Serial star Mary Fuller
Another film celebrating its 100th birthday this year is one of the two extant episodes of American film serial Dolly of the Dailies: Episode 5, The Chinese Fan. The serial stars Mary Fuller as Dolly Desmond, lady reporter extraordinaire. Mary Fuller was well-known to audiences at the time from her previous film work with Vitagraph and Edison – periodicals of the time list her name in advertisements for ‘Popular Photoplayers’. However, her place in history is most secured by her work in serials: Fuller was, in fact, central to the inauguration of the movie serial. Prior to Dolly of the Dailies, she starred in the first film serial produced in the United States, What Happened to Mary (1912; 12 episodes), as well as its sequel Who Will Marry Mary? (1913; 6 episodes). As we all know, female-led serials, especially adventure stories, were huge in America in the mid-teens (as well as being produced in other countries, e.g. Astrea in Italy, Protéa in France, Panopta in Denmark; a post on Dane Emilie Sannom is forthcoming). In addition to acting, Fuller authored a number of screenplays.
What Happened to Mary was serialized in print concurrent to its release in theatres. I came across this commentary in Moving Picture World of 24 August 1912, which discussed how the character of Mary was represented in the film versus in illustration:
The first attempt of the screen and the magazine page to join forces resulted certainly not the disadvantage of the former. Edison’s production of “What Happened to Mary” in conjunction with a serial running in the Ladies’ World seemed certainly to be a more interesting piece of work than the dead page. Mary Fuller has the leading role, and she adds to her laurels. The cover of the magazine has a picture of “Mary” drawn by C. D. Gibson. Far be it from a humble picture scribe to attempt to criticize the work or the judgment of a master artist, but he is willing to wager a good smoke that many a full-grown man who looks on the pictured representation of the flesh-and-blood Mary—wholesome, normal, everyday womanhood—and then on the pictured ideal of the ethereal, goose-necked, ultra-aristocratic, over-bred, clossy creation of the artist will instinctively cast his ballot for Mary Fuller.
(I don’t know the word clossy; perhaps it’s a typo for ‘glossy’). Interesting to note the ideas on display here about American womanhood and appropriate feminine virtues: wholesome, healthy corporeality is favoured over a fussy waifishness that is itself associated with the nobility. But looking at the magazine cover in question, the author in MPW has a point about its accuracy: it doesn’t resemble Fuller closely at all, and the illustration is certainly quite idealized and far more delicate than she actually appeared.
The follow-up serial Who Will Marry Mary? only exists now in fragmentary form, so there’s no chance of appraising it except through media discourse and other textual records. The choice of title strikes me as telling; the title being ‘Who will marry Mary?’ rather than ‘Who will Mary marry?’ subtly casts her in the passive role. Moving Picture World of 09 August 1913 reviewed the first installment (A Proposal from the Duke) positively, tapping into the aspirational aspects of the film:
It is a very commendable offering as entertainment to the public. Most of us can imagine, or have a pipe dream of inheriting unexpectedly a great fortune and find it a pleasant relaxation. It is just as delightful to watch Mary (we put ourselves in her place) enjoying her new riches, her country house, friends and all that goes with good fortune. […] At present, there are many suitors for Mary’s attention. One of them, a duke, is effectively disposed of and we think that most spectators will be making their choice of favourite bridegroom in Capt. Bradford.
Really, it almost sounds like a 1910s version of the dating shows that have been so popular in the last decade (though fictional, of course).
Dolly of the Dailies
But on to Dolly of the Dailies. The previous instalments of the serial had followed Dolly as she decided to defy her parents, move from her small hometown to Manhattan, and make a go of it in the newspaper business. She somewhat flounders at first, but by the time of The Chinese Fan has become a fully-fledged reporter at the otherwise all-male newspaper The Comet. At the opening of this episode, Dolly has been given the assignment of reviewing a play in Chinatown. Gangs are operating in the area and they have even been known to kidnap nice white ladies, but she is intrepid and willing to take on the job:
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dolly causes quite a stir when she joins the audience.
And the brooch she had been given earlier on in the film turns out to be a triad symbol, drawing the attention of a gentleman in attendance.
Let me refer to an earlier intertitle talking about this very brooch:
As Scott Simmons describes in the essay in the DVD booklet, The Chinese Fan “is drawing from the recent scandalously popular ‘white slavery’ movies, detailing dangers to women who venture alone into cities, especially New York City”; Traffic in Souls (1913) is the most famous example. Here, that trope is blended with that of the exotic, criminal Oriental Other. So naturally, Dolly gets kidnapped by the gang and locked up.
But she’s not alone! In a stunning coincidence, Muriel Armstrong is also being kept there.
To quote Motion Picture World (April 04, 1914), “All fear of the Chinese vanished. Here was the scoop of the year. Fate helped her too, for the half-crazed opium fiend who was Muriel’s guard upset the lamp and set the place on fire”. That description comes straight from the film itself, by the way:
It’s important to realize just how much discrimination Asian people encountered in this time period. In face of the Chinese Exclusion Act (among many other pieces of legislation), Chinese-Americans were essentially second-class citizens, were prohibited from marrying people of other ethnicities, could not own land in many states, etc. Here in The Chinese Fan, Chinese-Americans are presented as drug-addicted criminals. How depressing. On the one hand, we have a story based around a resourceful, competent female lead. On the other hand, the film spreads racist and destructive ideas about Chinese-American society to the general public. One step forward and two back …
Dolly is a true cutthroat journalist, protecting their scoop by letting the fire spread to mask their escape. In another dubious ethical decision, rather than going to the police, she and Muriel go to the offices of The Comet, so that they can break the story.
While Dolly and her boss jump up and down with excitement, we get this great eye-roll moment from Muriel:
Muriel’s parents turn up the next morning, having read about her rescue in the newspaper. Dolly modestly declines the reward, and before Muriel leaves, the two women share a loving embrace as Muriel’s mother looks on approvingly.
Thus concludes Dolly’s adventure, and we end with the tantalizing intertitle:
Unfortunately, we must miss it; apart from The Chinese Fan, only episode 10 (Dolly Plays Detective) survives; this time at the British Film Institute. The Chinese Fan was only rediscovered in New Zealand in 2010, and preserved and released by the National Film Preservation Foundation of the US. The DVD release is well worth purchasing.
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The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies: Episode 5, “The Chinese Fan”. Dir. Walter Edwin. United States of America: Thomas A. Edison Inc., 1914. Available on the NFPF’s Treasures from New Zealand DVD.