Alice Guy directs a brief comedy dealing with the universal problem of pregnancy cravings. A visibly pregnant woman indulges her desire for candy, fish, a pipe… until matters take their natural course and she finally gives birth.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
Pickles and Ice Cream and Herring and Absinthe
A woman is overcome by sudden cravings during pregnancy… what is to be done? That’s the setup for many a sitcom but jokes aimed at the random cravings of pregnant women have been around for ages and they were included in motion pictures from the beginning.
Madame Has Her Cravings is one of many films directed by Alice Guy at Gaumont and it is of particular interest because, well, most silent films making pregnancy jokes were not directed by women. (Alice Guy is considered to be the world’s first woman film directors but it is also important to remember that she was one of the world’s first directors, period.)
The setup for this picture is simple: Madame and her husband have gone out for a stroll and she is visibly pregnant. Her cravings can be best described as a seafood diet: she sees food or drink or even tobacco and she must have it. Obviously, ideas of what is and is not safe to consume during pregnancy have changed a lot between 1906 and now. I mention this because the woman steals and consumes a large glass of absinthe.
(By the way, much of what we think we know about absinthe is wrong. I did a deep dive, including a taste test, for my review of Guy’s 1899 comedy Wonderful Absinthe.)
The film follows a pattern: We see Madame purloin some item from a child, a beggar, a random passerby, and then she thoroughly enjoys it in a closer shot. The acting is broad, of course, because the topic itself is plain comedy. Meanwhile, her husband looks on in horror and tries to rectify the situation where he can. Finally, the couple is freed from the cravings when she gives birth to a bouncing baby right on the street, conveniently close to a cabbage patch.
This film isn’t subtle but it is quirky and enjoyable. (Not the mention the fact that it will probably be something of a revelation for any viewers still operating under the misconception that silent films were naïve and prim. Nothing could be further from the truth.) And, since pregnancy is universal, the humor succeeds with a few title cards and, really, could have gotten its point across without them. Minimal cards and a universal language of comedy were goals in the silent era (albeit for financial rather than artistic reasons in many cases) and Guy succeeds beautifully with this film.
Pregnancy cravings are real, of course, but current scientific studies have not revealed the cause. (“You must need some nutrient in the craved item” does not actually hold up to scrutiny.) Other theories include the idea that a woman is signaling that she needs additional care and her cravings are a subconscious way to assure she has everyone’s complete attention.
My own mother didn’t crave foods when she was pregnant with me, but her café-owning neighbor insisted on indulging her with pie anyway. My grandmother went gaga for avocados when she was pregnant with my father, but she lived in Southern California, so she was well-positioned for her cravings to be indulged. (She was a Millennial six or seven decades early.)
Different countries and cultures mean different cravings, of course, and even if this had been set in America, the cliched combination of pickles and ice cream was not yet a thing. Instead, Madame strikes at targets of opportunity.
What I find interesting about Guy’s portrayal of cravings is that it is the woman who indulges herself. The usual setup for such jokes is a frazzled husband treated as the protagonist, running to and fro, trying his very best to obtain the odd items that are essential to his wife’s happiness. His missions are usually fruitless (the wife can change her mind, add new demands or only be temporarily satisfied) but he tries anyway.
In Madame Has Her Cravings, the husband is merely present as a horrified observer, trying meekly to minimize the damage of her rampage but taking no steps to find the desired foods himself. The narrative belongs to Madame, though the husband is still treated as the victim of her obsession. (Some things never change.)
The climax in the cabbage patch was, perhaps, inevitable but the childbirth is humorously handled with the frustrated husband pushing his wife into a cabbage patch, the baby popping out and the stomach instantly deflated. If only. (Jean Durand took the gag one step further in Onésime the Clockmaker when he portrayed an instant marriage, instant birth and instant growing up thanks to the wonders of meddling with time and space itself.)
This film has a simple, one-joke premise but I am not sure what else anyone expected of a picture lasting less than five minutes. As it is, it’s a cute and slightly naughty outing that does not wear out its welcome. I had fun and consider my five minutes to have been well-spent.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of the Gaumont Treasures box and on DVD and Bluray as part of Kino’s new Alice Guy collection. The Bluray includes an entire sub-section of Guy films dealing with pregnancy and gender, in case you wanted a deeper look at Guy’s works on the subject.
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