samedi 23 février 2008
Making an American Citizen (1912)
Produced by Solax Co. (New York)
Directed by Alice Guy
With Lee Beggs, Blanche Cornwall
Released: October 30, 1912
1 Reel Making an American Citizen was directed in 1912 by Alice Guy for her own company, Solax. It is one of a series of one-reel melodramas (ca. 15 mins.), which Solax released, dealing with contemporary American life, especially the lives of recent immigrants.
In a sequence of nine scenes, Making an American Citizen portrays the education of a ruffian who regularly beats his wife, demonstrating to audiences that such behavior is unacceptable in America. The film opens on a country road, somewhere in Russia, where we see a rotund peasant sitting in a cart, while his wife leads the horse. The camera perspective leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether the peasant is whipping the horse or the wife, clearly signifying the state of gender relations. In the second scene, we see the husband beating his exhausted wife in Battery Park (with the Statue of Liberty in plain sight in the background), until a middle-class American man not only stops the beating but forces the husband to carry the couple’s belongings. Subsequent scenes follow the couple to the lower East Side of New York and into the country. Each time the husband beats his wife, he is reprimanded by an American male until he is eventually sentenced to hard labor and is reformed. In the final scene, it is he who is working. The film ends with a prayer at the dinner table and the apparent redemption of the husband. While westerns and melodramas were addressed to male audiences, melodramas, as recent feminist research has demonstrated, were more apt to address female audiences because they usually took place in domestic spaces and often dealt with family issues. Making an American Citizen therefore functions within the context of melodrama, exemplifying a social pressure to “be American.” Indeed, the film contrasts differences in gender relations between “the old country” and the United States, where wives are treated with respect.
Clearly, the film was addressed to immigrant audiences as a morality tale about American mores. The intertitles describe the scenes as “lessons in Americanism,” and the characters who mete out justice to the brutal husband are marked as American, rather than fellow immigrants. And while the couple is identified in the titles as Russian (Ivan Orloff), one may assume that the audiences for whom the film was intended were largely Eastern European Jews, who made up the vast majority of immigrants to America in the early portion of the 20th century. The costumes give this theory credence and the actor Lee Beggs often played Jewish characters in Solax films. The wife is strangely passive through much of the film. While she does take a jab at the husband in the first New York scene, she does not actively resist him until an intertitle tells us that she has been Americanized. Later in court, she does seemingly testify against her husband, but the decentered composition makes her role in the case ambiguous. Alice Guy, who would give up her career in deference to her husband, was not interested in producing an overtly feminist text. In the interest of melodrama, domestic harmony is restored, the direct product of the couple’s assimilation into an American way of life. Historical Context & Production Background
In this period, which historians have labeled the Nickelodeon Era (1903-1912), films were for the most part shown in small, storefront movie theatres, and included a program of shorts that often changed daily. Audiences paid 5 cents and could walk in and leave at any time during the program, hence the name Nickelodeon. In rural areas itinerants still dominated exhibition, showing films at fairgrounds, jubilees, and meeting houses, using their own ambulatory projectors. The audiences were mostly working class with a high percentage of recent immigrants, although by 1912 exhibitors attempted to bring in more middle class and family audiences by offering better facilities and family fare. The Solax Company was founded by Alice Guy and her husband, Herbert Blaché in Flushing, New York, in 1910, although Guy actually owned more than 50% of the company and would become the first and only woman in film history to own her own studio, according to Guy’s biographer, Alison McMahan. Both had come to the United States in 1907 as representatives of the French Gaumont Film Company, attempting to sell Gaumont’s sound film system, the Chronophone. Guy had in fact been the production head at Gaumont for nine years (1897-1906), supervising and directing hundreds of films. By 1912 Solax had moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey, at that time the center of the American film industry, where Guy built her own studio plant, rather than renting space at Gaumont’s Flushing complex. French film companies, especially Pathé, dominated American screens in the years before 1914, but criticism of foreign domination was becoming ever more vocal. As a result, Solax attempted to highlight its credentials as an American company by making films privileging assimilation. Solax released an average of two to three one- reelers a week in this period. Although a so-called “independent” and not a member of the Motion Picture Patents Trust, which sought to monopolize the film industry, Solax did have access to Trust licensed distributors and exhibitors through George Kleine’s company. Guy directed a great majority of the films herself, although she did hire other directors especially to handle westerns and so-called military films. Film companies identified their product at this time by genre, rather than stars, releasing films of a particular genre on the same day each week. Solax had a company of actors under contract, including Romaine Fielding, Lee Beggs, Marion Swayne, Gladden James, Fanny Simpson, Patrick and Magda Foy, and Blanche Cornwall, but they were not credited in the films. Guy was especially fond of melodramas, so it is not surprising that this was a major film genre at Solax.
See the Alice Guy Jr's blog : http://alice-guy-jr.eklablog.com