Alice Guy Blaché’s Westerns

Adrienne Blaché-Channing, Bob Channing and Alison McMahan at the Grand Canyon

I left my heart in Arizona.

The trip plan was go to Show Low, Arizona, give a talk, spend some time with Adrienne Blaché-Channing and her husband Bob Channing, her daughter Serena and Serena’s husband and children. We kicked off our visit by stopping at the Grand Canyon; Adrienne and Bob met us there and drove us to every stop on the South Rim. They have a book about the Grand Canyon called “Over the Edge,” about all the people who fall into the canyon, on purpose or not, every year. Standing at Yavapai point watching the sunset I could understand the phenomenon. The Canyon is so huge it just does not seem real. It is incomprehensible to the human mind, even if you crawl to the edge and reach out to experience that huge open space directly – which is about when most people fall in. Fortunately we were taking too much pleasure in our friend’s company to fall prey to such hypnosis ourselves, but we saw a few people who did seem to be wavering a bit too close to the edge.

Once in Show Low Bob and Adrienne gave us a tour of their ten acre property, complete with pond (still dry for the moment), goats, dogs, cats, parakeets, pottery studio, glass studio…. If it were an art colony I might have stayed for a few months and tried to produce a great American novel or something.

But I couldn’t dream for too long, as the next day was The Big Event.



Mountain Saddle BandMountain Saddle Band 
As you know from my previous blog entry, I was there to give a talk about Alice Guy Blaché’s Westerns to an audience of Westerners. It was a bit nerve-wracking – before and after the talk we had music by Steve Taylor and the Mountain Saddle Band, real cowboys singing real cowboy songs (their first album comes out next month). 

Would this audience be offended if I said told them that after Edwin S. Porter directed The Great Train Robbery in 1903, the earliest Western films were  made in France?  The earliest description of a French Western that I have found is in a British-Gaumont catalogue from 1905.  The title is  The Pioneers: A Story of the Early Settlers.  It is described as “A series of Five Splendid Scenes  taken in the Adirondack Wilderness.”  The Five tableaux appear to owe a debt of inspiration to the “Attack on the Settler’s Cabin” plays that were routinely included in Wild West shows such as Buffalo Bill Cody’s.  Cody’s show toured Britain and other parts of Europe often;  the first tour was to Britain in honor of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887.  The second tour began  in Paris for the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower and to open the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889, where the show had a six-month run and was immensely successful.[1]  Like the American film manufacturers, French filmmakers were fascinated by the myth of the American west as it was depicted in plays, paintings and dime novels.
  However, by 1910 the genre films that included the most Western elements were actually called Military films.

A partial list of "western" elements would include: alcoholism, the army, firearms, attacks, attacks by Indians, bullets, headbands, banks, buffalo, desperados, sheriffs, caravans, horses, horse tack, cemeteries, fist fights, ranch hands, duels, ambush, the Woman, forge, train stations, general stores, hold-ups, man-on-a-horse, hotels, Indian, trails, long trips, the Young Man, The Gambler, The Journalists, isolated homes, merchant-class homes, murder, Mexicans, piioneers, politicians, sylvan glades, main streets, barber shops, old men, Indian villages, ghost towns, new settlements, rape, fathers.

Military films were a clearly delineated genre, but through 1910 and 1911 a sub-category generally referred to as “western drama” or even “western melodrama” began to emerge from it.
Many of these films were set in the Civil war, but also the Revolutionary War and the Mexican War or the war against the Indians.  It is principally in the latter that the line between westerns and military films would blur.  By 1911 the Motion Picture World and in the Moving Picture News clearly advertised and described westerns and military films as classifications within a single genre; Indian dramas, on the other hand, could be released as military films or as dramas.

One of these advertisers was the Solax Company, run by Frenchwoman Alice Guy Blaché who had distribution through Gaumont.  Like most film manufacturers, Solax released specific genre films on specific days of the week. In April, 1911, Friday became the release day for military films.[2]  By reading through such ads it is possible to trace the evolution of the term “western” and “Indian Drama” out of the military film category. Guy Blaché had hired another director, Wilbert Melville, who had a soldiering background.  Melville was in charge of the military films, and so most of these Solax films can be attribut­ed to him as director,  with some exceptions.

Not surprisingly, an overriding theme of these films is patriotism.  Some were shot in military settings, such as Fort Meyer, Virginia, and the Atlantic Squadron's fighting vessels stationed on the Hudson.  The opening scenes of The Sergeant’s Daughter (Solax 1910) showed scenes of thousands of troops embarking on a man-of-war, as well as scenes shot  in the Philippines.  All of this backdrop was for a love story.  Unfortunately, the film no longer exists.

For the Love of the Flag is a melodrama with the trappings of a military film. (This film has been newly preserved for the Whitney Retrospective this fall).
Frank Roberts (Darwin Karr) is a draughtsman in a military office.  He is accused of lying by a co-worker, is diffident in defending himself, and is fired.  His wife (Blanche Cornwall) is supportive but in a few months they have lost their lovely home and are living in a boarding house, where she is taking in sewing while caring for their child (Magda Foy).  At one of his job interviews a representative of a foreign govern­ment (Lee Beggs) overhears him describing his military experi­ence.  Beggs follows him out to the street and offers him a large sum of money if he will re-draw the set-up of the fortifications now being built.  Roberts won't do it, but back at home things have gone from bad to worse; his wife's strength, which has kept him going until now, has worn out.  Roberts sits down and makes the drawing.  The represen­tative enters waving around a fat wad of cash.  The two men sit down to discuss the arrangement while the child plays with tin soldiers at their feet -- reminding Roberts that he is betraying his country.  Beggs kicks the soldiers over and the boy runs off.  The men resume their negotiations but now the child runs in, wildly waving a little Stars and  Stripes.  This is too much for Roberts, who stuffs the cash back into Beggs pocket.  Beggs goes into a rage and takes his rage out on the child, which firms up Roberts' resolve to kick him out and tear up the drawings.  Roberts' wife tells him to go back to his first job and explain what really happened, but there is no need for that, as a telegram arrives saying he has been exonerated and re-hired as Head Draughtsman.

For the Love of the Flag  moves quickly, starting with the first moment of the first scene showing the quarrel between the draughtsmen.  Though Roberts is stony faced throughout, we read his emotional state through his wife's steady emotional decline, the growing mountain of sewing, the child's tin soldiers, and the toy flag.  Here good American citinzenship is measured with melodramas yardstick; Roberts is expected to passively starve rather than betray his country, and his virtue will be rewarded by some higher source after he has been thoroughly tested.
Greater Love Hath No Man -- Girl with GunGreater Love Hath No Man -- Girl with Gun

The next Solax military film is more recognizeable as a Western.  Greater Love Hath No Man  was released in June of 1911.  Set in a gold rush camp, it starts with the familiar tale of two men in love with the same gun-toting woman who pans her own gold dust.  When the camp supervi­sor, the object of the woman’s affection, is threatened by Mexicans in the camp, Jake warns his rival and then defends him from the Mexicans to the death, winning himself one kiss from Florence as he dies in her arms.  The military only appears in the form of a cavalry troop that happen upon the trouble in time to save the pair of lovers but too late to save Jake.


pieta endingpieta ending            

In Greater Love the Mexicans are given some reason for their revolt: they believe that the camp supervisor is short-weighting their gold-dust.  No such justification is given in the next Solax western, Outwitted by Horse and Lariat (Solax 1911), a film I identified at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin. Vinnie Burns, who played Florence in Greater Love Hath No Man,  the older sister in Two Litte Rangers  and got friendly with a tiger in Beasts of the Jungle, plays the heroine that punches "S.O.S." onto a leaf with her hairpin after she has been kidnapped by Mexican bandits.  The bandits are played by anglos in makeup and live in a teepee village; they agree to assist the rejected and vengeful white villain simply because that is the nature of Mexican bandits.

Vinnie’s lover and rescuer is played by a bronco rider, who swoops down into the enemy camp and lifts her up onto his galloping horse with one arm, and the other members of his troupe who used their lassoes to good effect.

In her autobiography Guy said that she and her regular actors all learned how to use the lasso from these bronco riders.  She also told the Moving Picture World she stated that she hadn't thought of making a western until she saw these bronco riders in action.
A Mexican woman was the heroine of the first of Solax’s military pictures, Across the Mexican Line, (Solax 1911).  This interracial romance had the Mexican war as its backdrop and probably owed a debt of inspiration to Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona and D.W. Griffith’s filmic adaptation of  the novel released in 1910.
 (Across the Mexican Line still exists at the National Film and Television Archives in London,  but has disintegrated to the point that it can neither be viewed nor  preserved.)
A related genre were the Indian dramas that peaked in popularity by 1913, when “the amateur scriptwriting public was informed that Indian scenarios were not wanted by the studios.  They were considered to be an exhausted vein, while the Westerns continued to be as strong as ever.”

 Many Indian characters were played by whites painted red and little regard was given to correct depiction of Indian customs or dress.  Some Indians complained about how they were represented and their complaints were publicized in The Moving Picture News and The Moving Picture World.  In response some companies, such as Pathe American, began to hire real Indians, although extras were usually still played by whites in make up.  Pathe American hired two Winnebago Indians, James Young Deer and Miss Redwing, who had worked for The New York Motion Picture Company, the Lubin Company, and Kalem as actors.  Young Deer also wrote and directed.  The pair were veterans of Wild West shows and circuses, and were probably more influenced by their show business experience than their own cultural background.    The Indian hero of the Wild West shows was stoic, noble and ready to sacrifice him or herself for a white colonist who had showed them some small kindness or friendship. An example of this is a film in the Nederlands Film Museum collection, [Indian Seizes Kidnapper] (Pathe 1910).
Most of the Indian dramas that featured all-Indian characters were usually love stories where intertribal warfare or feuds keeps the lover apart.  Gaumont’s 1912 Coeur Ardent , directed by Jean Durand, is interesting because it is shot in southern France and all of the characters are played by French  actors.  The plot is about two lovers in one tribe; the young man can’t raise the bride price to marry his love so he steals from another Indian herd.  He is punished for this by being made a target for the other tribes warriors – if he can make the river before they shoot him down, he’ll live.  Since he survives bravely he is able, finally to marry the chief’s daughter.  The emphasis in the film is on the bloody, ritual test.

Cheyenne’s Bride (American Kinema  (Pathe Freres) 1911) shows intertribal warfare; at the end the disobedient daughter is tied to a wild horse and sent to die in the wilderness, but is saved at the last minute by her lover.

 Not all the films focused on brutal (and mythical) tribal practices. A Pathe film known as [Indian Love]   is another miracle film in Indian garb.  A chief from a neighboring tribe falls in love with another chief’s daughter, who rejects  his peace initiatives. The daughter pines away from thwarted love and dies, but the spirit of the Great Manitou takes pity on them and shows her lover how to use a magical grass to bring her back to life.

That westerns produced by French film manufactuers owed more to French genres than adherence to western myths is also shown in the 1910 Pathe film Abraham Lincoln’s Clemency.  In this film Lincoln is shown forgiving a sentinel who fell asleep at his post, a common legend that was usually recounted of Napoleon Bonaparte.

 The French also dealt with the issue of what it meant to be an American citizen in films that were not really westerns, burt contained some similar tropes. 

Solax ceased releasing military films on a weekly basis early in 1912.  However, themes that would later be associated with the western remained present in her dramas, especially gambling.  A good example of this is The Girl in the Armchair (Solax 1913), in the Library of Congress.

 The theme of citizenship re-appears in The Making of An American Citizen (Solax 1913), easily seen on Volume 5 of the Kino Video series.
The plot involves a husband and wife (presumably Russian) who leave the old country and arrive at Ellis Island, then establish themselves on the Lower East Side, then still later on a farm in the country.  The husband treats his wife as a pack mule, and when she collapses from fatigue he goes into a fury.  In every scene some repre­sentative of American Society (all male) teaches him better manners.
Crossdressing was a staple of the cinema of the period.  A standard drama in literature as well as film was the young woman who dons a soldier's uniform and identity in order to a) rescue her lover b) be with her lover c) do a job her lover cannot do because of a wound or cowardice or d) all of the above.  In these films (almost always dramas) for the woman to don a man's clothing and identity is seen as proof of great love: for a woman to behave in a masculine way is seen as a great sacri­fice, performed temporarily under duress, and finished with as quickly as possible; one example is the film How States Are Made, in the Nederlands Filmmuseum Collection.
            In The House with the Closed Shutters (Biograph 1910),
D.W. Griffith carries this plot a little further, as the girl and her soldier brother trade places.[3]  In his discussion of this film, Scott Simmon has pointed out that in fact the image of a Southern Belle riding a horse and using a gun was not so far from reality, as women in the south were trained in these arts right alongside their brothers (Griffith apparently followed the same plot pattern in Taming a Husband and Wilful Peggy, both made in 1910); but L.R.H., the reviewer for The Moving Picture World, knows that "women do not love destruc­tion."[4]  This is a far cry from the gleeful destructive­ness of the ten-year-old in Two Little Rangers and from Flor­ence in Greater Love Hath no Man.



The Silent Westerns matured quickly as a genre and soon parodies began to appear.  One of the best examples of this is Algie the Miner (February 1912), directed by Edward Warren and Harry Shenck, with Guy credited as "producer and directing supervi­sion."[5]  The Solax ad[6] summarizes it as follows:
 A Billy Quirck comedy.  Algie is a "sissy boy" who has as much backbone as a jelly fish.  When Algie falls in love and finds that his sweetheart objects to his "personali­ty" he goes West and after several ludicrous experiences and hard struggles he becomes a "man."  A comedy with strong character portrayals.

What is interesting about this summary is that it is actually fairly different from the film.  In fact, Algie's sweetheart appears to be quite attached to him, no matter how foppish he is (his sissiness is indicated by whiteface makeup and white gloves).  It is her Father who objects, and when Algie asks for his daughter's hand, her father writes a note promising that Algie can marry his daughter if he can prove himself a man by going West for a year.  Dad thinks this will get rid of Algie for sure, but Algie signs the note in great seriousness.  The daughter is clearly bereft when he leaves.  Next we see Algie packing in his over-decorated room.  Among other things, he packs a lace doily and a tiny silver pistol, which he stuffs into his belt so that it is pointing directly at his groin.

Out West we seem him getting off a train in some dusty location and approaching two hard-bitten characters and asking them for directions.  When they answer, he kisses one of them in gratitude, which makes the man's hat fall off, and then he pulls his (very large) gun.  Algie, frightened, falls to his knees, and the second man stops the first from shooting Algie, so Algie kisses him too.  This is too much for the men, so they lift Algie up, and carry him to a train trestle, and perch him there while they decide what to do with him.  Algie tries pulling his little pistol, which amuses them, so they carry him off to the saloon for the entertain­ment of their friends.  In the saloon he is intro­duced to Big Jim, the biggest ruffian of all with, of course, the largest pistol.  Algie's education is "entrusted" to Big Jim.

Now we get a series of scenes of what can only be de­scribed as a love story between the two men.  Big Jim gradual­ly breaks Algie in to the realities of gold rush life and Algie nurses Big Jim through a bout with the DTs and finally helps him quit drinking altogether.  Several moments, such as the moment when Big Jim throws Algie on the bed to put an end to his whining, are clearly meant to read as a sort of "taming of the shrew" scene.   Finally, the two strike gold and Algie gets to show his mettle defending both Big Jim and the gold, the year is up and Algie and Big Jim go back East so Algie can claim his sweetheart.  He no longer wears the pancake makeup, the suit or the gloves, and he rings the doorbell "western style" by shooting in the air.

Again, he deals not with his sweetheart, but with her father, who agrees to allow the two to marry under the watch­ful eye of Big Jim's gun.  This film, in the Library of Con­gress, doesn't appear to have been studied by others but it is a sensitive portrayal of male bonding, the difficulties of living up to a "masculine ideal" (imposed by a powerful father figure), and an exploration of the all-male society of the gold-rush camp.

Just as Algie found his masculinity  in the west, Western women were also free of many cumbersome rules of polite society.  Women in California already had the right to vote (unlike French women, who wouldn’t get until after WWII).                 

A typical exam­ple is a film called Two Little Rangers, sometimes also known as The Little Rangers (August 1912. The setting is the West (filmed in Fort Lee).  Father is the postmaster, assisted by his two daughters, one played by Vinnie Burns, the other by a ten-year-old girl, and the male hero, Jim. The story begins when Jim rescues and Father shelters the battered wife (played by Blanche Cornwall) of the villain, Grey, who gets revenge by throwing Father off a cliff (the famous Cliffhanger Point in Fort Lee, NJ from which we get the term “cliffhanger” in a story) and then framing Jim for it by leaving Jim's knife stuck in a tree.  The older of the two sisters uses her lasso to rescue her father from the ledge where he has fallen, pulling him up very unrealistically with a hand-over-hand move.

But the real hero of this film is her ten year old sister, who protects Jim by waving her six-shooter around, helps her sister set the villain's cabin on fire with flaming arrows, and when he runs out, drives him over the cliff at gun point.  Of course, Jim and Father and Grey's wife forgive Grey once he is at death's door.  The final triangular tableau, reminiscent of a pietà arrangement, is typical of Guy's endings for her action films; we see a very similar tableau at the end of Greater Love Hath No Man.


By 1913 Westerns with a “Jersey setting” were no longer being made, with the exception of parodies.  Again, a Solax film as an example.

The title is Playing Trumps, (August 1912).[7] Billy Quirck plays suitor to Blanche Cornwall, but her atten­tions are always diverted by the more elegant and more sophis­ticated entertain­ments offered to her by his two rivals, one played by Darwin Karr.  In addition to the contrast between their cosmopolitanism and his relative simplici­ty, they are also both a foot taller than he is, so that they can physical­ly overpower him when they need to get him out of the way.

 Billy's trick for besting them is to hire a film produc­ing company.  He instructs the film director carefully.  While Blanche is out on a drive with his two rivals their car breaks down.  A gang of "Mexicans" (white actors in makeup) assault the car and take Blanche hostage.  Billy arrives, shoots into the air, and rescues Blanche.  His two rivals both react with perfect coward­ice.  It is their reaction which is key here, as no effort is made to conceal the fact that the Mexicans were "actors."  Once Blanche is safely in Billy's arms they all get up from the floor where they were playing dead and the direc­tor enters the frame and congratulates Billy on his perfor­mance.  Billy and Blanche then get into the film crew's with them and leave the two rivals behind.  Billy's goal in the film is to show Blanche that he is better at scripting and staging his own life (or at least, his own romance) than his rivals are, and it is on this basis that he finally gets her attention.
Why do I call “Playing Trumps” a Mystery Film? Because we know it exists. It has been shown on 3Sat, a   German TV channel, sometime in the mid-1990s. But no one can find the original film used for the broadcast. So we are in the terrible position of knowing that an Alice Guy film exists out there, a great film, but we don’t know where it is. However, Susanne Reichling, a producer for Arte, who is right now producing a short clip on the Whitney Retrospective,  has promised to look for it.

What can be said in conclusion about these Eastern Westerns,  these films about America made by French and American film manufacturers in Fort Lee?

 Some characteristics can be isolated:

 The films show strong influence of other media, such as Wild West Shows and sensational novels.

The western per se did not exist until the end of this period (1913); the term “western” gradually came into use, first as an adjective, then “western dramas” and “western comedies” became more and more common.  However, films that we would today label as “western” were made as military films, Indian dramas, western dramas and melodramas, and western comedies. Many of these last were actually parodies as the genre matured very quickly.

A more comprehensive study of westerns produced in Fort Lee remains to be done.  Once it is completed then we could trace what elements of the Western that came later owe their source to the French.
All good things come to an end, and Sunday we had to leave. We stopped in Show Low, stopping for a moment to play a hand with the two guys jump-started the town from two of clubs, and then heading towards Phoenix and the airport.


Article from Show Low Paper -- Lost GardenArticle from Show Low Paper -- Lost Garden
The trip meant driving along Route 60 through a series of canyons: the canyon of the rio Salado, and then, closer to Phoenix, the Devil’s Canyon. It’s Arizona’s way of making it impossible for one to get on that plane. But we did have to get on it, and now we look back fondly on our most amazing experience.


[1] Riley, Glenda, The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley, Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, pp. 46-49.
[3] The Moving Picture World, Vol. VII No. 8, Aug. 20, 1910, p. 402.
[4]Simmon, Scott, The Films of D.W. Griffith, Cambridge Film Classics, Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 120.
[5] Bachy, Ibid. p. 217.
[6]  The Moving Picture World, Vol. V, No. 7, Feb 17, 1912, p.
[7] This film was broadcast on German television.  Annette Forster identified the film, but we don't know where the actual film itself is archived.