Having introduced narrative story-telling to film back in 1896, French producer-director-writer and cracking storyteller, Alice Guy-Blaché developed the form through hundreds more shorts. She married, had kids, moved with the Gaumont company to America, then set up her own studio, the not entirely wisely named Solax Studios. Silent Steve told me all this as we embarked on a mini-marathon of her films the other week. I’ll dip into them every so often. Wouldn’t want you to be overcome with emotion. For here comes the sentiment in a perfectly lovely film from 1912, the sad story of a younger sister using wishful thinking to fend off the illness killing her older sister in Falling Leaves.
It starts with the grown-ups. A brief scene of Doctor Earl Headley (Mace Greenleaf – really), bacteriologist no less, presenting his fantastic new serum for curing consumption. Says the title card; as portentous men of lab coats, Edwardian suits and silly hair styles tap an ‘umble young lady wot is cured of ‘er disease. Okay – America, but you get my point. Three manly-man doctors tower over the cured woman being clever. You can tell they’re actors, mind, because one shows us the wisdom of his learning by sniffing the serum. There’s more evidence of success as a man and boy come in – giving off spindly, pitiable and working-class in a matter of seconds, the boy pleased with his strength, the man all smiles at being alive.
What’s telling is that the action feels like it is simply missing dialogue, rather than beating us with pantomime. For that, I rather liked it. And whilst the scene has little to do with the rest of the story, beyond stripping away the fanciful and replacing it with a whopping great coincidence, it managed to set old Jack’s teeth on edge with the educated-men-are-superior thing. Bow down, nurses, children and men of toil…
Then to the real story.
In a family home on a neighbouring set, bad news is coming. Really bad. It’s Autumn and Winifred, older daughter of the house, is about to find out she’s ill. Really ill. But that’s okay because there’s a family doctor – another educated man showing off – to make things feel wretched. Winifred is struggling to read a book to her younger sister, observed and hugged by her complicatedly-haired Mum. She can’t do it, what with all the coughing. Being middle-class, Winifred has a go on the piano, but coughs up blood (nice touch, 1912) while her little sister stares at the camera. Mum goes in for a hug while, distraught, Winifred drops into a panic (I’m no lip-reader, but she might have said,”fuck – I’m dying!”). Mum and maid take terrified Winifred out of the room while the kid mutters something at the camera… You can almost hear Guy-Blaché yelling, “emote, ma chère fille! Be natural!” because she did that sort of thing, putting it on signs around the Solax studios.
Brief aside: Mum is played by Blanche Cornwall who worked in movies for all of two years and made sixty-two or so shorts. Amazing.
Anyway. Mum runs back in and – did I mention the bourgeois thing? – uses the 1912 phone in their 1912 house to call for Doctor Hamminess-in-Action. Cut to Winifred in bed, Mum holding her and, creepily, up pops the doctor having checked her lungs or arse or something. Reassuringly for us seniors, he is a tubby, sideburned old straight-face with a mighty bald patch on the way. So, authoritative, then. We’re at minute 3, by the way.
Here’s where old Jack started laughing. Prognosis? She’ll be dead by the time the last leaf falls in the garden. Hmmmmm. Now, old Jack here thought he’d mis-seen when the doctor points out of the living room window at the leaves when making his point. But, oh no, Dad comes home (Darwin Karr – really – in a strange wig), Mum sobbing, and rocks on his heels as the doctor explains things again…and points out of the window – again!
But the story makes its points nicely. The kid – Trixie – is watching throughout and we cut to her sat up in bed, worrying and coming up with a plan. In scenes of total adorability, she gets some string, goes out into the garden, and starts to tie the leaves to the trees. The little sister isn’t about to let Winifred die…
You see what Alice Guy-Blaché was doing? Melodrama, drama, medical drama, domestic drama, fairy-tale, kids fantasy, sentimentality, vignettes with direction and a point. In sixteen years, from La Fée aux Choux / The Fairy of the Cabbages (1900) (the 1896 original) to here, from France to America, she’d caught everything film storytelling could ever be and made it absorbing.
Including the rubbish ending – ref. the first scene. Doctor Headley is out for a stroll and…
Falling Leaves is brief, lovely, and well worth your time if only for its 106 year old emotional coherence. It also feels like cinema for women and men, what with those pompous arses at the start, the affected family man, and all the real stuff being about Winifred, Trixie, their Mum and, as something of a middle-class make-weight, the maid. If you like, this is the middle-age family terror plot made soapy.
That said, it has a weird little ending. Everyone gathers around the recovering Winifred. Doctor Headley pops in, gives her flowers, the family exit as he feeds her what looks like toast soldiers dipped in egg. Romance is on the way. Only… Okay, of its time, but…Winifred is played by Marian Swayne who was about 19 that day and Doctor Headley is played by Mace Greenleaf who was 38. Cringe. Flinch. Move on.
Incidentally, Greenleaf died from pneumonia in March 1912. There’s a cruel irony in there somewhere. Magda Foy – Trixie and “the Solax Kid” – lived to the space year 2000. We’re watching history, here.