by Marsha Landry
When viewing Robert Paul's Buy Your Own Cherries (1904) (i) there is perhaps a temptation to use the film as an example of how the conventions of cinematic story-telling have evolved and possibly improved in the years since, due to this earlier film's apparent narrative simplicity. Of course, this assertion is not entirely false, and it could be argued that the development of sound, for example, allows for a greater freedom of dramatic expression. However, this argument concerns the form in which the film's narrative themes are expressed, instead of their style of expression, their pertinence to the society of the period and how such themes (or particular theme) translate today. While the form for expression may have changed, what thematic elements remain, and how do they differ?
A brief synopsis of the film's plot isolates some of its key themes. A father mistreats his wife and children as a result of his own alcoholism. In realising the iniquity of his actions he seeks reform, which he achieves with a priest who helps him to sign the Pledge and adopt teetotalism. This action transforms the father and so improves his life and the lives of his family.
Some of the film's subjects are raised in this sparse account: domestic relations, alcoholism and the role of the church in personal reform. Weight is added to these issues with other details of the plot. The topic of class is introduced within the first scene of the film in the differing behaviours of the working-class father (signified by his rough appearance, cloth cap, bag of tools and pipe) and the upper-class gentleman (signified by smart dress, white gloves and cigarette) in the pub. The latter buys a basket of cherries and both he and the landlady share the enjoyment of them. However, when our protagonist attempts to partake in this enjoyment, the landlady produces a board with the price of the cherries on it and demands money for them - even though she herself did not purchase them. When the father pays (and we might contrast the difference between his scrambling around in various pockets for money and the ease with which the man of a higher class pays for the whole bunch as being symbolic of their social standing and wealth) the landlady immediately wipes the price from the board, as if it only applied to him. This establishes an injustice between the two customers and their classes, particularly an exploitation of the working class (and also encourage empathy for the father). The cherries become a symbol of the imbalance between the classes and the father responds by throwing his glass on the floor. When the other man appears to offer his assistance to the landlady, she prevents him by gently placing her hand on his arm and offering a knowing glance, a repeat their exchange when the father struggles to pay for the cherries. The complicity established between the landlady and her higher-class customer isolates the father and therefore reinforces a class divide. The connotation may be that the problems the father experiences are founded upon this inequality of class and, therefore, his alcoholism becomes a class issue.
As the father leaves the pub, he firstly shakes his fist at the landlady, and then raises it over his head in what seems to be a deliberately stylised, lingering way, to shake it at the heavens above. This gesture introduces a religious slant to the piece at a relatively early stage.
The next scene takes us to the father's home where his family is preparing for his return. His wife is arranging a paltry meal of bread and tea which, along with the characters' dress and the barren decor of the room, suggests the kind of poverty that the family live in, and our protagonist's failure as a father. His arrival prompts the children to hide under the table (we realise that his daughter's silent vigil at the window is through anticipation of a fearful rather than joyful kind). The following argument between mother and father revolves around the meal (the food becoming a symbol of a greater problem), and ends in violence as the father strikes his wife. She sits and weeps. The impression, possibly signified by the non-reaction of the other family members, is that her weeping does not simply stem from this one instant, but from an ongoing barrage of instances relating to the father's alcoholism. As her husband turns to leave, however, he catches sight of his children hiding under the table, walks back into the room, stoops, takes off his cap and lets it drop to the floor. This sequence of actions is subtly handled: the cap dropping to the floor becomes a sign of the father relinquishing his position of dreadful authority over his family, of humbling himself, and beginning to admit and overcome his destructive vice. The scene ends with husband embracing wife and the children joining to form an image of family love and solidarity. The image marks a change of direction in the narrative.
It is this scene particularly that connects the film's story to its origins as a magic lantern show from years earlier(ii). One magic lantern tale that bears a resemblance to Paul's film is A Drunkard Yet A Man(iii). The story fits with the mood of many magic lantern shows that aligned themselves with the temperance movement of the 1800's(iv). The final slide of a lantern show might often have carried a message such as 'Sign the Pledge Tonight'(v) or a warning against the dangers of drink. A Drunkard Yet A Man follows the same thematic structure as Buy Your Own Cherries and, significantly, much of the same sentiment. The central protagonist in both are aware of their culpability, but are victims, and look to the heavens for guidance. This is more literally presented in the lantern version as the father proclaims:
"O God! This drink will drive me mad,
I long to be set free;
Restore my wife - the pledge I'll try
To save a wreck like me." (vi)
Again, the lantern equivalent takes up the religious element more graphically when, as the father signs the pledge, an image of Christ appears to watch over him. (We might speculate, although no reference is given, that the image of Christ was able to literally 'appear from nowhere' in the slide as this was a popular, achievable trick of the lantern shows)(vii). The presence of the Christ-figure in the slide reinforces the theme of the father passing his fate over to God for redemption and the accompanying text complements this, informing us that "God's strength'ning hand was near."(viii) Where Paul doesn't have the benefit of this accompaniment to clarify the narrative, he creates a more naturalistic circumstance for his character's redemption. The father in Paul's rendition does not immediately turn to the church and he is initially uninterested when approached by the priest. His salvation takes place without the presence of Holy apparitions, instead amongst mounted embroideries that read 'JESUS ONLY,' 'ABIDE WITH ME,' and 'GOD IS LOVE.' The mise-en-scene of Paul's film is certainly similar in composition to a lantern show, and the close-up shot of the Pledge certificate is reminiscent of an inserted slide. However, that Paul is dealing with live-action rather than slides seems to have placed an emphasis on realism over the lantern's pictorial form, hence no heavenly aparition. There is a sense of subtlety in the film that is perhaps absent from its lantern cousin, and a further opportunity to expand elements of the narrative. The cherries become a symbol of the father's changing attitude and lifestyle, for example. This is manifested not only because he can now afford his own, but his manner of eating them (by holding them high above his head and dangling them into his mouth) rhymes with the manner of the upper-class gentleman in the first scene. The cherries become a symbol of his improvement as a father: he provides for his family whereas earlier he only unintentionally threw the bread to his children. After the character's spiritual redemption, the first part of the story is mirrored with the new, more positive dynamic: the cherries that he can now buy, his daughter's waiting at the window through affection rather than fear, the sumptuous meal awaiting him, the opulent decor of his home and so on. In both stories the effect of the spiritual emancipation is immediate and complete. The lives' of the characters seemingly change dramatically 'overnight.'
Perhaps the most famous character to suddenly and completely change after a spiritual experience is Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (ix). Scrooge's characteristics are entirely reversed as a result of his intercourse with the four spirits. We might use Scrooge's attitude to Bob Cratchit's time-keeping as an example of this(x). In the first 'half' of the story (if we are to consider the visit of the spirits as an extended episode dividing the opposing tones of two 'halves') Scrooge is outraged that Cratchit should be allowed to take Christmas Day as holiday. Yet when Cratchit arrives 'a full eighteen minutes and ahalf'(xi) late the next morning, Scrooge offers him a raise, exclaiming:
"A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires and buy another coal scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!" (xii)
Scrooge's attention to the warmth of the office at the conclusion of this speech marks his new vigour and contrasts with Dickens' earlier assertion that 'the cold within him froze his old features.' (xiii)Cold and heat become a symbol here of Scrooge's redemption just as the cherries mark the change in Paul's protagonist. Both characters' lives change direction completely and suddenly due to their spiritual experience.
That Scrooge's change is marked by proclamations of 'Merry Christmas' raises some possible religious connotations. The holiday marks the birth of Christ, and Scrooge's encounter with the spirits causes him to behave in a more 'Christian' or 'Christ-like' way. Thomas Hood raises this point when he comments 'How the...Worldly Wiseman was converted into a Christian must be unriddled by the book itself.'(xiv) To take the point further, that Tiny Tim does not die means that he is saved by Scrooge's generosity, or 'healed,' as Jesus healed the sick. This might align Scrooge with the Biblical figure and provide some of the story's religious undertone. Scrooge's spiritual encounter, therefore, can be paralleled with Paul's film and the lantern story. Some Victorian audiences certainly interpreted a religious tone, which is reflected in a few of the imitations published. Christmas Eve with the Spirits (1869)(xv), presents a kind of sequel to the Carol, Scrooge having taken Christ's charity as the model for his own life, causing a grown-up Tiny Tim to remark that "Most truly could it be said of him 'In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life,' for nobly had he redeemed his time." Paul Davis explains that 'Scrooge's canonisation tells us something of the Carol's impact for its later Victorian readers, even though its message was much more sublimated, more displaced, than the messages in these vulgar imitations.'(xvi) That audiences did adopt such an attitude to the book, despite its apparently secular status, relates precisely to the tone and mood of Buy Your Own Cherries and A Drunkard Yet A Man. Salvation, for an element of the Victorian audience, did not lie in any spiritual experience, but in that of a firmly religious nature.
Having isolated the theme of redemption through spiritual/divine intervention in Paul's film and placed it into the context of Victorian beliefs and values, we can begin to examine how this theme manifests itself in modern cinema. Harold Ramis' romantic comedy Groundhog Day(xvii) places its protagonist, Phil Connors, in the cycle of reliving the same day over and over again. Initially, it is perhaps unclear as to how Connors' predicament relates to the spirituality of the redemption in Paul's film of ninety years earlier. Yet, the opening sequences of Ramis' film provide an interpretable reason for Connor's entrapment. The film begins with the camera pointing upwards, to rolling clouds in a blue sky. This may indicate the transient nature of time as the clouds roll across in fast motion, a natural event that is corrupted in the film's narrative. It can, however, be related to other traditional connotations of clouds in the sky: of what lies beyond the clouds - in Heaven. This reading may connect what happens on earth, to Phil, with a higher force, a God controlling mortal destiny, as in the previous texts that have been discussed. This theme is reinforced with a proceeding shot that starts from very high above the city skyline and swoops down further and further until it reaches the car that Phil is travelling in. To connect Ramis' first shot with this one could suggest a Godly force swooping down and choosing Phil as a subject for reform, whose life needs to be changed - like Paul's drunkard. From this moment on, Phil's fate, like the protagonists of the previous texts, is 'out of his hands.' If it belongs to a God, as could be suggested by the film's opening shots, then his proceeding experience is undoubtedly spiritual in essence.
A further link with the religious tone of Paul's film is apparent when we consider what Phil has to achieve in order to escape his repeating purgatory. Superficially, he needs to win over Rita, his producer, but this, surely, is only a means to an end. (Although, interestingly, Phil refers to her as an 'angel.' in one scene). In order to achieve this, Phil has to adopt a better attitude towards others. On his final day of the loop, he spends almost all of his time helping people with what, to them, seem like minor miracles. In this way, to the residents of the small town unable to explain his deeds, Phil becomes a Christ-figure. His changing attitude to the same people as the film progresses, culminating in his day of miracles, is symptomatic of narrative details reversing after a spiritual experience, as with Cherries and Carol. Likewise, Phil's attitude to his alarm clock, as the object that begins his recurring existence, eventually changes and improves with his attitude to others, himself and waking up each day. The clock becomes a symbol of change like cherries in Paul's film. At one point in the film, Phil argues that he must be a God and that 'maybe God just does tricks.' Phil's actions are 'tricks' of a kind, but the trick changes, from revealing uncomfortable facts about others and driving cars off cliffs, to helping others without thanks (as he catches the boy from the tree) in what can be termed a 'Christian' way. Phil clearly is not a God in the film, a fact that is emphasised when, as he holds the dying old man he was trying to save, he looks to the Heavens, as if to acknowledge, remorsefully, that this event is beyond his control. In this way, Phil's actions parallel Christ, rather than God.
Buy Your Own Cherries and Groundhog Day both deal with the reformation of their protagonist, and reverse narrative details to illustrate this transformation. That the former deals with this theme in a perhaps more sublimated tone is not, however, due to Paul's lack of narrative subtlety as a film-maker or Ramis' success. Rather, by viewing Cherries against other texts of the time (or using it as a 'window' into other texts), we might assert that the overt religious tone of his film was socially and conventionally unproblematic. That Groundhog Day's religious tone is not as apparent may depict a shift of sorts in audience attitudes to religion on screen. Paul's narrative technique is not necessarily weaker than Ramis', and this point is rather futile to argue, neither is the latter conventionally unrecognisable from the former. Rather, it is the social context that changes around and influences film narratives and their handling. Buy Your Own Cherries and Groundhog Day stand together in terms of narrative theme, but differ in their expression of these themes due to their divergent social contexts.
British Film Institute Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers vol.1 British Film Institute, London, 1993
Davis, Paul The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990
Dickens, Charles A Christmas Carol Bradbury & Evans, London, 1858
Humphries, Stephen Victorian Britain Through The Magic Lantern Sidgwick & Jack Ltd., 1989
Ramis, Harold Groundhog Day Columbia Tristar Films, 1993
Shiman, Lillian Lewis Crusade Against Drink in Victorian England The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1988
Smith, L.M.H & Household, G.A (ed.) To Catch A Sunbeam Michael Joseph Ltd., London, 1979
(i) British Film Institute Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers vol. 1, British Film Institute, London 1993 (back)
(ii) See British Film Institute (back)
(iii) Smith, L.M.H & Household, G.A (ed.) To Catch a Sunbeam Michael Joseph Ltd., London, 1979, pp.48-51 (back)
(iv) Shiman, Lillian Lewis The Teetotal Lifeboat in Crusade Against Drink in Victorian England The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1988, pp.18-42 (back)
(v) Humphries, Stephen Victorian Britain Through The Magic Lantern Sidgwick & Jack Ltd., 1989, p.51 (back)
(vi) See Smith &Household; p.50 (back)
(vii) See Humphries chap.1 (back)
(viii) See Smith & Household p.51 (back)
(ix) Dickens, Charles A Christmas Carol Bradbury & Evans, London, 1858 (back)
(x) See Dickens pp.10-11 (back)
(xi) See Dickens p.98 (back)
(xii) See Dickens p.99 (back)
(xiii) See Dickens p.2 (back)
(xiv) Davis, Paul The Lives and Times of Ebenzer Scrooge New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990 (back)
(xv) See Davis p.61 (back)
(xvi) See Davis p.62 (back)
(xvii) Ramis, Harold Groundhog Day Columbia Tristar Film, 1993 (back)
About Marsha Landry
Marsha Landry is an accomplished writer known for her expertise in the field of movies. With a keen eye for storytelling and a deep understanding of film analysis, she has established herself as a prominent voice in the world of cinema.