Alice Guy variation on a theme by O. Henry is the story of a small child who tries to save her older sister’s life by prolonging autumn. A lyrical tearjerker and a rare example of Guy’s work from her Solax period.
This is my contribution to the No, You’re Crying Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Be sure to read the other posts!
And a ball of string…
Alice Guy-Blaché was an industry veteran with nearly a decade-and-a-half of motion picture directing under her belt when she began to make films under her own Solax banner in 1910. She had been one of the first film directors in the world and almost certainly the first woman to take the title. Solax films were praised for their natural acting style (relative to the period) but the studio ran into trouble with the transition to feature films and eventually faded away. (The feature transition of the mid-1910s, I would argue, was actually more traumatic to the American film industry than the talkie revolution. Stars, directors and major studios collapsed under the demand for longer films with bigger budgets.)
Falling Leaves is one of Guy’s most acclaimed films from her Solax period and deservedly so. Get your hankies ready, this is going to be quite the emotional roller coaster.
Dr. Earl Headley (Mace Greenleaf) has concocted a surefire cure for tuberculosis and he celebrates his discovery by healing his consumptive patients. However, it seems that not everyone has heard about his miraculous medicine.
(Tuberculosis was one of the leading causes of death at the time with the 1910 tuberculosis mortality rate in the United States at 160 deaths per 100,000 people and 210 per 100,000 in New York City. For context, cancer is responsible for 185 deaths per 100,000 population today.)
Winifred (Marian Swayne) is terribly ill and when she collapses in the parlor, her mother (Blanche Cornwall) summons the family physician, who delivers a dire pronouncement: Winifred will be dead by the time the last autumn leaf falls.
During all this, little Trixie (Magda Foy) has been lingering in the background. She loves her sister but there doesn’t seem to be anything that a six year old child can do in the situation. That night, though, she has an epiphany. The doctor said that her sister would die when the last leaf falls. What if that leaf never fell? Armed with a ball of string, Trixie sneaks out to the garden in her nightgown and begins to tie the leaves back onto the tree branches.
(I’m not crying, you’re crying!)
As she works on her project, Dr. Headley passes by and asks what she is doing. When he discovers the reason, he visits Winifred with his handy syringe of medicine. The patient is saved! What’s more, she thinks that the doctor is pretty cute and he reciprocates. The beaming Trixie shoos her parents out the door, leaving the happy couple alone.
Alice Guy’s direction is marked by depth of field rather than fancy editing or closeups. Each frame has a lot going on and viewers would have been expected to drink in the various layers. This is a natural progression from her early films, which were more akin to stage plays in their setup. (Very standard for movies at the time.) However, Guy was truly an actor’s director. Some accounts state that she posted “Be Natural” on the wall of her studio and her films certainly reflect that admonition.
Of course, “natural” is a relative term with film acting. The subtle and natural of yesteryear seems hopelessly affected now and performances that were praised just a few years ago are embarrassing today. That being said, in an apples-to-apples comparison, Guy’s cast shows itself to be quite understated for the period. (For 1912 comparisons, check out the jaw-droppingly terrible performances in The Copper Beeches and then see the pleasingly melodramatic Mystery of the Rocks of Kador.)
Being natural would be important when making a film like Falling Leaves, which was clearly inspired by the O. Henry short story The Last Leaf. In that tale, the savior of the doomed patient is a local artist who paints a last leaf on the window of the sickroom. The patient lives and the artist dies of pneumonia. It’s a bit gooshy even by Henry standards (and I like O. Henry) and, in my opinion, Guy actually improves on the tale. (You can read a public domain copy of the original story here.)
O. Henry’s sentimental material has always been risky to adapt to the screen. His quick, affecting vignettes are charming on the page but there is always the chance that something will be lost in translation. And, needless to say, the feature film revolution did his work no favors as there is nothing worse than a short story stretched and stretched and stretched to be long for length’s sake. (Novels are not immune either. Cough, cough, The Hobbit, cough.)
The success of Falling Leaves is due largely to Trixie acting like the child she is. Taking the doctor’s figure of speech referring to the end of a season literally and running with it is very true to real child behavior. In her mind, the rules have been set: her sister’s survival is tied somehow to the leaves and they must not be allowed to fall.
These scenes showcase how Alice Guy’s dedication to naturalness pay off richly. Such sentimental material could easily tumble into treacle but Guy directs her cast to play the scene absolutely straight. There is very little mugging and the actions of the characters are allowed to carry the story. The combination of subtle acting and believable actions result in a breathtaking sequence.
Of course, the doctor showing up just at that moment (with his vials of medicine, yet!) is straight out of Victorian melodrama but we can make some allowances. It certainly beats an elderly artist dying from exposure while painting fake leaves on a window. (Why didn’t the family ask him in?)
The Last Leaf was adapted faithfully by the Vitagraph company in 1917 and was part of the 1952 anthology film O. Henry’s Full House with Ann Baxter as the dying patient. However, I doubt that any version of the story could match Guy’s poetic flourish.
Falling Leaves deserves its reputation as one of Alice Guy’s finest films and we are fortunate to still have it with us.
Where can I see it?
Falling Leaves has been released on DVD and Bluray as part of Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology box set. It was also included in the (alas) out of print More Treasures from American Film Archives box set. It is also available for free and legal viewing on accompanist Ben Model’s YouTube channel.
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