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A gay-themed Western seems as though it could only be a 21st-century creation. But 93 years prior to Brokeback Mountain (2005), a gay cowboy named Algernon Allmore was already pioneering that cultural frontier in Alice Guy-Blache's comedy short Algie, the Miner (1912).
Algernon (Billy Quirk) is an effete city boy who is required to go West and develop some virility before he can have the hand of his girlfriend in marriage. Technically, he is not a homosexual. This was 1912 and, even in the most forward-thinking film, some sexual orientations dared not speak their names. Instead, Algie's character is defined as gay through certain visual indicators of behavior and dress: his tendency to give cowboys kisses on the lips rather than slaps on the back, his bright and flamboyant Western wear, and a penchant for lace hankies and lip rouge.
In one of the film's more inventive uses of visual metaphor, Algie's masculinity is represented by the size of his firearm. When he first arrives out West, he packs a dainty silver pistol, but as he becomes acclimated to the rugged terrain, he begins packing a more butch six-shooter.
While Algie acquires the manliness required by his future father-in-law, a secondary character emerges as an unexpectedly compelling figure: Algie's bunkmate Big Jim. When Algie tearfully nurses Jim through a terrible case of the d.t.'s, we detect some depth in their camaraderie. After Algie valiantly saves Jim from armed bandits, the burly prospector forms a curious attachment to the transplanted Easterner. And when Algie announces his departure from the West, to return to his bride, Big Jim assumes a posture of childlike sadness. It appears that Jim, not Algie, is the more romantically inclined. That a film could develop a relationship so complex, poignant and utterly unconventional in a scant ten minutes is a testament to the talents of director Alice Guy-Blache.
Guy-Blache is generally regarded as the first woman filmmaker, directing a children's fantasy in 1896 entitled La Fee aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy). As Alice Guy, she worked for French producer Leon Gaumont, first as a secretary, then as a filmmaker and head of all film production. At the Gaumont Studios, she made more than 400 short films, before marrying Herbert Blache and moving to the United States in 1907. London-born Blache was in charge of Gaumont's satellite offices in Germany and Great Britain. The Blaches founded the Solax Film Company and Alice resumed prolific filmmaking, making an average of two films per week, even while raising her child born in 1909.
As is typical, few of Guy-Blache's 700+ films survive today. Hundreds were directed anonymously, making it even more difficult to trace her career as a filmmaker. Those films that do exist reveal her to have been an astute observer of the human condition and a progressive thinker on a wide range of topics. Making an American Citizen (1912) depicts the struggles of an immigrant couple as they shed their old world habits and become woven into the tapestry of the U.S.
In conceiving the story of Algernon Allmore (the film has no credited writer, so we can fairly credit Blache with at least partial authorship), the director was probably influenced by the stories of Bret Harte. Greatly influenced by Charles Dickens, Harte wrote tales of rugged Westerners, and the stories were uncommonly tender -- often overlaid with shameless sentimentality. His short story "The Luck of Roaring Camp," for example, tells of a mining community's efforts to care for a foundling. Years later, John Ford and John Wayne would film a variation on the tale entitled 3 Godfathers (1948).
The triumph of Algie, the Miner is not that Guy-Blache made a Western with an evidently gay protagonist. Her true achievement was that she managed to tell this tale with broad comedy, without insulting its central character. Even more astounding, she wove into this cartoonish story strands of heartfelt emotional yearning that continue to resonate almost a century later.
Director: Alice Guy-Blach
Music by Marcus Sjwall (2007)
Cast: Billy Quirk (Algernon Allmore).
by Bret Wood