Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Al Christie | Making a Man of Her

please sir, i want some more

by Douglas Messerli

Al Christie (screenwriter and director) Making a Man of Her / 1912

Canadian-born US director Al Christie’s 1912 10-minute silent film Making a Man of Her, although in many respects simply another crossdressing comedy, seems to also imply that economics and social conventions can also work to alter the existence of a beautiful young woman played by Louise Glaum, who arriving at the employee office discovers that the job that might be perfect her, a cook on a ranch, is demanding a male only. We get some evidence of the problem behind the decision to seek out only a male employee; it appears that the ranch has now had 4 cooks, all of them women, who have married some of the ranch workers or other local hired hands and left the hungry ranch men without their most necessary resource.

      Faced with unemployment the girl begins her slow walk home past a nearby streetside clothing salesman; suddenly to his surprise, she stops and requests a pair of masculine pants and coat along with boots made for a man. Although she doesn’t have enough to pay, the sympathetic purveyor takes what she can offer. At home she changes before returning to the employment office where she is quickly offered the job from which a newly arriving black woman, clearly an experienced worker, is turned away. In a seemingly racist-like gesture the now male transformation of Louise briefly mocks her competitor as she leaves.*

     Soon “he” in the ranch kitchen busily baking; his biscuits are evidently good enough that the foreman or ranch owner approvingly tastes one the minute they are removed from the oven.

     Later that afternoon the ranch matriarch and her visiting niece arrive at the ranch, and are told of the nice new young male cook who has been hired as the 5th cook. Getting a good look at him, they immediately leave their males companions, Donald, Jack, and Lem (Donald MacDonald, Lee Moran, and Eddie Lyons) to further check out the new kitchen employee and are quite pleased by what they see; but the momentarily distract him, and he accidentally cuts himself; as they apply bandages he falls back in a slight faint losing his cap, Louise’s long hair spilling out from underneath.

      She pleads with the girls not to reveal her truth, and they agree, ready to take her/him horse riding on the ranch. The young chef asks he might not also get a pair of cowboy chaps for the ride, and the men quickly provide him with a furry set which he tries on before pulling himself upon the horse and riding off.

      Upon encountering a rather larger gathering of ranch hands, however, he is treated rather abusively as the unproven newcomer. One pushes the young newcomer to the ground, and they demand he prove his worth by boxing the one who has picked on him.

      Terrified of the situation, the new cook tries his best to defend himself, but is quickly pummeled, the boy breaking away in fear. Some tell the boy to try harder, and the young would-be male stands up to the boxer yet again, finding himself immediately defeated before he hardly begun. He breaks down in tears and the women come rushing over to protect him, he finally revealing that he is a female.

    The men, given their sexist upbringing immediately are embarrassed by their male on male harassment, and are now absolutely delighted to realize that the fragile, perhaps in their minds weakling and effeminate young man, is really a beautiful woman. One of them, in fact, follows the group back to the ranch and once she has redressed in her simple white laced gown, spends the rest of the day courting her.

      Dinner is called and the rough ranch hands sit down to a long table, ruled over with a strong arm it appears, now by the black woman who was previously told she was unqualified. She serves up the chow while correcting their wild behavior like a mother finally in control of her motley crew.

      In several respects this rather delightful comedy of mistaken gender is similar to Ernst Lubitsch’s film I Don’t Want to Be a Man of six years later. But Lubitsch’s far more complex and serious film involves the young woman transformed into a gentleman attracting another man, not those of her own sex, which obviously takes the work into far more dangerous territory.

*It also appears that the “black woman” may be performed by a man in blackface, but I can find no proof of this.

Los Angeles, July 12, 2001

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2001).

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