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Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers - Alice Guy-Blache Vol. 2: The Solax Years

Kino // Unrated // March 17, 2020
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted May 5, 2020 | E-mail the Author

She is not exactly a household name (although her profile has improved recently, thanks to the efforts of labels like Kino Lorber and Flicker Alley, as well as a feature-length documentary about her work), but Alice Guy-Blache was the first woman to ever direct a narrative fiction film, if not the first person in history. She was working as Leon Gaumont's secretary at the camera and photography supply company bearing his name when they were both invited to the first-ever projection of a film, where the Lumiere brothers showed a documentary-style clip of workers leaving their factory. Guy-Blache convinced Gaumont she could make something more inventive, and the results, La Fee aux Choix (aka The Cabbage Fairy), became the first entry in a directing resume that would eventually span over 700 films.

Owners of Kino Lorber's first collection of Alice Guy-Blache films will probably notice, even at a glance, that the two are not evenly split. The complete running time of the first volume is 144 minutes, whereas this disc contains 251 minutes of content, including multiple feature films. Dividing the collections by studio makes sense conceptually, and allows for a look at how Guy-Blache's work evolved over time, but I have to say, it might make more sense if Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 were simply bundled together in a single package rather than sold as separate entities. This collection chops up the content into four more sections, including "Comedy, Cross-Dressing, and Courtship," "Westerns," "The Social Drama: Poverty, Crime, and Honor," and "The Features: Mise-en-Scene, Children, and Adventure." The four sections contain a total of 18 films.

More than anything, this collection, spanning only three years (1911 to 1914), demonstrates how ambitious Guy-Blache was. Although her recurring stable of actors (Blanche Cornwall, Darwin Karr, Billy Quirk, Lee Beggs) becomes familiar quickly, these films are distinctly different than the ones she made at Gaumont, even when they cover some of her similar interests (gender roles and expectations) and feature some of her stylistic trademarks (a largely optimistic and positive sense of how things will work out in the end). For instance, the first section includes a series of comedies, but while she demonstrated skill at slapstick in shorts like The Drunken Mattress and The Rolling Bed, she's moved onto more screwball-style material here, with A Comedy of Errors, His Double, and Officer Henderson all centering around wacky misunderstandings (although His Double does contain a few fantastic slapstick bits, such as when Darwin Karr pretends to be the reflection of a rival in an empty windowpane mistaken for a mirror). A Comedy of Errors is arguably the funniest and most refined of these pieces (even if the intertitles do some heavy lifting), with Cornwall's performance as a flustered wife illustrating how much awkward comedy hasn't changed in the last 100+ years. It is also interesting to note that Cousins of Sherlocko and Officer Henderson both involve cross-dressing without any characters batting an eyelash at the prospect of being emasculated, which is refreshing.

After that, the package jumps to genre, with Guy-Blache offering her take on the western. Broken Oath is the best of the pictures, and surprisingly straightforward in its approach, offering up a damsel in distress (although she has some agency and plays a crucial part in the action), a gang of outlaws, an attempted hanging, and a full-on shoot-out with the calvary, ending with a classic cliffside fistfight. Nothing particularly groundbreaking about it, but it's exciting and well-made. Parson Sue and Frozen on Love's Trail are a little more unusual, with the former essentially being a faith picture, and the latter being progressive for its time, with a big asterisk. Parson Sue adopts a somewhat serious tone but features many of Guy-Blache's storytelling tropes, including a series of coincidences that happen to work themselves out for the better, and some goofy comedy involving a band of rowdy types that don't actually seem that rowdy, cheerfully lining up for soap and grooming supplies when Sue asks them to. Love's Trail, on the other hand, makes a valiant attempt at dismissing the stereotype of the savage Native American, showing one as a self-sacrificing hero. This admirable objective is, unfortunately, severely undercut by the short's (understandable, for the time period, but still uncomfortable) use of brownface.

Class consciousness is a theme that pops up in Guy-Blache's shorts fairly often, and many of these stories are in the Social Drama section. Nearly all of the films here touch upon it, with The Thief ranking as the most effective. In it, an impoverished man reunites with his two war buddies, both of whom are wealthy, and ends up wrongly accused of theft when a valuable pin goes missing. The film is also one of the first instances here of Guy-Blache's technical prowess leaping out at the viewer, featuring a flashback sequence where the two wealthy friends reminisce about the old days, with an image of the three of them superimposed over the image. A Terrible Lesson appears to walk a deft line (maybe unintentionally), where the film's "terrible lesson" could either be framed as a son's misdeed or a father's prejudice. Guy-Blache also touches on anti-Semitism in A Man's a Man, and immigration, in Making an American Citizen (a film I loved when it was previously included in Flicker Alley's "Early Women Filmmakers" set). The only bum note is The Strike, which finds its unionizing workers backing off of their demands when they learn their wealthy boss is a decent person.

The package concludes with a series of "features," the longest of which runs only three reels. The weakest film in the set is included in this batch, The Sewer, which per its credits was directed by Edward Warren, not Guy-Blache, who only produced. Why Kino felt this fairly dull thriller was a necessary inclusion, I have no idea -- perhaps it is meant to serve as a contrast to something like The Detective's Dog, which is comparatively livelier and more entertaining, or Mr. Bruce Wins at Cards, which is more elaborate and inventive. Some will call the second-to-last film, Dick Whittington and His Cat, the crown jewel of the collection. It was, at the time, one of the most expensive productions ever, with Guy-Blache notoriously filming the actual burning and sinking of a real boat for the film. It's a pretty good movie, although perhaps more serious than her other productions, adapting a famous piece of English folklore, and tapping into Guy-Blache's long-running love of pets. It's also interesting in that it returns to something Guy-Blache did in one of her much earlier shorts, with a woman (Vinnie Burns) playing the male lead. It does, unfortunately, also feature some brownface, although at least this time the film is not meant to be a tribute to the Moroccans portrayed by white actors.

The Blu-ray
Kino has prepared two volumes for filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache, with Volume 2 being "The Solax Years." The package is branded as part of their "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" series (which I wasn't aware would be a series when I reviewed their Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set last year!), and features a sepia-tone photo of Guy-Blache in a heavy black coat, with the Library of Congress logo (which provided the bulk of the restorations) prominently placed in the upper right-hand corner. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is a booklet featuring an essay by film historian Kim Tomadjoglou (part two of the essay from the first release).

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.33:1 1080p AVC and soundtracks in LPCM 2.0 stereo by Amy Denio, Alyson Fewless, A.J. Layague, Ben Model, Meg Morley, Tamar Muskal, Aaron Ramsey, Dana Reason, Joanna Seaton, Andrew Earle Simpson, Donald Sosin, and Luke Van Denend, the films in this set (although they come from varying sources) adhere to Kino's usual policy regarding silent films, which is that preserving the basic integrity of the original scanned film image is preferable to cleaning it up spotlessly. While it appears at least some of the intertitles have been freeze-framed or more extensively polished in order to make them look as nice as possible, the films exhibit varying amounts of damage and age-related wear, including lines, scratches, jitter, distortion, soft contrast, low detail, and sections that are partially destroyed (Parson Sue is the most afflicted film here). Most of the films fall well within the average when it comes to good HD restorations of silent-era material, with close-ups in A Comedy of Errors revealing incredible textural detail in fabric and wooden surfaces, and there are sections of the features, such as The Detective's Dog) and The Girl in the Arm-Chair, which are truly outstanding in terms of clarity and detail. A couple of shorts, such as His Double (which also appears to be cropped at the top, presumably at the source) and Officer Henderson, are taken from lower-quality materials (as in, some kind of print farther removed from the negative), although they retain a nice filmic appearance. The scores, which are recent recordings, are crisp and clear.

However, there is one complaint about this volume that I did not have with the first. A few of the offerings here are presented via Lobster Films, and Lobster Films has made the frustrating decision to watermark their shorts. Although the burned-in image of their logo is brief (a couple seconds), it does appear within the frame (lower right corner) and cover up the image briefly. Of course, Lobster presumably feels this is an economic necessity to protect their restoration work, and they did not provide the majority of the films in the set, but watermarking is still a less-than-ideal tactic.

The Extras
In the inverse of what occurred with the Vol. 1 of the Alice Guy-Blache offerings by Kino, this disc lists a "restoration comparison" featurette and doesn't actually include it. I have to imagine the featurette in question is the exact same one that does appear on Vol. 1, but I could be mistaken. In any case, the disc's menu only contains the feature presentations, broken up into four sections, leaving only the booklet essay as supplementary content.

Kino and various other companies have done great work in trying to restore, preserve, and present the work of various pioneering women whose names have been unfairly downplayed when discussing the history of film. Both volumes of the Alice Guy-Blache collection are absolutely worth a look, and it's very nice that only one or two films have been duplicated between Kino's own sets, and the sets by other distributors working to put out these types of silent films. It's only a shame that neither of these two volumes offers much in the way of supplementary material to better inform the viewer about Guy-Blache's life and career. Recommended.

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