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A Severe Test (Solax, 1913)

A Severe Test screenshotA Severe Test (Solax, 1913)
Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché
Starring Marian Swayne and Vinnie Burns

Daisy (Marian Swayne) and Frank (Vinnie Burns) have been married for a year. Daisy begins to notice that Frank doesn’t seem to be showing her the same degree of affection he did when they were newlyweds. To test his love, she fakes her own death. She writes to her friend Ella to explain her plan, and to Frank, she writes a teary suicide note, but she accidentally mixes up the letters and the envelopes — Frank get’s the explanation and Ella gets the suicide note.

Frank decides to play along. At the pier where Daisy met her supposed watery death, Frank is all smiles and flings her discarded coat and suitcase into the lake. Daisy — watching from the sidelines — is hurt and declares that she’ll never live with that “brute” again. But Frank isn’t finished: he has a wedding announcement printed for him and a fictional girl named Lucy Smith. It was only supposed to be a card, but it’s accidentally published in the newspaper. When Daisy reads it, her pain turns to fury. She looks up a real Lucy Smith in the phone book and sets off to “scratch her eyes out”.

Frank is also searching for Lucy, to apologize for the announcement. Frank and Daisy meet at the Smiths’ house, where they discover that Lucy is actually the fat, black cook (she’s a white person in blackface, and I’m fairly certain she’s also a man in drag). Laughs all around as Frank and Daisy reconcile.

The print of A Severe Test (1913) in our collection is perhaps the only one in existence. At least, no archive has a copy, I’m not personally aware of any in private hands besides our own, and, in the past 15 years, I’ve never seen another print turn up on the market. I reticent to label any film “lost” — in the past, you’ll notice I usually hedge my bets with “presumed lost” — but others aren’t so hopeful.

A Severe Test film clipAlison McMahan, one of the foremost scholars on Alice Guy, lists the film as “not extant” in her 2013 article on Women Film Pioneers Project. We’d held our print for nearly a decade by that point, and it had been readily available on video for two or three years. A simple search on Google or YouTube would have revealed it, or you could check the distributors listed on IMDb to see if it had been recently released. I don’t mean to call out McMahan specifically here; I just want to comment on this tunnel vision that pervades the work of most film historians — where if a film doesn’t exist in a major archive, then it doesn’t exist at all. Around 40 years ago, Anthony Slide said that 75% of the silent era was lost. Even he would later admit that this was a bit sensationalized — an off-the-cuff remark without any real data behind it but nevertheless a good sound bite — but damned if that comment didn’t have legs. It seems to be near gospel nowadays. Sometimes I’ve even heard it claimed 85% or 95% of pre-1930 cinema is lost. I take a more optimistic view. There’s a great deal more out there if you’re willing to take your academic blinders off to see it.

As I said, we’ve released Severe on video before (IMDb says it was back in 2011, but by my records, the DVD came out in 2010 — the downloadable may have been 2011), but that transfer is… let’s say it’s looking long in the tooth. It’s in need of a re-do anyway, amd since there’s been some interest in it lately for use in an upcoming Alice Guy documentary, there’s no better time than the present.

The print is physically in very good shape, but the picture is exceedingly dark. The levels can be adjusted easily enough, but brightening alone is a poor fix. When the shadows are too dark, brightening them doesn’t reveal more detail in the picture, it only brings out a noisy gray blob. What we need is an image with an extremely high dynamic range, where there’s enough information to work with even in the darkest areas. And we can do that by merging several scans under varying intensity lights, but oh boy, does it take time. Our film scanner can usually capture a frame in 15 to 30 seconds. To get the quality we need for a decent transfer of Severe, it took upwards of 2 minutes. Keep in mind, there are over 15,000 frames to scan.

For example, here’s a frame grab from the old transfer:

A Severe Test old transfer

 

The pier is probably rough wood, but as it is, it just looks like murky gray streaked with black. Daisy’s lower body vanishes into the darkness — where does her dress end and the pier begin? What’s going on in the distance, beyond the water?

And here’s the same frame in the new transfer:

A Severe Test new transfer

 

The most remarkable improvement is the pier. Now we can see each board and even begin to get an impression of the texture of the wood. There’s a clear boundary between Daisy’s dress and the board she’s sitting on, and now we can see that there’s a valise in the foreground. Across the water, there appears to be a wooded hill dotted with several houses. Overall, it’s still much darker than the original release would have been, but at least now the image is clear enough to distinguish everything that’s in it.

And now it comes to what I think of the film: it’s just awful. It doesn’t do enough with the swapped envelopes gimmick. There could have been a whole B-plot built around Ella believing Daisy to be dead to offset Frank’s scheme, but instead, she finds out the truth from Frank almost immediately and for the rest of the film they’re in cahoots for some reason. And the “joke” they play on Daisy is just too mean-spirited to be funny. The cinematography is pretty good, I’ll give it that, and I liked Marian Swayne’s performance well enough, but I did not enjoy watching this film at all.

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Harpodeon

Across the Mexican Line (Solax, 1911)

Across the Mexican Line posterAcross the Mexican Line (Solax, 1911)
Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché

I’ve had this 16mm reduction negative for some little time but paid little attention to it since, based on the title scribbled on the leader, I already had a copy of the film and had already transferred it to video. Still, eventually I got around to examining the reel and I quickly realized that it did not contain the film I thought it did. It was, in fact, a copy of Across the Mexican Line (1911), which is interesting because that film was presumed to be lost after the last known print of it was discovered to be unsalvageably deteriorated. I think any collector would say that it’s always a bit of a thrill to think that the film you’re holding is the only one in existence.

Across the Mexican Line was the first of Solax’s “Big Military Features” series of films. The release was “very timely” and “heartily” received by audiences, Moving Picture News reported in their film chart for April 29th, 1911. The picture was created to capitalize on the Mexican Revolution, which had just broken out the year before, and evidently it succeeded.

The film begins with Castro, a popular Mexican entertainer who sympathizes with the guerrillas’ cause, meeting with the commander of a detachment of Mexican troops. The commander needs intelligence of the American troop movements. Castro suggests that they use a female spy.

Dolores, the spy, ingratiates herself with Lieutenant Harvey and gains access to the telegraph room. Harvey even teaches her Morse code and shows her how the equipment works. Unfortunately for the Mexicans, Dolores fails in learning the information the commander wants. Castro tries a different, more direct approach: bribing Harvey. When that doesn’t work, he kidnaps him and takes him to the commander, who threatens the lieutenant with death unless he divulges the information.

Dolores, who has fallen in love with the man she was sent to spy on, sneaks out of the camp on a stolen horse and rides to the telegraph wires. She climbs a pole and taps into the wire, frantically messaging the American headquarters. The pursuing guerrillas shoot at her and she’s hit in the right hand, but continues tapping out the code with her left.

The Americans receive the message and a counterattack is launched. Just as Harvey is about to be shot by the firing squad, the Americans rush in and tear down the guerrilla fighters. Harvey embraces Dolores and the two kiss as the film ends.

Across the Mexican Line negativeSolax, in their ad copy, stated that they intended their Big Military Features to mark “a departure from the studio productions” that had dominated the screen and to instead be “big, lively, outdoor pictures, full of vigorous, active incidents”. Across the Mexican Line gets there, eventually, but the cramped, crowded sets of the first half are, to all appearances, very much a “studio production”. The editing style also adapts itself as the film progresses, from the long, continuous shots of the opening scenes to the short, staccato takes of the climax that rapidly cut between several simultaneous plot lines. It’s a dramatic change — going from shots that last around a minute and a half at the start of the film to just ten seconds at the end — and creates a feeling of heightening tension and of time running out.

Across the Mexican Line reverses the common damsel in distress trope. Harvey is the helpless one here, and it’s Dolores who must save him. Challenging gender roles was a common theme in Guy’s work, just as Guy herself challenged them in life. Even today, female directors are uncommon and are woefully underappreciated. When Guy began directing, she was quite literally the only one.

I liked Across the Mexican Line, but I will say that, until I read a contemporary plot synopsis, many of the details of the film were lost on me. It’s easy enough to get the gist from the picture alone — that Dolores is a spy, that Harvey is somehow important to Castro, and that Castro has some connection to the guy in the military costume — but everything else was nigh incomprehensible. It doesn’t help that the first scene, which the synopsis says introduced the military guy, is missing from my negative.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

The Pit and the Pendulum (Solax, 1913)

The Pit and the Pendulum adThe Pit and the Pendulum (Solax, 1913)
Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché
Starring Darwin Karr and Fraunie Fraunholz

Alice Guy, through her Solax company, mostly produced shorts. In her later years, she did release one feature-length film, The Ocean Waif (1916), but in the Solax heyday, one-reelers were the rule. That makes this 1913 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Pit and the Pendulum all the more remarkable, because it was three reels long. Stress on the “was”. Most of the film is now lost. What survives is around half of the first reel, which unfortunately ends just before Poe’s story begins.

Unlike Poe’s work – a sort of Kafka-before-Kafka tale in which the unnamed protagonist doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know why he’s there, doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him, and is only certain that the men who arrested and convicted him are entirely unconcerned with his ever finding out – Guy’s adaptation is quite definite when it comes to what’s going on and why:

Alonzo (Darwin Karr) and Pedro (Fraunie Fraunholz) are both in love with the same woman (Blanche Cornwall). Things come to a head when a knife fight breaks out between them. Alonzo wins and he and the woman marry. Some time passes. Alonzo becomes an herbalist doctor to “treat the poor of Toledo”. “The revengeful Pedro” joins the Spanish Inquisition and begins to plot Alonzo’s downfall. He steals a jewel-encrusted reliquary from the monastery and hides it in Alonzo’s house. When it’s discovered missing, he intimates to the abbot that Alonzo might be a witch (what with all his strange herbs and practices) and that maybe he used sorcery to steal the reliquary. Pedro leads a number of men to Alonzo house, where they discover the missing reliquary and wait to apprehend Alonzo on his return.

The surviving fragment ends just as Alonzo enters the room. A couple production stills from the more exciting parts – Alonzo strapped to a table as the pendulum swings closer, the walls closing in and threatening to force him into the pit – can be seen in period advertisements. The concept of “spoilers” being a very recent one, we can also turn to turn to contemporary reviews to learn how the film ends:

Alonzo and the girl escape from Pedro’s men and a chase ensues. They board a boat and nearly make it out of a Spain, but Pedro waylays them in a boat of his own. They’re taken before the Inquisition and Alonzo is tortured, but only after Pedro threatens to torture the girl will he confess to the theft. After that, Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum is retold fairly faithfully, right up to the point that Alonzo is in danger of falling into the pit.

In her imprisonment, a British soldier learns from the girl what happened to Alonzo. He frees her and sets out in search of her husband. After being misled by the monks several times, he finds the torture chamber and saves Alonzo from the pit. Also, unlike Poe’s story, where whatever the protagonist saw at the bottom was too horrible to record, Alonzo saw a pile of bones with snakes crawling in and out of human skulls.

The film is very careful to distance the Inquisition from the Catholic Church, which requires some mental gymnastics but probably put it in a much more favorable light at the Church-dominated New York board of censorship. It’s unusual that French-born Alice Guy changed the nationality of the rescuers from French to British. I can’t think of anything going on at the time that would have made that change expedient.

When it comes to Poe adaptations, it’s par for the course to greatly elaborate on the story to pad-out the film and make it more visually interesting. It seldom works. What I love about Pit and the Pendulum is how nothing is explained. The protagonist is simply caught up in machinations beyond his grasp or appeal. Who he is is incidental, why he’s there is incidental. Even his rescue is incidental – the French army just happened to invade Toledo that day, Napoleon surely no more knew of the protagonist’s existence than the reader knows his name. Films never seem comfortable letting so much go undefined or letting the plot progress without reason. I’m not sure why. Meaningless torture and death is infinitely more frightening than a jilted lover’s revenge.

My rating: Meh.

The Girl in the Arm-Chair (Solax, 1912)

The Girl in the Arm-Chair screenshotThe Girl in the Arm-Chair (Solax, 1912)
Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché
Starring Blanche Cornwall and Mace Greenleaf

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.


Available from Harpodeon