Alice Guy directs a domestic comedy about jealous spouses and their attempt to live together using the silent treatment.
Imaginary Burglars to the Rescue!
Alice Guy wasn’t just one of the first women film directors, she was one of the first film directors period. And she lasted a long time in the industry, going from seconds-long vignettes to narrative shorts to features. A House Divided is from her Solax period, when she made films in America under the banner of her own studio.
The short is the kind of domestic farce that Max Linder had mastered back in France. A quarreling couple, a plot twist, a punchline. It’s the same formula that would keep sitcoms afloat during the days of television.
Diana (Marian Swayne) and Gerald (Fraunie Fraunholz) are an affectionate couple but they each have the same unfortunate flaw: jealousy. One day at his office, Gerald has perfume spilled on him by an obnoxious salesman. The same day, Diana discovered Bridget the maid canoodling with a workman and he leaves in such a hurry that he forgets his gloves. (By the way, at least one book lists Billy Quirk as playing the husband. However, the majority of texts state it is Fraunholz and he looks like Fraunholz to me so I think I am on fairly solid ground here.)
Well, these seemingly small events lead to disaster. Diana is convinced that the perfume is from another woman and Gerald is convinced that the gloves mean his wife has been having men in the house while he was at work. The betrayal! The tragedy!
Seeing as how Gerald works in the “Drugs and Perfumes” department (there’s a sign on the wall), I think it’s a bit odd that Diana would automatically assume that stink pretty = adultery but characters in marital farces are rarely noted for their high IQs. Similarly, Gerald automatically assuming that a workman’s gloves means his wife is a cheater says more about him than her.
After a loud fight, Gerald summons a family friend who is also a lawyer to draw up the terms of their separation. The two are to share the same house to keep up appearances but are forbidden to speak to one another except by written notes. (I don’t know if this film is based on a real case or not but I have known couples in a huff who took to note-passing and is it ever awkward. Especially for unfortunate bystanders who stumble onto their correspondence.)
Gerald and Diana have clearly cooled off and want to reconcile but both are too proud to make the first move and so the awkward living arrangement continues.
So, now I have to talk about the ending. As we’ve already established, 1910s films liked to use burglars as a kind of deus ex machina to solve any and all domestic problems. A husband and wife reconcile in After Midnight and two brothers get along again in The Burglar’s Dilemma. Alice Guy uses the same trick here with a little twist.
The family’s maid has forgotten her key and so she climbs in through the basement window. Diana, believing that she has heard a burglar in the basement, summons her husband to drive away the invader. Once they realize that it is just Bridget, the humor of the situation and the realization that things are not always what they seem gives the battling couple an excuse for a full reconciliation, much to the horror of the lawyer who drew up their agreement.
Alice Guy famously wanted her cast to “be natural” but a comedy of this kind does call for a bit more oomph in the performances. Swayne gets it right, pouting and spending much of the film in a huff. Fraunholz takes things a little too far, ostentatiously mouthing his dialogue for the camera and flailing around like Ford Sterling.
To be honest, the best performance in the picture belongs to the actress playing Gerald’s gum-chewing secretary. She doesn’t care about his boss’s fits and tantrums, she just wants to put in a day’s work and get home to her beau at a reasonable hour and she isn’t afraid to make some noise herself to do it. I wanted a whole series about her. (Though I grant that her typing is singularly unconvincing.)
By the way, this is the earliest film I have personally seen with the gum-chewing typist joke. The hit 1924 song Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight asks “Could you get a job as typist if you couldn’t do it right?” Obviously not but were there other films before this? Naturally, I had to hit the books to see.
I discovered that Edison did a series of Bumptious comedies in 1910 that had a character known only as the “gum-chewing girl” who was apparently unflappable and sometimes the real main character of the pictures. I also found a 1908 reference (which, alas, omits the film title) to a picture using chewing gum as a tool in diamond theft and some severe tut-tutting about the harm this does to audiences. (As chewing gum did not contribute to a wave of jewel thefts, I think we can assume that very little harm was actually done. That didn’t stop the author for calling on the police to suppress crime pictures in general.)
This film is sometimes listed as an examination of women in the workplace, presumably because the secretary would be the likely suspected partner in adultery. However, the film never makes explicit who Diana thinks Gerald is stepping out with and there were plenty of other opportunities to sin in New Jersey circa 1913.
Guy’s target was obviously the trial separations that were dominating newspapers at the time. That’s right, the concept was so novel in the United States that from the late 19th century to around the time A House Divided was being made, trial separations were considered newsworthy by major publications and the idea was being touted as the modern way to avoid divorce by the smart set. Nowadays, neither marriages nor separations make the news unless they involve the rich and famous or are particularly bizarre but it’s important to remember the context of the times here.
A House Divided is a light and enjoyable little domestic comedy aimed at what was then a newsworthy and controversial topic. It’s not Guy’s greatest masterpiece but it’s a lot of fun and definitely worth a few minutes of your time.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of the out of print Origins of Film box set but recently included in Kino’s Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set (Bluray only).
Seeing this in a college film course in the late 80s was a real eye-opener. Alice Guy-Blache was not well known and certainly not mentioned in our text books. Watching her films contrasted with the fare that Griffith was putting out at the same time was shocking to many of us. I feel, as did many of the students at the time, that she had a better grasp of the medium than he did. And the Secretary! Everyone loved her as you did. She was the best thing in the entire film. 🙂
Yes, I intentionally reviewed this and The Burglar’s Dilemma back to back in order to get the lay of the land with Griffith vs. Guy and she definitely had a better handle on directing film actors AND dealing with humorous situations. It’s so lovely to see that she is enjoying a revival now! Well deserved and long overdue.
Comments are closed.