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The Ocean Waif (as part of “The Ocean Waif plus 49-17″) (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

September 1, 2010 by  



KINO International celebrates the careers of filmmaking pioneer (and the first female director) Alice Guy-Blaché  with her 1916 film “The Ocean Waif” and director Ruth Ann Baldwin with her 1917 film “49-17”).  Unfortunately, the surviving print of “The Ocean Waif” has a good amount of nitrate damage and many missing scenes from the film but you can still follow and enjoy the film from beginning to end.

Images courtesy of ©  2008 Kino International Corp. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Ocean Waif (as part of “The Ocean Waif plus 49-17”)

YEAR OF FILM: 1916

DURATION: 41 minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Color Tinted

RATED: Not Rated

COMPANY: KINO International

Released Dated: 2008

Directed by Alice Guy

Story by Frederick Chapin

Produced by Herbert Blache

Cinematography by John G. Haas

Starring:

Carlyle Blackwell as Ronald Roberts

Doris Kenyon as Millie Jessup, The Ocean Waif

Edgar Norton as Hawkins the Valet

Fraunie Fraunholz as Sem

William Morris as Hy Jessup, Millie’s Foster Father

August Burmeister as Ruth’s Mother

Lyn Donelson as Ruth Hart

The mid-1910s was a virtual golden age for women directors, with over a dozen women working behind the camera. Alice Guy-Blaché was coming to the end of her 20+ years as a film pioneer while Ruth Ann Baldwin was at the beginning of her all-too-brief career as writer/director. THE OCEAN WAIF and 49-17 are both feminist parodies hidden under a veneer of propriety, featuring “pure young women” who are menaced by evil men and saved by good ones.

Alice Guy-Blaché (French, 1873-1968), the world’s first woman film director, made films for Gaumont in Paris (1896-1907), then had her own studio, the Solax Company, in Fort Lee, New Jersey (1910-1914). After Solax ceased production, she became a director for hire and went to work for The International Film Service, owned by William Randolph Hearst. The plot of THE OCEAN WAIF adheres closely to the Hearst agenda: a romantic story, plenty of pathos but no brutality, a likable hero and an innocent young woman, and a suspenseful plot with a dramatic and happy ending (“the Mary Pickford school of narrative”). Guy-Blaché‘s parody of the Pygmalion-type love story gives equal screen time to each lover’s point of view, but also skewers conventional class tropes. Doris Kenyon stars in the title role of an abused young woman who finds safety and eventually love in the arms of a famous novelist.

Ruth Ann Baldwin was a journalist who joined Universal as a screenwriter in 1913. She wrote for the serial The Black Box in 1915, did a stint as an editor, and was tapped by the studio to direct. 49-17 is a charming and suspenseful western parody about a millionaire who hires a Wild West theatrical troupe to relive his past as a miner forty niner. Every sacred western cow is turned on its ear: the patriarchal representative of the law, the Young Man, the Gambler, the saloon brawl, and the Woman. Jean Hersholt gives a powerful performance early in his notable career as the taciturn desperado. Despite the success of 49-17, Baldwin’s career as director was over by 1920.

For any film historian or anyone interested in the earlier years of filmmaking, the name Alice Guy-Blaché is well-known because not only was she the first female film director, she was also one of the first directors of fiction film and a French pioneer filmmaker known for her work at the Gaumont Film Company (the oldest film company in the world) and for creating the Solax Company, the largest film company via pre-Hollywood and like most film studios at the time, were located in Fort Lee, New Jersey (the original film capital in the U.S.).

While Alice Guy-Blaché had begun making short films in the 1890’s, she began making films in America through her company (formed with her then husband Herbert Blaché) and together they made several films until the film industry relocated to the much cheaper city Hollywood, California.  The last film that Solax Company produced was the 1916 film “The Ocean Waif” starring actor Carlyle Blackwell and actress Doris Kenyon.

As part of KINO’s tribute to celebrate the “First Ladies – Early Women Filmmakers), KINO International has released “The Ocean Waif” along with the 1917 silent film “49-17” (written and directed by Ruth Ann Baldwin).

The film revolves around a woman named Millie Jessup (played by Doris Kenyon), she was found on the ocean as a baby and raised by Hy Jessup (played by William Morris) and has been her foster father.  Unfortunately, Hy has abused Millie and a her friend Sem (played by Fraunie Fraunholz) who has liked her, ends up defending her one day as she was about to receive a beating from Hy.

Millie ends up escaping and going to an old home that has not been occupied for years and in the home, she seeks shelter.

Meanwhile, writer Ronald Roberts (played by Carlyle Blackwell) and his valet, Hawkins (played by Edgar Norton) has gotten the permission to stay at the home, so he can focus writing on his book.  But while staying at the home, Hawkins hears stories that the home is haunted by a female ghost.

As strange things start happening in the home, Hawkins blames it on the ghost, something which Ronald doesn’t believe in.  And sure enough, he finds a sleeping Millie in the attic.  He immediately starts teasing her but after learning of her situation of being an ocean waif escaping from her foster father, Ronald agrees to give her a temporary place to stay, while she help him with details for writing a book that revolves around an “ocean waif”.

And through their time together, the two start to fall for each other.  But with Ronald’s fiance Ruth and her mother planning to visit Ronald at the house, Millie is distraught.  Should she stay with Ronald at the house?  Or go back to her abusive foster father?

VIDEO:

“The Ocean Waif” is presented in 1:33:1 and color-tinted. The good news is that this film was released on DVD and giving silent film fans to experience the feature film work of Alice Guy-Blaché, the bad news is that there was only one surviving print of this film and because of damage to the film due to the combustible nitrate (films were shot on nitrate back then and one of the reasons why nearly 90% of the silent films are lost today is because nitrate catches fire and many were destroyed in fires due to the nitrate combusting).

Parts of the film suffer major nitrate damage and many key scenes are considered lost forever.  It is not known how long this film is supposed to be.  The film is about 41 minutes on DVD but there are key parts of the story that are lost and I would not be surprised if this film was 90 minutes long and we are missing close to 35-45 minutes of actual story.  The good news is you can follow the story from beginning to end, it’s just that with so much footage lost, unfortunately those who enjoyed this film will not be able to watch it, the way Alice Guy-Blaché  had originally intended it to be.

AUDIO & INTERTITLES:

“The Ocean Waif” features music by well-known silent film pianist Frederick Chapin. There are a few intertitles throughout the film but the storyline is self-explanatory.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

There are no special features included in the “The Ocean Waif plus 49-17” DVD.

As a silent film fan, one of the most satisfying aspect is discovering films during the earlier years of filmmaking and finding quality silent films with a well-conceived story, or a story with a great performance by its talent or a well-known filmmaker that went on to bigger things and continued to make films from the ’20s-’60s.

But as a silent film fan, one of the heartbreaking parts of being a fan is knowing that the majority of silent films are lost or destroyed by improper storage or handling.  A lot of these films were created for entertainment and not expected to be seen again and thus were kept in vaults.  Unfortunately, with silent films being shot in nitrate, a lot of that film has decomposed or have caught on fire and were destroyed (and destroyed many other films in the process – ie. the Fox Studio Fire of 1937, in which more than 90% of FOX’s silent films were destroyed).

So, when it comes to being a silent film fan, you take what you can get and you just hope that the film is complete or does not have significant damage.

With the works of Alice Guy-Blaché , the fact that her earlier films from 1896 through the teens are being released on DVD is fantastic and in this case, “The Ocean Waif” is a hilarious film featuring a wonderful performance by Doris Kenyon and Carlyle Blackwell.   The story made me laugh and I will say that I really enjoyed this film but at the same time, it’s bittersweet because possibly a half hour or more is lost.  Yes, you can watch the film from beginning to end but its that final third arc, there are major scenes missing and thus, we have to read intertitles to know what happened and then we are taken to the final scenes of the film and it’s the end.

So, it all comes down to you as a viewer.  Can you watch a romantic comedy film like “The Ocean Waif” that is missing a large chunk of its film?  The answer is yes, but think of it as watching an abridged version of the actual film.  A lot of important details of what happens at the end is lost but you take it for what is and enjoy.  Once again, I enjoyed the film, I was getting into the film but I have to admit that it is bittersweet to enjoy a film so much, yet knowing that there is much more to the story that is lost (possibly forever).

So, I felt that it was great that KINO International did include a second film “49-17” to this DVD release and thus, giving the incentive for silent film fans to purchase this DVD.   There are no special features but the fact that you do get two films, is pretty cool.

“The Ocean Waif” is a film that I found actress Doris Kenyon to be absolutely dashing.  A beautiful actress who went on to have a successful career in the ’30s and back again the ’60s, I wish that I could see that final scene between her and Sem.  Her comedy was hilarious and her chemistry with actor Carlyle Blackwell looked great onscreen.   But it’s those important scenes that we don’t get and unfortunately, there is no more surviving print and all we can hope is that someone in the US or another country has an uncut version of this film stored inside a vault and have not had any major form of damage.  We do get intertitles explaining what we missed in a few scenes that were integral to the story but no video is available.  And for some silent film fans, this is how things are, while some may feel cheated.

So, I think it’s great that Kino International did include Ruth Ann Baldwin’s “49-17” along with “The Ocean Waif” on DVD.

Overall, “The Ocean Waif” was an enjoyable film and it makes me happy to watch another Alice Guy-Blaché  film and to see another one of her most impressive works on DVD.  Definitely a DVD worthy of having in your silent film collection  and a film worth watching!

NOTE: The rating below is for the film and not the complete DVD.

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