Alice Guy directs an espionage romance set and made during the start of the Mexican Revolution. Frances Gibson plays a Mexican woman sent to spy on an American military officer. Will love conquer politics?
Home Media Availability: Released via streaming.
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In 1910, Mexico saw the start of its decade-long revolution and all the foreign interference that came with it. The events of the revolution were closely observed (and interfered with) by Mexico’s neighbors to the north and it was of interest to Americans other than politicians and soldiers. Men crossed the border in search of adventure, for political reasons and even to make movies. (My great-grandfather was in the first category. And a pre-movie Cecil B. DeMille considered a border crossing before directing called.)
Alice Guy was running her own studio, Solax, at the time and Across the Mexican Line was one of many films released through her brand in 1911. The story should be a familiar one to anybody who has ever seen a spy film. (I should point out that brief sequences of footage are missing and are supplemented by title cards.)
Dolores (Frances Gibson) is a Mexican woman sent to spy on the American troops across the border. (The character was named Juanita in the film’s original release but I am using the name found in the title cards to reduce confusion.) She meets Lieutenant Harvey (Romaine Fielding), who operates the telegraph. Smitten, he not only lets her see his work, he also teaches her how to use the machine herself.
Dolores arranges to let her compatriot into the telegraph station but she is beginning to feel reluctant because she has fallen for the dashing Harvey. After an unsuccessful attempt to bribe the lieutenant for information, fight breaks out and Harvey is knocked out and kidnapped. He’s taken across the Mexican line (Get it? Get it?) and is due to be shot by the Mexican army at noon.
However, they did not notice the handy-dandy miniature telegraph kit left in the same room as Harvey and he passes it to Dolores. She in turn shimmies up a telegraph pole and sends out a message to the cavalry. Yes, this film was made when the cavalry coming to the rescue was not a metaphor.
(By the way, can those wonderful long divided skirts come back in style? I absolutely love them!)
This is a pretty black and white picture. The American army is unambiguously white hat and the Mexican characters wear the black. There’s not much Mexican about the Mexicans either; the filmmakers could have substituted Chinese characters engaged in the Boxer Rebellion, for example, and changed nothing but the costumes.
In Borderland Films: American Cinema, Mexico, and Canada During the Progressive Era, Dominique Brégent-Heald brings out that while it may seem surprising that a French director would embrace such jingoism, it is actually quite logical. Of all the American films sent to Europe, those with western and Civil War subject matter were the most popular by far. The Mexican Revolution would have been seen as an ideal, torn-from-the-headlines source of new stories all ready for profitable export. Also, it’s worth noting that France had stuck its schnozz into Mexican business before and was not opposed to military intervention.
(For a look at the United States in Latin America from the opposite perspective, I highly recommend viewing Claws of Gold, Colombia’s condemnation of the Panama Canal.)
According to Moving Picture World, Across the Mexican Line didn’t make much of an impression on New York audiences but was met with loud cheers for the heroes and boos for the villains in at least one small town theater. The film was declared a crowdpleaser with Frances Gibson’s telegraph scene singled out for praise.
What I find significant is how thoroughly Lieutenant Harvey is reduced to a dude in distress and how little agency he is given in the story. I like to talk about how silent movie women were allowed far more heroics than their sound movie counterparts but this film surprised even me. To have the traditional leading man and leading lady roles reversed so thoroughly is a breath of fresh air. (For a later example, check out Eve’s Leaves, another film with a strong heroine and problematic racial views.)
Frances Gibson does tend to play to the cheap seats but she is also a physical performer and it is thrilling to see her scurry up a telegraph pole to send out a message to the cavalry. She also has an expressive face, an important skill for a time when many films still wished to display their casts from head to toe.
Her leading man is less dynamic and seems in constant peril of tripping over his own sword. He is not listed in any credits that I have seen (the only performer I have seen named is Frances Gibson) but the cast list on the film’s streaming page identifies him as Romaine Fielding.
And now my attention was piqued. For those of you who do not know the name, Fielding was voted the #1 movie star in America in a 1913 poll. I had never seen him in motion and had been dying of curiosity about the man who beat out Francis X. Bushman and J. Warren Kerrigan for the top slot.
I am the absolute worst photo identification person on the planet. I don’t seem to process faces the way other people do, so when I say I am sure that I can identify a particular star, I am 200% sure. Comparing known photos of Fielding with the leading man of the picture, I can say that I am certain that this is indeed Romaine Fielding.
Well, this is exciting! One of the great frustrations of pre-feature film is how much is lost (even more than silent feature material) and how many huge stars have zero presence on home video. Seeing Fielding in motion is of immense value to film history nerds, even if his appeal is not readily apparent.
I should point out that Fielding left Solax for Lubin not long after completing Across the Mexican Line and the films responsible for his audience appeal were likely Lubin pictures. The Lubin films had the advantage of location filming (a common way of adding value to pictures in pre-WWI American cinema) but I have not yet had an opportunity to view one. I hope to someday remedy that.
Is Fielding impressive here? Not really. Gibson is clearly the star of the show with Fielding as her dude-in-distress. But one can hardly judge the value of a player from a single performance and so I will patiently wait for another Fielding performance to come my way.
Across the Mexican Line was enthusiastically promoted as Solax’s first “big military picture.” It was not Guy’s first military picture, of course, but novelty has always sold. (Alice Guy historian Alison McMahan writes that there is a possibility that this picture was directed by Wilbert Melville, who directed subsequent Solax military pictures. However, she considers it likely that Guy was the director as Across the Mexican Line was announced before Melville’s military series.) The film was also marketed as a patriotic event and that moviegoers had a nationalistic duty to give it a look.
While Solax did send a crew to New Mexico and commissioned revolution footage from Mexico, it’s pretty clear that Guy’s film has no Mexican—new or old—footage (at least in the surviving portion that I viewed). The picture has a rather nor’easter look to it.
The film suffers from a predictable plot but our heroine’s attempts to save her dude-in-distress are definitely as exciting as advertised. Plus, this picture gives us an opportunity to see Romaine Fielding in action, a rare and valuable thing indeed. I hope to have the pleasure of seeing more of his work (particularly for Lubin) so that I can accurately judge his appeal.
Where can I see it?
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