Obscure Films: “The Yellow Girl” (1916), A Stripy Edwardian Novelty

Recently I spotted this well-illustrated 1917 article from Motion Picture called “Something New in Pictures.” The “Something New” was a short Vitagraph film called The Yellow Girl (no, it’s not about what you think it is), and the image below was the first of a series of large stills showing off an unusual production design. I love the stripes and checks you see in the louder Edwardian fashions and regular readers know I’m also fascinated by German Expressionism, so a novelty film hovering in the intriguing zone between “edgy style” and “avant-garde” grabbed my attention right away.

Quite an eye-catching use of motifs, no?

Out-there modern designs could be found in artsy stage productions, but this strikes me as trying to be a very cinematic type of avant-garde. The article writer (the uniquely-named Mosgrove Colwell) recognizes this: “The decorator has found an opening for a wide field on the screen. Only, instead of working on flat surfaces, he works with men and women. His range is limited by the camera to black and white, but he suggests riots of color in his adroit designs. Thru his scenes runs a motive, a recurring note, as in a musical score.”

A bit more from the article: “There is something of the Futurist school in the effects of the pictures — their sharp contrast of black and white; the use of simplest decorative schemes in such a way that novel beauty is obtained; the conventionalized design running thru the whole; and the weird, fantastic trees and bushes made to grow in parks and fields never seen outside of fairy books.”

“Futurism” is a pretty well-defined term today, but I wonder if it was more of a catch-all term for modern art back then. A lot of Futurist paintings looked like this…

…While The Yellow Girl‘s art design evokes something more like the Art Nouveau influencer Aubrey Beardsley–who Mosgrove does mention later in the article: “The park is near, but such a park!—tall, slender, writhing trees which thrust their bare branches hopelessly against an ebon sky; bushes no landscape artist ever planted, which remind one of the things Aubrey Beardsley used to draw.”

Getting back to our loud-patterned topic, The Yellow Girl was a 10-minute experimental comedy designed and directed by Edgar M. Keller, a talented artist who specialized in creating sheet music cover art (in an era where sheet music was churned out by the ton, this was a good gig). He was also an actor from about 1912 to 1926, and from what I could discern The Yellow Girl was the only film he directed. It must not have made much of a splash, perhaps because it looked too “out there,” or maybe because the plot is pretty basic (granted, it was a one-reeler):

W. Allston Black, an artist of the futuristic school, goes to a performance of “The Yellow Girl” hoping to be bitten by the inspirational germ. The classic lines of “The Yellow Girl” give him an idea and he succeeds in making an appointment to paint her portrait. Allston’s fiancée, seeing “The Yellow Girl” enter the studio, thinks he is untrue to her and determines to make sure. While Allston is busy on his painting, she hides behind a screen where she can see and hear all that takes place. She hears enough to convince her that Allston really loves her and feels sorry that she should have suspected him. Allston tells “The Yellow Girl” that he is getting married as soon as he can get enough money, and as she leaves she helps him toward his goal by handing over a large advance check for the portrait.

Moving Picture World

The advertising campaign hopefully touted its fanciful designs:

Motography shared a decent review (I made the following clipping by stitching the photo and text together, by the way):

Motion Picture Magazine picked up on the Beardsley inspiration too:

Regardless of how successful it might’ve been at the time, I’m pleased to file The Yellow Girl away as another example of a topic that fascinates me: early filmmakers’ experimental, uniquely cinematic styles of production design–specifically ones using the limitations of orthochromatic film to an advantage. I’ve often noticed, for instance, that Ernst Lubitsch’s silent films favor a strong contrast between black and white (I have yet to see anyone talk about this):

The Oyster Princess (1919).

His comedy The Doll (1919), by the way, uses fantasy imagery in a similar way to The Yellow Girl, especially in the early scenes:

German Expressionism is the most obvious example of artsy experimental design, but you have some Art Deco-ish forays too, like in the lavishly goofy L’Inhumaine (1924):

Obviously there’s a lot of outright avant-garde experimentation in ’20s films like Ballet Mecanique (1924):

And for a more casual example, there’s the cartoony design of the Sennett short Gymnasium Jim (1922):

Even something as seemingly random as the Musty Suffer series could play around with strong contrasts and stylized touches:

As a closer for this piece, I’d say that stripes simply never looked better than they did on orthochromatic film!

…And Fay Tincher is usually exhibit A.

p.s. At first I assumed The Yellow Girl was a lost film, but according to Silent Era a 35mm print does exist at the George Eastman Museum archive.

13 thoughts on “Obscure Films: “The Yellow Girl” (1916), A Stripy Edwardian Novelty

  1. I love it!! 😀 Thank you for the riot of wonderful images—and for the perceptive observations and comparisons. I dig this stuff heavily. You should write a book on it. 😉

    Exhibit A Fay’s getup calls to mind one Theda sports in A Fool There Was. And Fannie Ward in The Cheat has a strong outbreak of stripiness going on, too.

    “p.s. At first I assumed The Yellow Girl was a lost film, but according to Silent Era a 35mm print does exist at the George Eastman Museum archive.” Oh man. Does this one ever need rescuing and making available. I’d chip some money in on that! 🙂

    • A picture of Theda in her striped dress almost made it into this article! I’d like to do another piece on the Edwardian stripes trend in general, so it’ll pop up there for sure!

      I agree this would be a cool one to see, it was certainly very unique! A 35mm print sounds promising, too.

      Hmm, a book about experimental silent film aesthetics–that would be a fun challenge!

  2. Fascinating post on this article! Those flat background designs in some of the stills made me think of the silhouettes in The Adventures of Prince Achmed. That same kind of stark, severe flatness of shape and line also appears in fashion magazine covers, such as Vogue from the 1910s-20s; perhaps it was a trend? So interesting how you picked out the black-white contrasts in other silent films. There’s still so much to explore in the silent film landscape. I hope you get a chance to view the movie at the archive and then report back on it!

    • Prince Achmed is a GREAT comparison, thanks for that! There did seem to be a lot of stark shapes and lines, sometimes juxtaposed with more realistic figures, like you see in some lobby cards. A collage effect, in a sense. And you see that in a lot of Soviet poster design too, come to think of it.

  3. Beautiful film. Not enough work done in this area. Thank you. If i wasnt hooked already, musty suffer AND beer made this a memorable article. Great job.

  4. I breezed through the article, primarily looking at the photos (love). But your writing in so well researched that I’ll be returning to read it in full when I can give it my full attention.

  5. My take on this neat film is that Keller decided to use the new medium of film as his canvas. He essentially created a moving picture painting.

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