Alice Guy | Algie the Miner
| The Sewer | The Making of an American Citizen
| An Ocean Waif
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Alice Guy was one of the world's first film makers. She was a
pioneer of the story film. She also helped to define the role
of the director, and to become an early studio head. The fascinating
documentary, First Women of Film (2000), looks at her work
and that of Lois Weber.
Algie the Miner
Algie the Miner (1912) is an early comedy about gay people.
Guy's films are often focused on intimate feelings of her characters,
especially women. Her first film was about the Cabbage Fairy who
brings babies to people, with Guy playing the father of the baby's
family in men's clothes. Here she extends her point of view to
gay men. Algie is a very effeminate Easterner, who goes out West,
and hooks up with a tough miner as a partner. Far from being in
over his head, Algie eventually triumphs out West. The film is
a most unusual and sympathetic look at gay people. In fact, its
directness and open minded point of view could give pointers to
modern film makers.
The linking of gay people and the West is not so unusual as it sounds.
One finds similar subject matter in the prose stories of Bret Harte,
who was at the peak of his popularity at the time of Guy's films.
Guy likes characters who move into difficult environments that
are completely unfamiliar to them. Easterner Algie goes out West;
in The Sewer the hero is abandoned by crooks into
the frightening underground passages of the title. They usually
do well, but they have to show plenty of grit and face down serious
Guy likes scenes with six or seven people, all in movement and
with individual bits of business. Such shots were far more common
in early silent cinema than in later works. Often her hero is
in determined opposition to the other characters in such a scene,
and has to struggle against their approach and goals. Guy's conception
of cinema here is very people centered.
Much of Guy's staging revolves around doors. Characters are always
entering or leaving through them, as a main element of a scene.
One sees this later in Feuillade, who
was a protégé of Guy - she hired him and gave him
his first film jobs at Gaumont. Occasionally, there are secret
doors in walls in both filmmakers.
Both directors also like vertical
staging, where characters move in vertical lines up or down the
sides of buildings or cliffs. This gives a 3D element to their
work. The cliff bank in Algie is one of the best staged
scenes in the film, with the good guys below and the bad guys
sneaking up on them at the top of the bank.
Guy employs a great deal of panning within a scene. The camera
is often not stable, but is being slowly re-directed here and
there, to look at different elements of a scene. This means that
Guy is often not deeply interested in composition. Unlike say
Fritz Lang, or Lois Weber,
she does not anchor her camera to a fixed view that provides a
fascinating composition. Instead, her camera is often poking around
Influence on Feuillade: Themes
One can see other common elements between Guy's and Feuillade's films.
Children are strong, independent and not easily intimidated characters.
They seem extremely intelligent and alert, always ready to intervene
in grown-up's affairs with surprising effectiveness. Heroes have
strong family lives, and often live with a parcel of relatives
and spouses. These are all sympathetic characters. These are not
loner heroes, like so much of the later and current cinema.
The Sewer (1912) was produced by Guy, and reportedly directed by
A Crime Film
The Sewer is an early crime film. It is a member
of a genre that was big in the 1910's, but which has little contemporary
equivalent: the slum crime tale. These stories all take place
in the slums of large American cities.
There are four main types of characters in such films:
All of these characters remind one somewhat of Charles Dickens' prose
treatments of slum crime, in such novels as Oliver Twist
(1838). The innocent little boy being pressured to steal here
by the gang is even called Oliver, just as in Dickens' novel.
- members of two-bit slum crime gangs, often known as gangsters or musketeers,
who are mainly male;
- honest dwellers in the slums, often noble minded, innocent
women or children;
- social workers, who are middle class people
who visit the slums and who try to rescue their inhabitants. Such
social workers can be noble, as they are in The Sewer and
in Raoul Walsh's Regeneration
(1915); or they can be despicable, as are the meddlesome, religious
fanatics of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916);
- policemen: Guy, like Feuillade, likes scenes set at police stations.
When The Sewer was shown on cable, it was called
an early example of film noir. It certainly is a crime movie,
but I doubt if it is directly related in any way to the noir movies
of the 1940's and 1950's. However, its sewer finale does anticipate
that of Anthony Mann's He Walked By Night (1948).
Guy's film certainly does spring from many of the same impulses that lead to noir.
The first half of The Sewer is pretty minor. The emphasis
on crooks trying to break into homes through windows reminds of
Feuillade, but this could simply reflect standard real life burglar
tactics of the time. The film gets more interesting when the hero
is abandoned in the sewer, and is forced to flee from the bandits
there. These vivid scenes can be interpreted in all sorts of ways,
as a descent into the unconscious, and as a wallowing in all the
discarded sides of life.
The sewer scenes have a more stable camera set-ups than those
in Algie the Miner. The elaborate, geometric sets seem
designed to be looked at from a fixed point of view. Guy anchors
her camera to a single composition and leaves it there. The strange,
purely geometric quality of the space through which the hero moves
anticipates later avant-garde movies, such as German Expressionism
and Aelita, Queen of Mars.
The hero, like Algie, is terrific with arm gestures, and
postures that change the location of his upper body. His arms
are in continuous motion, and much of the emotion of the scene
is expressed through them. They are fascinating to watch, both
as an abstract dance, and as a emotional commentary on the story.
The Making of an American Citizen
The Making of an American Citizen (1912) shows immigrants adjusting to
life in the USA.
This film is related in approach to Algie the Miner (1912).
In both films, people from one environment immigrate into a different
region, and gradually learn an entirely new way of life. In both
films, this transformation deeply affects their gender roles.
This plot ties up the personal inner world of feelings, personality
and behavior with the outer world of a culture and its way of
An Ocean Waif
An Ocean Waif (1916) is a not too clearly preserved feature.
There are clearly gaps in the print, and decayed scenes. None
of this prevents An Ocean Waif from being a charming story
and an absorbing experience.
The best part of the film is the love story between the heroine and hero.
This largely takes place at a shut up mansion to which the lower class heroine has run
to for refuge from her abusive family. These scenes at the house
have a fascination that pulls one in.
An Ocean Waif shows some resemblance to The Sewer:
- In both, a character finds themselves alone in a huge and somewhat
spooky architectural complex.
- Both films scare the protagonist by showing rats scurrying around.
- Both films have a noble protagonist menaced by lower class, violent people.