Alice Guy-Blaché: Mother of Film
For many years, film historians and critics ignored the contributions of women to early cinema. Despite this, one name often did show up, at least in parentheses or a footnote: that of Alice Guy, who had been the head of production at Gaumont, one of the world’s leading film studios, from 1896 to 1906, after which she moved to the United States to found Solax with her husband, Herbert Blaché. As women’s history and the influence of feminism finally began to make some headway into film studies (much later than in other fields), various writers “discovered” Guy and turned out hagiographical re-assessments of her work. Suddenly, from a footnote, she became the “inventor” of narrative cinema, the one person with the insight to see the camera’s potential for telling stories, the most important director of her time.
I rather think the time has come to make a realistic assessment of Guy’s work. She is, to begin with, much more than a footnote. She was one of a handful of creative people who created the body of “early film” in the final years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. During that time, she made at least 350 movies (these are what survive in archives today), and quite probably closer to 1000. She took chances with new technologies, and made some important experiments in both color and sound film. Her output is comparable to any male producer of the time, and it is clear that recognizable “pioneers” of cinema, such as Georges Méliès and William K. Dickson, borrowed from and learned from her works, as she also borrowed and learned from theirs. If you are interested in the history of film, you owe it to yourself to check out some of what she did.
On the other hand, she did not invent sliced bread. Some of her defenders have made some pretty strong claims, claims which I would say do not hold up. There are not 300 extras visible in her magnum opus, “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ.” I counted maybe 30-45. “The Cabbage Fairy” is not the “first narrative film.” It has no story, in the sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end, whereas the Lumière brothers’ “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” which came out four months earlier, does. As Fritzi Kramer, kind hostess of this blogathon, likes to point out, the “first” anything in film is notoriously difficult to prove and probably not as important as it sounds in the first place.
Alice Guy was a secretary to Léon Gaumont in 1895. At the time, his still photography company had failed, but he was still managing the inventory with a small staff, and was looking into motion picture technology. He invited Guy along to a demonstration by the Lumières, and agreed to put Guy in charge of what he no doubt thought would be a pretty minor film-production operation, “so long as it did not interfere with her other duties.” As Guy proved the lucrative advantages of film production, that quickly became her primary responsibility.
Whether it’s the first narrative movie or not, “The Cabbage Fairy” is a very interesting contribution to early film. Lea at Silentology has recently discussed the importance of the féerie show in French theater, and its apparent influence on the work of Méliès. Féerie was a ballet spectacle that was usually based on fairy tales or mythological sources, and emphasized stage magic, elegant costume, and fantastic situations over plot. “The Cabbage Fairy” may not be a narrative in the strictest sense, but it is a tableau that fits the concept of féerie perfectly, right down to having a fairy as its central figure! Guy did beat Méliès to the punch in this area, at least, and I have no doubt that Georges watched Alice’s movie with profound interest, although he probably would have made a féerie movie sooner or later, given his interests and talents, whether or not he saw it.
I watched and reviewed about 80 of Guy’s films from Gaumont last year, which may not make me an expert, but it gives me some sense of that period of her career. Honestly, it took me a while to warm to them. A lot of the really early stuff is just short dance movies or “trick films” that aren’t as well-executed as those of Méliès. As I worked through them, though, I began to see that they weren’t so much copies of other filmmakers work as they were part of a “discourse” between the pioneers of early cinema. Like blues or jazz musicians, they were listening to each other, then “riffing” off of what the others did. Somewhere along the way, Guy developed a more discernible voice, especially in her comedies. She had a quirky, idiosyncratic sense of humor that often involved taking logical premises to some crazy kind of extreme. The later comedies I would even call “surreal,” although that term hadn’t actually been invented yet, when they start involving mattresses that take on personality, beds that steer themselves through the streets of Paris, or footraces in which the participants trade clothing!
One of the more recent academic discussions or Guy talks about the importance that cross-dressing has in her films. This is probably nowhere more obvious than in her movie “The Consequences of Feminism,” which shows a future world in which effeminate men are dominated by masculine women. It cleverly pretends to be a critique of feminism when it is in fact a feminist critique of patriarchy and rape culture. In a “A Sticky Woman,” a masher is punished for kissing a woman at the post office when his mouth sticks to hers – because of all the stamps she has been licking! A lot of her movies take on a different aspect when you consider that she was a woman in a leadership role in a male-dominated industry at a time when women were expected to submit to male authority.
The final thing to consider about Guy’s Gaumont period was her early experiments in sound film. There are a few examples on “Gaumont Treasures,” and also a clip of Guy at work on a sound stage. These are comparably static images, as one might expect from a sound film in 1905 (it was still a problem in the early thirties), and generally just show a single song or dance number. It’s still fascinating to be able to hear the voices of performers in such early films, and gives a bit of insight into the musical culture of the period as well. Felix Mayol, in particular, is a very unusual discovery from the early twentieth century – a gay man with a very sophisticated sense of humor.
In many ways, then, Guy pushed the boundaries of cinema at a time when nothing was established. She took chances, she tried new techniques, and she helped to define what “the movies” would really be about for the next 100 or more years.
This has been my contribution to the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Click on the link to check out all of the other contributions!