The Ocean Waif (1916)

Film Review

THE OCEAN WAIF

Release Date: 2 November 1916

Studio: Solax Film Company

Director: Alice Guy-Blaché

Starring: Carlyle Blackwell, Doris Kenyon, William Morse, Edgar Norton, Fraunie Frauholz, Lyn Donaldson

Writer: Frederick Chapin

Cinematography: John G. Haas

Synopsis

Millie Jessop (Kenyon), returned from wandering in the woods, is berated by her stepfather, Hy Jessop (Morse). Jessop does not like the dinner Millie serves and starts to beat her. Sem (Frauholz), the handicapped neighbor boy who loves Millie, intervenes, and Millie runs away, vowing never to return. Millie, despite her fear of the mice scurrying about, hides in a large, recently deserted house.

Ronald Roberts (Blackwell), a novelist looking for a secluded spot in which to write, takes the house, not knowing that Millie is living in it. Ronald’s valet, Hawkins (Norton), who has been told the house is haunted by a young woman, is fearful of meeting the ghost, but Ronald laughs at his fears.

Millie takes food from the kitchen without being seen. During the night, Ronald hears her movements and investigates. He is surprised to find a young woman; she tells him that she is hiding from a brutal stepfather. Ronald shelters Millie in the house. Millie finds a dress and petticoat in her room, dresses in them, and styles her hair. Ronald notices how pretty she is.

Millie tells her story to Ronald. As a young child, she had washed ashore from a sunken ship, and Hy adopted her. Ronald immediately decides that the story of the “ocean waif” will be a perfect plot for his new novel. He sits up most of the night writing.

Despite his engagement to a beautiful young woman, Ronald is attracted to lovable Millie. Of course, she is in love with him. Ronald is expecting a visit from his fiancee, and on the day Ruth (Donaldson) and her mother arrive, Ronald, who cannot stop himself, is kissing Millie. Ruth sees them. Ronald tries to explain, but Ruth is angry. Millie, realizing that she is the cause of Ruth’s anger, returns to her stepfather’s shack.

Ronald admits that he loves Millie. Ruth decides to leave, announcing that she is engaged to the rather silly Count who has been accompanying them and flirting with Ruth’s mother. The mother is understandably piqued at this announcement.

Ronald, not knowing that Millie has gone back to Sy’s house, decides to go hunting and buys some bullets. Sem is also buying bullets. Ronald, walking through the fields, shoots at some game animals.

At his shack, Hy realizes that Millie is a pretty young woman and not his own child. He decides to marry her. Hy seizes Millie and attempts to kiss and fondle her; she fights him. Sem, looking through the window, shoots Hy and then runs away. Ronald arrives about this time. As he checks the condition of Hy, some local men enter and assume that Ronald, who is carrying his gun, has shot Hy. He is arrested.

Ronald is being tried for murder. Millie tells Sem how much she loves him and how frightened she is that he will be convicted. Sem gives Millie a confession to take to the sheriff. Ronald is released. Sem kills himself.

Ronald and Millie look forward to their happiness.

Discussion

Basically a romance, the film’s rudimentary plot relates a series of improbable events that culminate in the expected union of the lovers. The characters: roguish, innocent girl, noble handsome novelist, easily frightened valet, handicapped neighbor boy, and brute of a stepfather, are well-known stereotypes of the time. Kenyon, the central character, does the best acting. She effectively, without excessive emoting, conveys a range of powerful emotions. Co-star Blackwell radiates charm and good spirits but is less effective at projecting varying emotions.

The contemporary reviewers in Moving Picture World and Motography praised the actors, especially Kenyon, and the general entertainment value of the picture. Both reviewers also noted the familiarity of the story elements, i.e. the orphaned child raised by a drunken fisherman and the hero accused of a killing he did not commit; the basic plot and characters had been used frequently on stage and screen.

Neither reviewer names the director, but Kennedy notes that the "direction is not of such character as would realize the best that the material offered." The film was not commercially successful.

The film might be only of minor interest except for the fact that it was produced and directed by one of the first female filmmakers, Alice Guy-Blaché. The Ocean Waif is one of only three of her more than forty feature films known to survive.

At the time The Ocean Waif was filmed, Guy-Blaché and her husband, Herbert Blaché, had their own studio and carried on independent production. Their films were distributed on an individual basis by several different film distributors that handled independently made product. Guy-Blaché made The Ocean Waif for International Film Service, a distribution company owned by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. The romantic story with a dramatic and happy ending was the type of film favored by the distributor.

Alice Guy-Blaché was probably the first woman director in Europe or America. Her career began in 1896 for the French film company, Gaumont Chronophone. In France, she directed, produced or supervised hundreds of mostly one-reel silent films and another 150 synchronized sound films. Her most ambitious Gaumont project was La Vie du Crist (1906) filmed in 25 scenes.

She married Herbert Blaché in 1907, and the couple moved to New York where Herbert Blaché was sent to manage the American subsidiary of the Gaumont Studio. In 1910, Alice Guy-Blaché started her own production company, Solax. She made her fiims at the Gaumont Studio, producing and directing one or two one-reel films a week.

In 1912, Guy-Blaché built a studio for Solax in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many other film studios were also located. At this location, the studio produced three one-reel films a week, Guy-Blaché wrote and directed at least half of these films. The Solax films were distributed through Gaumont until the French company left the US at the beginning of World War I.

After 1913, Guy-Blaché moved to feature film (5 reels or more) production. For several years, she gave up independent production and made films in the Solax studio for the production company, Popular Plays and Players. In 1916, Guy-Blaché, returning to independent production, made 7 films, including The Ocean Waif, or her own company, The U. S. Amusement Corporation. These films were distributed by a variety of distribution companies. The Ocean Waif was distributed by the International Film Service, owned by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. In 1917, she made four films with a young actress named Catherine Calvert; these films flopped at the box office. In fact, many of Guy-Blaché’s feature films had not been commercially successful.

In 1918, Guy-Blaché directed The Great Adventure, a comedy, that had good box office returns. However, her filmmaking career was nearly finished. In early 1919, she made her last film, Tarnished Reputations, for the independent production company Perret Pictures.

In mid-1919, she followed her husband to Hollywood where she assisted him in a couple of films, but mostly she was without work. By 1922, Guy-Blaché's marriage had collapsed, and she returned to France with her children. Guy-Blaché attempted, but failed, to find work in the French film industry. After 28 years of film making, her film career was over.

For the remainder of her life, Guy-Blaché lived with her daughter upon whom she was financially dependent. After World War II, living in Washington DC, she was writing her memoirs and compiling a filmography.

In her later years, Guy-Blaché was recognized in France for her pioneering work. Film historians, such as Jean Mitry and Victor Bachy, researched and wrote about her career. In 1955, she was awarded the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest nonmilitary honor. She was honored in a Cinémathèque française ceremony in 1957. In 1963, she was interviewed for the television show Hieroglyphes.

Guy-Blaché's memoirs, Autobiographe d’une Pionniere du Cinema (1873-1968), were published posthumously in 1976. The American version (in English translation) was published as The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché (1986).

Although only three of Guy-Blaché's feature films are known to survive, more than 130 of the short films she produced, directed, wrote, or supervised between 1896 and 1913 are extant.

Carlyle Blackwell was one of the first movie idols. He began with the Vitagraph Movie Company in 1910, and subsequently acted for Kalem Company and Jesse L. Lasky Pictures. Reputedly the first male star to earn a weekly salary in 4 figures, Blackwell is said to have made $2000.00 a week in 1914. His peak may have been in 1916 when his popularity was so high that his attendance at a reception in Madison Square Garden attracted a large gathering of mostly female fans inside and outside the venue. By 1920, Blackwell’s stardom had waned. He relocated to England where he starred in films through the 1920s. In 1930, with his own company, Carlyle Blackwell Productions, he produced, directed, and starred in his only two talkies and final films. Few of the over 300 short and feature films made by Blackwell are available for viewing.

References

The Ocean Waif. Review by Edward Weitzel. Moving Picture World. November 11, 1916

The Ocean Waif. Review by Thomas C. Kennedy. Motography. November 18, 1916

Carlyle Blackwell, Idol of Silent Films Who Appeared in 300 Movies, Dies at 71. New York Times. June 18, 1955

Alice Guy Blaché Cinema Pioneer. Edited by Joan Simon. Yale University Press. 2009

Alice Guy-Blaché. By Alison McMahan, in Women Film Pioneers Project. Columbia University Libraries. 2013