A spunky shop girl and a flirtatious rich boy fall in love but things take a turn for the worse when she discovers she is pregnant. His father is determined to break the young couple up and will use any means, fair or foul, to get his way. A polished Danish melodrama.
Home Media Availability: Stream on Stumfilm.
The Counter Proposal
Denmark’s film industry was at the height of its power and ability prior to the First World War and it produced everything from slapstick comedies to special effects extravaganzas to epics but it is probably most famous for its social films, particularly those covering human trafficking.
Director and producer August Blom directed The Girl Behind the Counter in 1911 and chose to address interclass romance and unwed motherhood, timely and popular film topics during this period. Its length also illustrates Denmark’s early commitment to longer films of three and four reels. The Girl Behind the Counter measures in at 980 meters or 3,215 feet, running about 50 minutes at a time when one or two reels of 1,000 feet were far more common in the United States and the idea of longer productions was being hotly debated.
The story would have been a familiar one to fans of romantic melodramas. When wealthy young Edgar (Thorkild Roose) spots Ellen (Ella la Cour), a glove shop sales girl, entering her workplace, he suddenly decides that he simply must have a new pair. She helps him try on a pair and he likes what he sees. The pair flirt, flirting becomes kissing, and they soon end up at Edgar’s flat. And then, well, a cinematic shared cigarette meant in 1911 what it means now.
Three months later, Ellen is in a medical office with a mysterious complaint. In a testament to the quality of Danish healthcare, she is seen by the doctor and diagnosed as pregnant in just twenty seconds of screentime.
Rich men don’t just marry glove shop clerks but Ellen goes to Edgar for help anyway. As it turns out, he is a standup guy and wants to make an honest woman of her. Despite her misgivings, he takes her to meet his mother. Mom (Clara Wieth) takes the news surprisingly well, considering that her son just walks in with a young lady she has never seen before, says they’re getting married and adds that it had better be sooner rather than later, if you catch his drift.
Edgar’s father (Carlo Wieth), on the other hand, is a heartless authoritarian. His son will absolutely not marry a shop girl. He sends his son to a family friend’s isolated estate and tries to pay off Ellen but she refuses to take any money.
Lily (Zanny Petersen) is delighted to see that Edgar is staying with her family at the middle-of-nowhere estate, she has a bit of a crush on him. However, he seems depressed and she quickly gets the story out of him. Since she likes him too much to be jealous, she encourages him to write to Ellen in care of the glove shop, the only contact information he has. Unfortunately, Edgar’s father has thought of everything and has arranged for letters sent to the glove shop to be intercepted.
With no reply from Ellen, Lily plans a daring escape for Edgar, persuading the family driver to take him to the train station, sneaking him out of the house and even helping him to carry his trunk to the carriage. Once he has returned to the city, Edgar quickly realizes what his father has done but with no way to contact Ellen, he has no further options.
Meanwhile, Ellen has given birth to their child but her health is precarious. Will the lovers find one another in time or is tragedy just around the corner?
Well, that was a journey and, I have to say, a tearjerker as well. I’m fine. Just something in my eye.
This particular plot was an international old hat well before The Girl Behind the Counter was made. Well-meaning, well-heeled young men did almost nothing else besides date shopgirls, artist’s models and street singers throughout the silent era. If it was a romantic comedy, the spunky young lady landed her wealthy beau after a few zany misunderstandings. If it was a drama, like this one, good intentions would never be enough and it was usually the woman who paid.
The 1909 Edison production, A Cup of Tea, and She, concerns a romance between a model and wealthy young man. The model is convinced by her lover’s mother to give him up and drives him away by intentionally behaving in an unseemly manner. Later, her beauty has faded and she has become a cleaner. She happens to clean her former lover’s flat, discovers that he still has pictures of her, but is not able to identify herself to him before he rushes out. (I am unaware of this film’s survival status. Do let me know if you have any information.)
Alice Guy’s God Disposes (1912) is particularly interesting because the plot setup is quite similar to The Girl Behind the Counter (he’s rich kid, she’s an actress, they fall in love, domineering father says no). Here, however, the marriage actually takes place, they have their baby and the small family lives in grinding poverty until they eventually reconcile with the chastened father after he sees a photo of his grandchild. After an attempted murder, of course. (It is a melodrama, after all.)
Spunky ingenuity wins the day in the 1908 film, Love Finds a Way. In that picture, a father uses his money as a cudgel to stop his son’s wedding but the son fakes his own kidnapping and uses the ransom to finance his marriage.
And, of course, the granddaddy of all American unwed mother melodramas, Way Down East, received an unauthorized Kalem adaptation in 1908. Critics of the time touted its excellent picturization of the plot and the sympathetic performances of the cast. (The unspoken rule when portraying unwed mothers seems to have been that either mother or child must die, both cannot survive to the final curtain. And so, Way Down East’s heroine loses her baby soon after birth, while Madame Butterfly’s gives hers up and then commits suicide.)
Even if there was no baby involved, early films still examined the trauma of interclass love—and interclass sexual assault. In The Peasants’ Lot (1908), a Russian production, the heroine takes a job in the city and is raped by her employer. Despite the caring support of her father, she is separated from her country lover. (The ending of the film is lost, so we do not know how the matter concluded but it’s safe to say that a tragedy was likely.)
So, as we see, variations of these stories were internationally popular, usually sympathetic to the unwed mother, discarded lower class lover, or victim of seduction or worse, and The Girl Behind the Counter would have been seen as part of a genre. However, audiences of the silent era were not as wrapped up in spoilers and plot twists as many viewers are today. In fact, plot novelty was often secondary to the pleasure of seeing how this cast and director handled the material.
On that score, August Blom and his ensemble acquit themselves well. Blom, of course, began his directing career with white slavery social films, so this was very much in his wheelhouse. His direction is simple and almost invisible but highly effective. There are no fireworks but everything is as it should be, which I suppose is actually more difficult to carry off. And he manages it all without title cards, the occasional letter filling in the narrative gaps.
The cast is similarly polished. The Girl Behind the Counter is a melodrama but the acting is restrained for the era. They don’t go about flailing their arms at the slightest bit of bad news and, in fact, manage to create a rather touching tragedy out of a threadbare story.
Zanny Petersen is particularly good as Lily. The Good Sport Suitable Love Match character is often a drag. Usually, their main role is to smile encouragingly while the man they love is watching and then have their face fall into a tragic expression when they are unobserved. Lots of gazing heavenward and being supportive but not much real action.
Lily definitely pines for Edgar but she’s also a standup gal who actively helps him out and pushes him to reunite with Ellen. (Spoiler) This works well for the story because the tearjerker ending closes with Edgar and Lily discovering Ellen after she has died. Lily offers to help Edgar care for the baby, so the final shot of the film is a Sadie Hawkins marriage proposal over the body of the film’s heroine. If Lily had not been established as likable and fast thinking, the scene could easily have come off as ghoulish. As it is, it comes off as abbreviated but forgivably so, given the film’s brief feature-length runtime.
The Girl Behind the Counter doesn’t say anything new but it is polished and the fine acting by the ensemble cast elevates it. It should be especially of interest to anyone who is following the development of feature-length motion pictures. August Blom’s pacing is as smooth as the rest of his direction and the film lacks the herky-jerky rhythm that plagued some early features.
All in all, a very fine example of a silent era social film made with a delicate touch. Well worth your time.
Where can I see it?
Stream for free courtesy of the Danish Film Institute.
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Ah, one of my favs despite it’s *ahem* questionable class politics.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you give the cast so much credit. They really do a great job of making the whole thing seem effortless and fun at times. I’ve found that the quality of Blom’s work is often very dependent on who was working with him.
A quick correction: the young lovers are played by Carlo and Clara Wieth (married irl at the time)! Ella la Cour and Thorkild Roose are Edgar’s parents!
Ah ha! Thank you!