Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The NFR Project #20: 'Lady Helen's Escapade'

'Lady Helen's Escapade' -- where is it?
Lady Helen’s Escapade
Dir: D.W. Griffith
8 min.

At last, an entry that allows me to say: what gives?

This film is very difficult to find; in fact, I can’t find it. Normally, I do pretty well with research. If by chance you know where and how I might watch it, please let me know! I am particularly happy to find out if I’ve overlooked some resource or research technique, so that I can get better at this.

I am able to find mentions via Mubi, and Roberta E. Pearson’s excellent “The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films,” and synopses via the usual encyclopedic resources. Even David Shepard’s expertly curated 2002 Kino compilation “D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts” does not include it.

It features the first “movie star,” Florence Lawrence AKA Florence Bridgwood. This is one of no fewer than 81 films that she shot that year. She was anonymous for most of that year, as Biograph, the studio she worked for, did not list players in the credits, as a rule. Neither did any of the other American studios. Why?

First, film was disreputable among stage actors, akin to a legit film actor using their real name in a porn movie today. Second, the producers were afraid that player identification would create a star system that would take money out of their pockets. They were right, but the Hollywood system introduced a branding concept when it came to players the audiences responded to, and everyone wound up making more money.

At the time, though, film production companies had a chokehold on the means, and manner, of production. Although fans wrote in asking who Lawrence was, the studio would not name her. Finally, when she and her husband, director Harry Solter, went to Essanay Company to try and get better pay, Essanay simply ratted them out to Biograph, which fired them.

Fortunately, Carl Laemmle, the feisty independent who started Universal, took them on, and started using Lawrence’s name in advertising. Sales skyrocketed, and soon all the studios were busy building and/or manufacturing stables of “stars.”

Florence Lawrence
The film’s plot description: “A bored Lady Helen goes slumming as a domestic in a boarding house. There she falls in love with a sensitive young musician. The other women in house are jealous, and accuse her of trying to steal the musician’s violin.”

All this in eight minutes? It really deserves a look. The Freudian implications of the violin alone make it worth watching. And this begs the question of why it’s not readily available. In an ideal world, all the films in the Registry would be collected, annotated coherently, and made available to all and sundry. However, there are immense problems with rights and licensing, to begin with; revenue streams still issue forth form the screening of many of these classics as well. That’s a task I wouldn’t envy anyone attempting.

But – these designations of significance are surely for a reason. What does it mean when we can’t grasp those cultural artifacts that we deem important? (Insert my generic rant on the lack of funding for cultural endeavors that would only interest a few folks.) Well, if we can spend all that money and time on missiles, celebrity freaks, and traffic-camera tickets, we can throw a few bucks and a little effort into the preservation and propagation of art as well.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Princess Nicotine: or, The Smoke Fairy.’

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