by Douglas Messerli
Alice Guy Blaché (writer and director) His Double / 1912
Alice Guy Blaché (writer and director) Cousins of Sherlocko / 1913
Alice Guy Blaché (writer and director) What Happened to Officer Henderson (a. k. a. Officer Henderson) / 1913
In several of Alice Guy Blaché’s films she introduces issues of “doubling,” relating it to the process of dressing up in costume which often in her early works is represented by cross-dressing. Three of the most notable examples appear, I presume not by accident, in the early selections in Kino Pictures DVD collection, Alice Guy Blaché Volume 2: The Solax Years. The three films His Double (1912), Cousins of Sherlocko (1913), and Officer Henderson (1913)—the latter also titled in some instances, What Happened to Officer Henderson, the title I prefer because it opens it up to other, personal issues that might lay outside the story—help us to comprehend something that one almost say “haunts” many of her films.
The first of these, if we look back through the years since her early contributions, has become almost a standard trope of heterosexual film comedy. Grace (Blanche Cornwall) loves Jack (Darwin Karr), but Mr. Burleston, her father, is furious about his very presence in the house. He intends to marry her off to a foppish count who wears a ludicrous upturned moustache and spends hours a day preening himself in the mirror, mostly stoking his mustache into the upright position—almost as if it were another body appendage—and running his hands through his hair. Grace cannot stand the sight of him and immediately sends him packing.
Jack notices the Count as he exits the house and quickly returns to Grace once his rival has left with a splendid idea. He will dress up exactly as the count, win her hand, and marry her before her father discovers the truth. As the intertitles declare, “All’s fair in love and war.”
He immediately does transform himself into the lookalike count, truly becoming “his double,” and returns to Grace who is so irritated that the Count has returned to woo her that she violently slaps his face. Jack laughs at the mistake and the two are delighted to discover how successful he has managed to look just like their mutual enemy. Jack also has another idea, that Grace should dress up like spirit holding a gun.
Meanwhile, inexplicably, workers come to remove a cracked mirror in the living room, which will soon play an important role in the series of comic events.
When the Count returns, Jack stands behind the empty frame, and as Grace’s unpopular suitor peers into it to look himself over, Jack stands up to serve as the man’s reflection. Not nearly as funny, but certainly establishing the comic situation of the Marx Brothers’ routine in Duck Soup (1933), Jack imitates the motions of the Count, totally revealing their vanity and when his double turns briefly away quickly sticking out his tongue to mock him.
Greeting the Count, who leaves in one direction, Grace’s father is startled to see the man returning immediately after from the other room, commenting on the strangeness of the event, which leads the Count to wonder if his possible father-in-law is truly sane. When the Count moves off to the next room and encounters the ghostly Grace dressed in a shawl with a gun pointing at his head, he quickly jumps out the window falling into a bucket of water that Jack has placed there for precisely his exit.
The remaining Count (Jack) suddenly declares that Grace loves him and orders a minister to be brought to the house immediately so that they might be married. The delighted father calls for the minister who arrives and quickly marries the couple at the very same moment that the now dripping wet Count returns to face his double kissing his intended wife.
Jack tells his new father-in-law that you can’t blame any man who outwits another.
In her 1913 Cousins of Sherlocko Guy creates another situation of male doubling but ups the ante just a bit by doubling it in several other ways as well.
The police are on the trail of the dangerous highway robber Jim Spike (Fraunie Fraunholz)—formerly known as Jim Nail— the chief of the detective bureau putting two new detectives on the job of “nailing” the criminal before they come back that day.
Before they even begin to determine where the villain might be hiding they accidentally spot a young man, Edgar Carroll (also Fraunholz), who’s just been kicked out of his lover Jane Ellery’s (Sally Crute) house by a father outraged that the young man has been found sitting in his living room with his beloved daughter. Edgar, it’s obvious, looks precisely like Jim Spike, whose picture is pasted on the cover the daily newspaper that morning, and his father clearly confuses the innocent boy with the criminal the police are after.
Spotting him leaving the Ellery house, the sleuths deduce immediately that they have discovered their man, hitching a ride on the tail of the car that takes him away.
Recognizing his predicament, Edgar visits an old college friend, explaining to him the situation and seeking his help. With the man’s mother, the trio cook up a way to outsmart these pedestrian Sherlocks. Dressing up as women, they leave the house, catching the eyes of the amateur detectives and openly flirting with them as well as another detective—so he claims—who accidently comes upon the scene.
When the detectives finally get up the nerve to make their sexual move they discover the two smoking Havana stogies, immediately, in the affront to female behavior, arousing their suspicions. The two quickly escape; but when, soon after, Edgar’s wig falls from his head, the masqueraders are captured and taken to the police station, where Edgar is thrown in jail while his friend, amazingly enough, is still thought to be his girlfriend and is treated deferentially as a female.
Meanwhile, Jane has determined to solve
her lover’s problems by tracking down the real Jimmy Spike, which, without any
logic, she successfully does on a ferry presumably to Staten Island or Brooklyn
(“willing suspension of belief” is often necessary in these works). Pretending
to be attracted to him, she leads him on until she spots a local cop on his
beat and screams that she
In the last scene, Jane’s father arrives to declare his daughter missing at the same moment the policeman brings in Jimmy and Jane, who demand the police released Edgar. When their bring Edgar out of his cell still dressed partially in his female attire everyone is utterly astounded, since Jimmy and Edgar look like a perfect match. All laugh, but neither Edgar nor his friend bother to remove their clothing, and Edgar’s friend appears to be openly flirting with Jane’s father before the film sputters to its delicious end.
The 19th century American writer Edgar Allen Poe well knew that the “double” represented something important in the unconscious mind, indicating that if a single being and “another” just like him simultaneously existed, it might challenge the other’s normative behavior. As the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde makes clear, in the double of the self, the “other” is nearly always dangerous and queer in its opposition of the other.
In psychological terms it parallels, obviously, the experience of the LGBTQ individual, who in order to deal with society found it necessary to behave in a manner that was at odds with his or her own private feelings and emotions. Accordingly, the double was nearly always a villain or, at worst, someone who led the normative-behaving self into destructive behavior and death. Obviously, an even older version of the dangers of the double exists in the myth of Narcissus, the beautifully “real” being drawn into death by his own “dream” image of his own kind, the queer other.
The French, who loved Poe, quickly recognized the power of his numerous doubles and twins (“William Wilson” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” representing just two of Poe’s numerous examples of twins, doubles, and doppelgängers) and growing up in French culture Guy would have known of these myths and their inevitable relationship with queerness, expressed in her films in terms of shifting genders. The man who is a woman and the woman is a man was a natural extension of the costumed doubling of her more normative wholly heterosexual tales such as His Double. Officer Henderson along with Cupid and the Comet are perhaps her best expressions of the phenomenon.
Once more in this work we get not just a single set of “doubles,” but a combination of them that results in a comic situation that in some respects is not quite possible to resolve, as if, in fact, it might, as in the end of Cousins of Sherlocko, demand the players remain just a little bit longer in their other previously unknown existence.
The two quite readily embrace their new selves, even admiring one another in the costumes provided to them by a local clothier. And they are quite successful in their task.
Williams, pricing lace table coverings and veils, leaves his purse open a just a little, trapping a would-be pickpocket and quickly bringing him to a nearby street policeman for arrest.
Henderson drops in for lunch at the local café, two busybody women noting “her” presence, at first apparently approvingly. But when a nearby male customer begins flirting with “her,” and she flirts back, encouraging him to join her at her table, the lunching ladies are scandalized by both their behaviors. Henderson makes an appointment to meet would-be “masher” for the next day.
When they return to precinct quarters, the Captain tells them to take their dresses home so that can use them on their patrols the following day. Fortunately, so the intertitle seems to suggest, Henderson’s wife is away visiting her mother, so he has most of the next day to savor his new “existence” in full—without commentary or resistance.
He puts the dress and blouse into the closet and lays out the rest of the attire, the hat, the cape, the purse, etc., on the bed. Back in his male police attire he returns to the street to enjoy the rest of his day.
Meanwhile, Henderson’s wife misses her husband so terribly that she tells her mother that she is returning home early. Won’t that be a nice surprise! Her mother looks pleased about her daughter’s love.
She returns, of course, to discover a woman’s apparel strewn what to her seems everywhere around the house, and can only presume that her husband has been cavorting with another woman while she has been away. She even discovers a note in the purse saying that her husband plans to meet up with someone the next day at the café. Shocked, she packs up all of the stranger’s clothing and returns to her mother in tears, giving evidence of her husband’s indiscretions by opening the case and displaying the garments one by one.
Her mother suggests she return to Henderson dressed up in his secret lover’s outfit, providing the evidence he will have to confess to and explain.
Henderson, having returned home and found his dress and clothing missing has no choice but to show up on the street the next day in his regular uniform, meeting up with Williams to talk about the strange circumstance of his missing attire.
Hungry, Henderson’s wife decides to visit the café and keep her husband’s appointment with the hussy whose dress she now wears. Soon after she’s seated the masher notices her, stands, and goes over to her, immediately kissing her hand. Startled by the assault she slugs him, and continues to pummel him with her fists and purse. Three other policemen, having arranged to be there to watch Henderson in female attire do precisely that, peek through the window, howling at the deserved punishment of the transgressor. Their “man” has taught the masher a lesson he’ll never forgot.
Since Henderson can’t see her face given the long veil drooping down from her hat, he and Williams together the wild lady to police quarters where they begin to tell the story of her behavior to the Captain. Suddenly, however, she raises her head enough that Henderson recognizes her as his wife attired in his own costume. He laughs and begins the long explanation that Williams is not a woman but his male partner—Williams obliging by removing his hat and wig—and proceeds to explain away the whole confusion. But meanwhile Williams, still in female dress seems to be thoroughly enjoying a conversation with a fellow smiling policeman in the background. The two seem so very much engaged in a “touchy-feely” chat you might even suspect that they have just made a date.
Los Angeles, May 20, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).