Wednesday 17 May 2017

A Florida Enchantment

Released in 1914 and based on an 1891 novel, A Florida Enchantment begins like any other high society silent film. The most notable thing about it for the first while, and a fondness throughout, is its on-location shooting in St. Augustine, Florida. For scholars of film, A Florida Enchantment is more notable as the first movie to ostensibly feature lesbianism and transgenderism.

First, the historical interest. As the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine was originally founded by the Spanish in 1565 to secure shipping between Spain and the Caribbean as well as lay claim to the region dubbed La Florida by Ponce de León. The famed Spanish explorer was reputed to have set foot on St. Augustine's shores himself in 1513, in his supposed search for the Fountain of Youth. The mighty Castillo de San Marcos was eventually built from local coquina stone (prehistoric clamshell and other fragments cemented together over time), which helped repel repeated attacks from the privateers employed by enemy nations. The fort and St. Augustine passed from the Spanish to the English in one treaty, then back to Spain in another treaty, and then to the United States.

With ownership of the city definitively settled, tourists could begin to arrive en masse. The most influential character in the city's late 19th century "Golden Age" was Henry Flagler. John D. Rockefeller's partner in the Standard Oil Company, Flagler visited the sleepy town on his second honeymoon and was taken with both its charm and its potential for tourism. He envisioned a winter retreat for New England socialites and poured money into three grand hotels: the Ponce de León, Alcazar, and Casa Monica (which Flagler purchased and renamed the Cordova). Today, the Casa Monica still serves as an hotel, but the Alcazar is now the Lightner Museum and the Ponce de León is part of Flagler College. The latter was completed in 1887 in luxurious Spanish Revival style, with electric lights supplied by Flagler's personal friend Thomas Edison (though legend has it that the staff had to flip the switches since guests were too afraid to). Places like the Castillo de San Marcos and the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park were major attractions, as they remain today. One of the highlights of A Florida Enchantment is catching those glimpses of those attractions, if you know what to look for.

The Ponce de León Hotel, c. 1902.

Gateway to the courtyard and hotel, c. 1902.
Courtyard and main entrance.
Photo: State Archives of Florida.
View from within the courtyard.
Photo: State Archives of Florida.
Guests enjoying the courtyard, c. 1905.
Photo: State Archives of Florida.
Guests dressed as Don Pedro Menendez de Avilez (founder of Saint Augustine),
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and  Ponce de León for the 1927
Ponce de León Celebration.
Rotunda and lobby of the Ponce de León Hotel, c. 1891.
Photo: State Archives of Florida.
Dining Room, c. 1901.
Photo: State Archives of Florida.
Central Parlor, c. 1902.

View from the east tower, c. 1902.
To the left is the Cordova, to the right is the Alcazar Hotel.
Photo: State Archives of Florida.

For most people though, it's not the entryway to the Ponce de León Hotel or the battlements of the Castillo de San Marcos that make the film notorious. Rather, A Florida Enchantment has the reputation of being one of the first films to feature lesbianism and transgenderism.

Based on an 1891 novel by Archibald Clavering Gunter and Fergus Redmond, the story concerns Lillian Travers, a New England socialite preparing for marriage to the older Dr. Frederick Cassadene. The good doctor has himself become a hot commodity among the ladies of the Ponce de León Hotel set, which leads to a misunderstanding when Lillian is lead to believe that he has been cheating on her. In retribution, Lillian consumes a seed discovered by a seafaring ancestor that is said to switch a person's gender. The next morning, Lillian wakes up with 5 o'clock shadow and a sudden libido towards St. Augustine's young ladies.

What we have in A Florida Enchantment is less a serious take on sexuality and more of a silly gender-swap comedy at the expense of the upper classes. Until she can establish her new identity, Lillian does still masquerade as a woman, rebuffing Dr. Cassadene and romancing high society girls under the ruse of sorority friendship. Eventually she "kills off" Lillian Travers with a fake drowning and becomes Lawrence Talbot (a standard name apparently given to the metamorphosing). Needing a proper valet, s/he also feeds one of the seeds to her blackface lady servant, who becomes an over-the-top, violently libido-driven man. The slapstick of these scenes falls flat against racial stereotypes that are especially cringeworthy, even in a film from 1914. One thing leads to another and Dr. Cassadene ends up taking one of the seeds, turning him into a comic cross-dresser who gets chased down by a lynch mob... Not exactly a sensitive portrayal of gay men.

Appreciating what it is, then, rather than what one might wish it to be, A Florida Enchantment works as a bit of silent era silliness. It's not exactly a progressive film, but it does have its funny moments, historical interest, and some of that titular whimsy.

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