Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sidney Drew | A Florida Enchantment

the seed

Marguerite Bertsch and Eugene Mullin (writers, based on the novel and play by Fergus Redmond and Archibald Clavering Gunter), Sidney Drew (director) A Florida Enchantment  / 1914

Perhaps one of the strangest of silent, pre-code films ever made, Sidney Drew’s 1914 film, A Florida Enchantment combines a series of mind-bending sexual transformations as first a young wealthy woman, Lillian Travers (Edith Storey)—about to marry her young male lover Fred (played by the director)—inexplicably swallows a seed which has apparently been sent to her by mail.
     Almost immediately Lillian is transformed into a lesbian, showing utterly no interest in her fiancée at an evening ball, and dancing off instead with a young woman who attracts her.
      Strangely, these women’s male partners also join up for a dance, only to be broken up by a man who appears to be the ball’s host.
      Lillian soon changes her name to Lawrence and begins dressing, assisted by a man in blackface—also appearing to be in drag—in male attire.
      Fred, it turns out is a doctor and is highly intrigued by Lillian/Lawrence’s sudden shift, in what today we might describe as a transgender alteration. He, aided by his own attendant in blackface, decides to test the “seed” as well and suddenly turns gay, kissing a friend of his before making the same transgender shift, soon after dressing-up in a woman’s gown, an act for which a local mob chases him as he drops into a nearby body of water.
     Whatever this “seed” possesses, it is suggested, enchants the recipients with the ability to immediately release whatever hidden sexual desires they might have long repressed, whether it be just gay or lesbian sexuality, bisexuality, or transgender affinities.
     In this short, we get no sense at all of the characters’ psychological makeup, no indication that they have or have not been long repressing their sexual lives. The “seed”—a clue that reveals it was perhaps something they were born with—is enough to trigger their radical shifts in gender identity. And, in that sense, Drew’s film says something far deeper than many later LGBTQ films say over the next several decades.

    Lawrence and his/her previous doctor friend Fred might as well have been consumed up in Cole Porter’s 1928 song “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” which suggests simply that sex is at the central issue in animal life. Only, Drew’s film goes even further, for a few seconds, suggesting that the seed implanted within us knows no bounds with regard to gender. “Falling in Love” has little to do with it; it’s simply a kind of primal drive that cannot be resisted.
     It would have been interesting if the film might have further explored this issue and attempted to explain its strange relationship to “pretend” black sexuality. Unfortunately, the film returns to the conventionality with which it begins, Lillian attempting to explain to her arriving prince, Fred, that she has just had a horrible dream.
     Nonetheless, that dream is important in what it reveals about her and his doubts about the marriage in which they are about to engage. Based on a novel and lost play by Fergus Redmond and Archibald Clavering Gunter, the latter of whom is known mostly for his popularizing of the terrible poem, “Casey at the Bat,” this work is a mischievous take on what any “one” sexuality may actually mean.
     Ultimately, we cannot feel easy with their reunification, after what we have just witnessed, and must doubt either Lillian’s or Fred’s sexual intentions. In this 63-minute work, the director has suddenly shaken up all of our standard notions of sexual behavior, forcing us to imagine what else might be available.
What has been “seeded” to each of us through birth? How might we be able to resist those forces?
Should we even desire to?

Los Angeles, January 14, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

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