Saturday, January 28, 2017

Season of Silents: The Chinese Fan (1914)

The Chinese Fan is the fifth episode from the serial, The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies from the Edison production company, and runs for fourteen minutes. The other episodes are currently lost, and this one can be seen on Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive, which also includes three reels from the first feature film credited to Alfred Hitchcock, The White Shadow.

The notes included on the DVD explain that there was an increasing popularity in serials featuring adventurous young women around 1913, many with alliterative titles: Perils of Pauline, Hazards of Helen, and Exploits of Elaine. The plucky heroine of this adventure is having adventures in a predominately male workplace. It may not be what you'd expect from the time period, which makes it fascinating to watch.

"A reporter is bound to come in contact with the seamy side of life. That is why Dolly has interesting adventures."

'Daddy, the office boy' hands 'A reporter' a Chinese fan he found in Chinatown. It's a miniature fan, and can't do much to cool him as he waves it around his face as he shows it to the reporter.

The reporter receives a call, and as the managing editor enters, he informs him that the bank president's daughter, Muriel Armstrong, has been kidnapped. The editor hands the copy to Daddy and leaves.

The next morning, Mrs. Armstrong is sobbing into her handkerchief and Mr. Armstrong hands her the newspaper with the article on her mysterious disappearance. It does nothing to comfort her as she renews her sobs.

Meanwhile, the managing editor of The Comet wants his men to do a write up on a new play being produced at the Chinese Theatre. Reporter, Dolly Desmond, enters and asks for the assignment. She works on her managing editor and he shows her a photo of the missing heiress. Dolly goes to see her editor at 6pm, and he hands her a card with Chinese characters written on it.

She shows it to Daddy, and he gives Dolly the Chinese fan. She goes to stick it in her lapel, but the reporter warns her that she shouldn't wear it, since it may be dangerous. She leaves it in her lapel nevertheless.

At the door of the Chinese Theatre, many men are entering, and when Dolly shows up, she is denied entry until she shows the card the editor gave to her. On stage, the performers are holding fans. Dolly finds a seat and is the only female in the room. The title card informs us that the fan is a badge of a secret society that "creates trouble between rival tongs."

One of the men in the audience sees the fan pinned to her lapel, and another says to see that she is captured. The man removes her pin and when another tries to get it away, a ruckus ensues. The men file out in one direction while Dolly takes an opposite path. As she walks by an open door, she is pulled inside, and a man locks her in a room. She pounds on the door, but is ignored.

Another woman is already in the room and she runs over and throws her arms around Dolly. Dolly comforts her and takes a good look at her and realizes it's Muriel Armstrong, the bank manager's daughter. She starts pounding on the door once again.

Daddy and Dolly's editor are watching the clock, as it's now past 11pm. The title card informs us that Dolly has aroused the "opium-crazed guardian," who was lying down behind a curtain in the same room where the women are being held captive. He grabs Dolly about the throat and she does likewise to him, as they struggle with each other.

During the struggle, the badass Dolly throws him down to the floor, knocking over the table and causing a lamp to break and catch fire. He gets up and grabs her once again, but she continues to wrestle with him. Again, she throws him down to the ground as the fire rages. Muriel gets a pillow to put the fire out, but Dolly has already realized that allowing the fire to burn may help them to escape without letting the police know, and takes it away from her.

The opium freak gets up again to ask for more punishment from Dolly. He lunges at her, but she holds her hand up to ward him off.  Out on the street, a police officer realizes there's a fire and his shouts alert the fire brigade to send out their teams of horses and fire extinguishing equipment.

It's heating up in the room where Dolly and Muriel embrace, and just as the curtains on the bedroom begin to ignite, the firefighter breaks in and releases them. They exit as he helps up the opium crazed fellow lying on the floor. Dolly and Muriel run down the snow lined street and Dolly brings her to the newspaper room, announcing that she's the only one who knows where Muriel's been.

The editor is thrilled and directs her to keep Muriel with her for the night and not let her family or anyone else know until the morning so they can get a scoop. Dolly excitedly agrees, though Muriel looks a little less than enthused about the plan. The editor calls in the boys and they rush in with notepads at the ready to take down her story. She grasps Dolly's hand and excitedly relates what transpired.

The next morning, the Armstrong's butler opens up the The Comet to read that Muriel has been found, courtesy of the "daring work of Dolly Desmond, of the Comet Staff." He shows it to Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong, who are delighted as Muriel bursts in, kissing them both, and Dolly stands proudly by as Mr. Armstrong asks about the story. He takes out his checkbook, but Dolly tells him she wants no reward and that it was her duty to help Muriel. She shakes hands with the happy parents, embraces Muriel, and departs.


I hope more Dolly of the Dailies adventures are found. She's pretty impressive for a lady of the early 1900s, who's working as the only female on a newspaper staff and holding her own against "the seamy side of life." How refreshing to see a woman not wring her hands and hope to be rescued, but to grapple with an adversary and save herself. It was likely that novelty that made these serials so popular.

It seems rather foolhardy that she would allow the fire to burn just so they could escape without having to call police, and she could get her scoop. That could have turned out very badly, but it does make for an exciting adventure. It's difficult to imagine in these times that a newspaper like The Comet would get away with allowing parents to learn through the papers that their missing child had been found.

The National Film Preservation Foundation, which published the DVD set this episode is on, is a great resource for learning more about the early years of film. You can see many interesting preserved films of the silent era at the site, and purchase DVD sets, which helps to fund more preservation projects. The films on the sets I own have quality video and really nice musical accompaniment, and come with booklets that provide excellent program notes. If you are interested in early years of film and seeing history through film, it's worth checking out.

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