A Fool and His Money
by Edith Magak. The silent film, long considered lost, is the first narrative film to feature an all-Black cast.
In the summer of 2000, David Navone, an engineer in California, made one of the greatest discoveries in the history of lost films when he bought a trunk at a flea market and found six reels of anonymous old nitrate films locked inside. On examining the films, which had all shrunk from their original 35-millimeter size, he found the first, "In absolutely terrible condition with much of the film melted into globs.” The next reel was “in good condition, with no breaks or melted sections.” This reel contained the little-known but historically important 1912 film A Fool and His Money.
A Fool and His Money is a ten-minute black-and-white silent narrative that is the first American film to have an entire cast of Black actors. Not only that, it was produced and directed by Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female filmmaker in the history of cinema. It's also considered one of the earliest race films–a genre produced in the United States between 1912 and the 1950s, aimed at primarily Black audiences.
Why was the first narrative film to feature an entirely Black cast lost? Time. Before the 1950s, films were shot mostly on nitrate-based film stock (which is chemically unstable, deteriorating, and very flammable). Because their successful preservation required a cool, dry, and fire-safe environment, and also being expensive to convert, about 90 percent of pictures made before World War I no longer exist. After his golden find, David Navone donated the reel to the American Film Institute (AFI), which restored it frame by frame. The film is now at the AFI's National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the Library of Congress Motion Picture Conservation Center.
Alice Guy-Blaché, director and producer of A Fool and His Money, was a French pioneer filmmaker. From 1896 to 1906, she was the only female film director in the world. Her career began in 1896 when she wrote, directed, and produced La Fée aux Choux for the Gaumont Company. This film was such a success that Gaumont promoted her to production director.
After eleven years of working in the French industry, she moved to the United States in 1910 and became the first woman to run a studio when, two years later, she built the $100,000 state-of-the-art Solax Film company in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
In her career, she oversaw the production of about 1,000 films, many of them short one-reelers, which was the standard. Her films often had a feminist undertone and challenged gender norms. Guy-Blaché also had strong opinions on race, immigration, and politics–themes that were all very prominent in her films.
In 1912, when her White cast members refused to work alongside Black actors, terming it "an irreversible dishonor to be coupled with people of color," she continued filming with her Black cast and created A Fool and His Money. This is monumental because, at that time, White performers in blackface played Black characters. Guy-Blaché would have chosen to “darken” the faces of the White actors and this would have been perfectly acceptable. But she went against the flow and featured the first full cast of actual African-Americans in this film.
The fool in A Fool and His Money is Sam (James Russell), a young Black laborer rejected by Lindy, the woman he loves, because of his poverty. After finding a large sum of money on the sidewalk, he buys fine clothes, an automobile, and jewelry, hoping to win her back. Attracted by this newfound wealth, Lindy accepts Sam's proposal.
Sam sends out invitations to a reception, on which occasion he plans to announce his engagement. During the function, he loses all his money in a rigged poker game staged by his romantic rival. When Lindy learns Sam has been swindled, she gives him the boot and transfers her affection to the man who won Sam’s money.
The first mention of A Fool and His Money is in a full-page ad that Alice Guy-Blaché's film company Solax took out in The Moving Picture World on September 21, 1912, and it simply said, “Darktown Aristocrats Released Friday, October 11th.” However, in the October 5, 1912 issue of The Moving Picture World, the film was announced differently:
A FOOL AND HIS MONEY
(The new title for Darktown Aristocrats)
RELEASED FRIDAY, OCTOBER 11th
As one of the earliest race films in America, A Fool and His Money also represents a historical record of White attitudes about African-Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. It portrayed the Black man as irresponsible, gambling away his little money — money that he gained not through employment or hard work, but illegally. We also see Lindy’s middle-class family enjoying the privileges of wealth only because her father, described as a retired Pullman porter, worked long and hard for many years. The contrast hinting that an African-American man cannot handle sudden prosperity.
Commenting on this, Allison McMahan notes in her book Alice Guy Blaché, Lost Visionary of the Cinema that “the film is certainly racist, but it also reflects ‘the dream of assimilation’ associated with both immigrants and the Black middle class. For Guy-Blaché, assimilation meant taking on the stereotypes of the adopted culture. Guy-Blaché was a French immigrant to the United States, which did not prevent her from replicating racist stereotypes of the American culture.”
Ava DuVernay acknowledges that while A Fool and His Money may be flawed, it is historically important: "I think the film is definitely of its time. I can't say that it was entirely progressive. But at that time, it might have been regarded differently. Regardless of its intention, it was still important, because it had the black cinematic image, which was an image that, before, hadn't been seen in this way."
A Fool and his Money remains historical on all fronts; it was the first to feature an all-Black cast and was directed by the world’s first female filmmaker. This attests to the incredible contributions that women and particularly unknown immigrants and people of color made to the early American film industry. Even the stereotypes in its storyline show how far back racism goes in American culture.
This film was first shown publicly on July 29, 2018, at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, and has also been screened at many festivals. A Fool and His Money is currently available on a previously released Kino-Lorber Pioneer Women DVD set.
Edith Magak writes both fiction and nonfiction on African History, Culture and Art. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Meeting of Minds UK, Africa in Dialogue, Brittle Paper, Lazy Women, Talenthouse, and Narratively.