, would become a very common trope in the later 1910s (there’s even an episode of The Perils of Pauline (1914) that starts out with exactly the same faux-kidnapping setup seen here), but When the Tables Turned (1911) is certainly the earliest film example I know of it.
Edith Storey, as always, is excellent in her performance. She’s a remarkably versatile actress, quite capable of playing one role, then taking on another with entirely opposing characteristics, and managing to portray both with equal conviction and believability. It’s a quality essential to making Kirby work here, as she has to go from a damsel in distress to an apparent madwoman to what I can only describe as a vindictive puppetmaster in the span of a few minutes. A lesser actress I don’t think could pull it off at all, much less make it seem as natural as Storey does.
I enjoyed the film and would recommend it.
My rating: I like it.
Available (sometimes) from Texas Guinan
Lieutenant Cholmodeley (Wallace Reid) is in love with the Colonel’s daughter, Ellen (Edith Storey), and wants to marry her, but her father (Tefft Johnson) won’t allow it until Cholmodeley has “earned his spurs”. War has just been declared between Britain and Russia and the Lieutenant and Colonel are called to the Crimea. To be nearer her love, Ellen joins Florence Nightingale (Julia Swayne Gordon) and follows the troops as a front-line nurse. There, she witnesses the charge of the Light Brigade, where Cholmodeley distinguishes himself by rescuing a fallen comrade and fighting off several Russians in the process. Back in England, he’s awarded the Victoria Cross by the Queen (Rose Tapley) and the Colonel gives him his consent to marry Ellen.
The Victoria Cross (1912) is an excellent example of a “quality film”, a curious genre that emerged and disappeared in the early 1910s. Describing what a quality film is and why they came into being could fill whole books (and, indeed, it has), but in the briefest terms, a quality film is a movie with a historical, biographical, or literary nature viewed through an American moral lens intended to be watched by recent “undesirable” immigrants (Jews, Italians, Poles, etc.) as a means of uplifting and Americanizing them. Further, although they were never the target audience, the mere existence of quality films acted to legitimize motion pictures in the eyes of the upper classes, who until that time looked at them with xenophobic suspicion (cinema tickets were affordable even for the lowest rungs of society and the silent drama does not require one to understand English, you see). Nearly all the major studios made at least a couple, but Vitagraph was the undisputed champion of the quality film. The Victoria Cross ticks all the right boxes and would have met with the approval of the “uplifters”, but what’s slightly unusual for the genre, it’s a pretty well-made and entertaining film, too.
One thing that impressed me was how it handled the charge of the Light Brigade itself. Rather than portray the charge directly, it’s shown from Ellen’s perspective, back at camp through binoculars. It’s a novel device that allows the film to focus on individual snapshots of the battle, making it seem like they must be taken from a much larger picture. The film already has a large cast, with 80-100 extras and half as many horses, but only seeing them in close-up through the binoculars, it seems truly massive. It’s easy to believe that you’re actually watching 600 mounted men charge against the cannons. Compare The Victoria Cross to something more conventionally staged, like The Battle (1911), and you’ll see what I mean.
And it’s just super fun in an action movie sort of way. When Cholmodeley charges in to save his fallen comrade on the field, he’s rushed by three enemy soldiers that he fights off with his sword. The last he lifts up in the air, over his head, and then slams into the ground. We cut back to Ellen, and when we return, there’s a whole pile of bodies at his feet. I will say that the film starts off a bit slow, but once the battle is underway, it’s incredibly entertaining.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon