Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Context

December 1917

With the last post of 1917 comes the first loss of American military lives in World War One. We also see developments in Russia continuing apace, with Finland and Estonia breaking off from the old Empire, and the establishment of secret police forces that would soon become a defining feature of the post-revolutionary political scene (as the were of the Czarist one as well). I hope all my readers had a good 2017, and I wish you a happy new year as we move toward 1918, the year of active American involvement in the World War and also the Influenza Epidemic.

General Allenby enters Jerusalem, Dec 1917

World War I

U.S. Navy destroyer USS Jacob Jones is torpedoed and sunk on December 6 in the Atlantic Ocean by German submarine U-53, killing 66 crew in the first significant American naval loss of the war.

The British Egyptian Expeditionary Force accepts the surrender of Jerusalem on December 9 by the mayor, Hussein al-Husayni, following effective defeat of the Ottoman Empire‘s Yildirim Army Group during the Battle of Jerusalem.

General Edmund Allenby leads units of the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force into Jerusalem on foot through the Jaffa Gate on December 11.

Egyptian Expeditionary Force secures the victory at the Battle of Jerusalem on December 30 by successfully defending Jerusalem from numerous Yildirim Army Group counterattacks.

Badge of the Cheka

Russian Revolution

The Senate of Finland officially declares the country’s independence from Russia on December 6.

The Cheka, or All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, is established in Russia on December 20. It begins as a small organization of about 40 officials, but will expand to 200,000 operatives within four years.

A local plebiscite supports transferring Narva and Ivangorod (Jaanilinn) from Petrograd Governorate to the Autonomous Governorate of Estonia, passed on December 23.

National Independence Movements

Annie Besant becomes president of the Indian National Congress in December, to hold the position for one year.

The Raad van Vlaanderen proclaims the independence of Flanders on December 17

Disasters

Two freighters collide in Halifax Harbour at Halifax, Nova Scotia and cause a huge explosion that kills at least 1,963 people, injures 9,000 and destroys part of the city on December 6 (the biggest man-made explosion in recorded history until the Trinity nuclear test in 1945).

Construction

After nearly 20 years of planning and construction, the Quebec Bridge opens to traffic (the bridge partially collapsed on August 29, 1907 and September 11, 1916).

Theater

Jesse Lynch WilliamsWhy Marry?, the first dramatic play to win a Pulitzer Prize, opens at the Astor Theatre in New York on December 25.

Politics

United States president Woodrow Wilson uses the Federal Possession and Control Act to place most U.S. railroads under the United States Railroad Administration, effective December 26, hoping to transport troops and materials for the war effort more efficiently.

Film

Tom Sawyer, starring Jack Pickford released December 10.

Bucking Broadway, directed by John Ford, starring Harry Carey released December 24.

Little Princess, starring Mary Pickford, released December 25.

Births

Hurd Hatfield, (actor, in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Boston Strangler“) born December 7

Margaret Marquis, (actress, in “Penrod and Sam” and “My Old Kentucky Home“) born December 12

Frankie Darro, (actor, in “Wild Boys of the Road” and “Pinocchio“) born December 22.

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November 1917

It’s practically the end of the month, and I’m only now getting around to an installment of the Century News! Part of the reason I’ve hesitated this month is that so much happened, and it is so momentous, that it’s almost impossible to approach. The second Russian Revolution that started the Russian Civil War and ultimately created the USSR would transform history on nearly all levels. Most relevant for this blog: it would wind up having a huge impact on cinema history, leading to the rise of montage and directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. More immediately, however, it meant a sudden collapse of the thriving Russian film industry as the blockade prevented new film stock from entering the country and many of the actors and producers went into exile. One thing that this project has discovered is that pre-revolutionary Russian cinema cannot be dismissed as “backwards” or “bourgeois.” Personally, I regard Evgeni Bauer as a genius equal or perhaps even superior to Eisenstein (though there are many who would disagree). Certainly, Soviet cinema never produced an actor of the stature of Ivan Mosjoukine.

It’s hard to discuss this period also without thinking of present-day politics. The rapture over the “Fall of the Soviet Union” has largely given way to fears over a new Russian superpower and its influence on the West. I’d rather avoid making any definite statements about how this is or will play out (that’s not the topic of this blog), but maybe some insights can be gleaned by thinking about how Russian history has played out on the world stage over the course of the past century. Here are some headlines that might start that process.

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October 1917

Time once again for a roundup of news headlines from one century ago. A huge amount of war news dominates this month’s Century News. Some may be surprised that there’s nothing about the Russian Revolution, especially in light of the movie “October” and references to the “Red October.” The explanation for this is simple: the Russians were on a different calendar, so their “October” actually extended into our November, which is when the revolution actually occurred. Since the rest of my Century News has been based on the standard Gregorian calendar, I’m waiting for next month for that news.

Morning After the First Battle of Passchendaele.

World War One:

Battle of Broodseinde near Ypres, October 4: British Imperial forces overpower the German 4th Army‘s defences.

First Battle of Passchendaele, October 12: Allies fail to take a German defensive position with the biggest loss of life in a single day for New Zealand, over 800 of whose men and 45 officers are killed, roughly 1 in 1000 of the nation’s population at this time.

Operation Albion, October 12-19: German forces land on and capture the West Estonian archipelago.

At Vincennes outside Paris, Dutch dancer Mata Hari is executed on October 15 by firing squad for spying for Germany.

A Brazilian ship is destroyed by a German U-Boat on October 23, encouraging Brazil to enter World War I.

Brazilian President Venceslau Brás signs a declaration of war against the Central Powers.

Brazil declares war against the Central Powers on October 26.

Ottoman force attacks Desert Mounted Corps units garrisoning el Buqqar ridge on October 27 during the Battle of Buqqar Ridge fought in the last days of the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Battle of Beersheba, October 31: The British XX Corps and Desert Mounted Corps (Egyptian Expeditionary Force) attack and capture Beersheba ending the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Religion:

The Miracle of the Sun is reported on October 13 at Fátima, Portugal. Thousands of people gathered to see a prophecy fulfilled of miracles performed by the Blessed Virgin Mary. They reported to have witnessed extraordinary solar activity, such as the sun appearing to “dance” or zig-zag in the sky, careen towards the earth, or emit multicolored light and radiant colors. According to these reports, the event lasted approximately ten minutes.

Politics:

Carl Swartz leaves office as Prime Minister of Sweden on October 19 after dismal election results for the right-wing in the Riksdag elections in September. He is replaced by liberal leader and history professor Nils Edén.

Transportation:

Dallas Love Field airport is opened October 19.

Film:

Cleopatra,” starring Theda Bara released October 14. This (mostly) lost film is among the most iconic of 1917, and images of Bara from the film still circulate on the Internet.

Satan Triumphant” (Satana likuyushchiy) released October 21. One of the last movies of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire.

The Adventurer,” a Charlie Chaplin short is released on October 22. This was the last of the films Chaplin produced under his contract with Mutual Studios, and for the first time since he started making movies, it left him with no contractual obligations to fulfill. He would soon sign for a million dollars to First National.

Coney Island,” a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle / Buster Keaton short is released October 29.

Births:

Helmut Dantine, actor (in “Mrs. Miniver” and “Casablanca”), born October 7.

June Allyson, actress (in the 1948 version of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Glenn Miller Story”), born October 7.

Alice Pearce, actress (in “On the Town” and TV’s “Bewitched”), born October 16

Marsha Hunt, U.S. actress (in 1940’s “Pride and Prejudice” and “Johnny Got His Gun”), born October 17. Apparently she’s still alive! Happy birthday Marsha!

Joan Fontaine, actress (in “Suspicion” and “Rebecca”), born October 22.

Florence La Badie

Deaths:

Movie star Florence La Badie dies on October 13, from septicemia as a result of injuries sustained from a car crash in August. Several of her movies have been reviewed on this blog.

September 1917

This is a slow news month, but news from Russia carries some hints of further discontent that will explode once again in November. The war continues unabated, of course, with Allied troops now receiving materiel (but not many men, yet) from the United States. They have two successful actions to report this month. And, color processes take a major step forward in film!

Russian Revolution

Leon Trotsky

Russia is declared a republic by the Provisional Government. on September 14

Leon Trotsky is elected Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet on September 23. The Soviets are worker’s councils (“Soviet” means “council in Russian) originally formed by the socialist Mensheviks to coordinate worker demands and actions. During 1917, they have become increasingly radicalized and drifted towards Bolshevik sympathies.

The Mossovet (Moscow Soviet of People’s Deputies) votes to side with the Bolsheviks on Sepember 25

Australians at the Battle of Polygon Wood

World War One

Battle of Polygon Wood (part of the Battle of Passchendaele) near Ypres in Belgium begins on September 26. Over the next two weeks, British and Australian troops capture positions from the Germans. Casualties will be about even (around 15,000) on each side.

Second Battle of Ramadi. On September 28 and 29, British troops take Ramadi from the Ottoman Empire.

Surviving frame from “The Gulf Between”

Film

Release of The Gulf Between, the first film made in Technicolor System 1, a two-color process on September 13.

Births

Rolf Wenkhaus, child actor (in Emil and the Detectives), born September 9. He would die serving in the Luftwaffe during World War II.

Herbert Lom, actor (in The Pink Panther films and The Phantom of the Opera), born September 11.

August 1917

The First World War continues to be a major change agent in the world, but the Century News for August, 1917, emphasizes militarization and revolt more than actual military actions. Here are some of the headlines people saw in their newspapers 100 years ago:

Dunning, after completing the first successful moving carrier landing

World War I

Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning lands his aircraft on the ship HMS Furious in Scapa Flow, Orkney on August 2. He is killed 5 days later during another landing on the ship.

Social Unrest

The Green Corn Rebellion, an armed uprising by several hundred farmers against the WWI draft, takes place on August 2-3 in central Oklahoma.

A general strike begins in Spain on August 10; it is smashed after 3 days with 70 left dead, hundreds of wounded and 2,000 arrests.

Military

The New York Guard is founded on August 3 as the state defense force of New York State.

The Military Service Act is passed in the Canadian House of Commons, giving the Government of Canada the right to conscript men into the army.

Diplomacy

Republic of China declares war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 14.

Arts

One of English literature’s important meetings takes place on August 17 when Wilfred Owen introduces himself to Siegfried Sassoon at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.

Disasters

The Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 in Greece destroys 32% of the city, leaving 70,000 individuals homeless.

Film

Golden Rule Kate, a drama western starring Louise Glaum released August 12.

His Wedding Night, a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle / Buster Keaton short released August 20.

The Little American, starring Mary Pickford; directed by Cecil B. DeMille released August 27.

Straight Shooting, directed by John Ford released August 27.

Births

Earl Cameron, actor (appeared on “Doctor Who” and “The Prisoner”) born August 8.

Mel Ferrer, actor (in “Brannigan” and “The Hands of Orlac”) born August 25

July 1917

This month, the headlines make it clear how intricately connected the First World War is with the Russian Revolution. Deciding which category some things went under was tough. Also, although Finland has long been a sovereign nation, that independence was most recently reasserted during (and due to) the revolution, so I’ve included Finnish news under that heading for now.

British mortar battery taking up position on July 31.

World War One

Russian General Brusilov begins the major Kerensky Offensive on July 1 in Galicia, initially advancing towards Lemberg.

Greece joins the war on the side of the Allies on July 2.

Battle of Aqaba: Arabian troops led by T. E. Lawrence capture Aqaba from the Ottoman Empire on July 6.

First Battle of Ramadi takes place from July 8 to 13. British troops fail to take Ramadi from the Ottoman Empire; a majority of British casualties are due to extreme heat.

Austrian and German forces repulse the Russian advance into Galicia. Fighting rages from July 20 to 28.

Allied offensive operations commence in Flanders on July 31, beginning the Battle of Passchendaele.

Alexander Kerensky

Russian Revolution

Russian troops mutiny, abandon the Austrian front, and retreat to the Ukraine; hundreds are shot by their commanding officers during the retreat, July 16 to 17.

Serious clashes in Petrograd in July Days (16-18); Lenin escapes to Finland; Trotsky is arrested.

On July 20, the Parliament of Finland, with a Social Democratic majority, passes a “Sovereignty Act”, declaring itself, as the representative of the Finnish people, sovereign over the Grand Principality of Finland. The Russian Provisional Government does not recognize the act, as it would have devolved Russian sovereignty over Finland, formerly exercised by the Russian Emperor as Grand Prince of Finland and alter the relationship between Finland and Russia into a real union with Russia solely responsible for the defense and foreign relations of an independent Finland.

Alexander Kerensky becomes premier of the Russian Provisional Government on July 20, replacing Prince Georgy Lvov.

The Russian Provisional Government enacts women’s suffrage on July 20.

The Parliament of Finland is dissolved by the Russian Provisional Government July 30. New elections are held in the autumn, resulting in a bourgeois majority.

The Silent Parade, n New York City, to protest violence against African Americans.

Labor/racial unrest:

East St. Louis riot occurs on July 2. A labor dispute ignites a race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, which leaves 250 dead.

Bisbee Deportation occurs on July 12. The Phelps Dodge Corporation deports over 1,000 suspected IWW members from Bisbee, Arizona.

On July 28, the Silent Parade is organized by the NAACP in New York City to protest the East St. Louis riot of July 2, as well as lynchings in Tennessee and Texas.

King George V

Monarchy:

King George V of the United Kingdom issues a proclamation on July 17, stating that thenceforth the male line descendants of the British Royal Family will bear the surname Windsor, denying the Germanic bloodline of House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which is an offshoot of the historic (800+ years) House of Wettin.

Government:

Sir William Thomas White introduces Canada’s first income tax as a “temporary” measure on July 25 (lowest bracket is 4% and highest is 25%).

Diplomacy:

The Corfu Declaration, which enables the establishment of the post-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia, is signed on July 20 by the Yugoslav Committee and the Kingdom of Serbia.

Philanthropy:

The Lions Clubs International is formed in the United States on July 7.

Hoaxes

First Cottingley Fairies photographs taken in Yorkshire, England during July, apparently depicting fairies; a hoax not admitted by the child creators until 1981.

Film:

Big Timber, starring Wallace Reid, released July 5.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (German, Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray) released July (date uncertain).

Births:

Virginia Dale, July 1, actress (in “Holiday Inn” and “Dragnet”)

Faye Emerson, July 8, actress (in “The Mask of Dimitrios” and “A Face in the Crowd”)

Phyllis Diller, July 17, comedian, actress (in “Splendor in the Grass” and “Mad Monster Party”)

Lorna Gray, July 26, actress (in “Flying G-Men” and “So Proudly We Hail”)

June 1917

We’re half a month in already, and most of my Century News for the month falls in the first half of June! Let’s see how things were going in the world a hundred years ago. Looking at headlines from back then can put today’s “crises” into perspective.

German trench during the Battle of Messines

World War I:

A French infantry regiment seizes Missy-aux-Bois on June 1 and declares an anti-war military government. Other French army troops soon apprehend them.

Conscription begins in the United States on June 5.

The Battle of Messines opens June 7 with the British Army detonating 19 ammonal mines under the German lines, killing 10,000 in the deadliest deliberate non-nuclear man-made explosion in history.

The first major German bombing raid on London by fixed-wing aircraft leaves 162 dead and 432 injured on June 13.

Herbert Bayard Swope, first Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

Culture:

The first Pulitzer Prizes are awarded on June 4: Laura E. Richards, Maud Howe Elliott and Florence Hall receive the first Pulitzer for a biography (for Julia Ward Howe). Jean Jules Jusserand receives the first Pulitzer for history for his work With Americans of Past and Present Days. Herbert Bayard Swope receives the first Pulitzer for journalism for his work for the New York World.

Disasters:

A fire at the Granite Mountain and Speculator ore mine outside Butte, Montana kills at least 168 workers on June 8.

Constantine I

Politics:

King Constantine I of Greece abdicates for the first time on June 11, being succeeded by his son Alexander. He will return briefly in 1920-1922.

Legislation:

The United States enacts the Espionage Act on June 15. Although intended to prevent sabotage during wartime, the act will be used during the post-war “Red Scare” to justify persecution of radicals and labor organizers.

Film:

June 9, filming completed on British movie “The Labour Leader” starring Fred Groves (release date unknown).

On June 25, “A Kentucky Cinderella” starring Ruth Clifford is released.

Also on June 25, “The Rough House” with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton is released.

Births:

Leo Gorcey (actor, in numerous “Dead End Kids,” “East Side Kids,” and “Bowery Boys” pictures), born June 3

Dean Martin (singer and actor, in “Oceans 11” and earlier “Scared Stiff” with partner, Jerry Lewis), born June 7.

Lena Horne (singer, appeared in all-black cast films “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather”), June 30.

Susan Hayward (actress, in “I Want to Live” and “I Married a Witch”), June 30.

May 1917

The Century News roundup this week has some interesting trends, in addition to the expected war news and the militarization of the now officially belligerent USA. The Russian Revolution continues, but the big headlines for this month are about uprisings in France and Italy – reasons why people on both sides feared (or anticipated) a coming World Revolution. The Catholic Church has some major events, both at the top and the bottom of its hierarchical structure. And in a film world that is increasingly defined by major stars with huge salaries and unprecedented control of their work, we see important releases from Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Roscoe Arbuckle.

Phillippe Pétain

World War One

The Nivelle Offensive, an attack on the Aisne Front that resulted in over 180,000 French casualties, is abandoned on May 9.

Robert Nivelle is replaced on May 15 as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army by Philippe Pétain. Seen as a hero at this stage of his career, he will later lead the collaborationist regime of Vichy France.

The Selective Service Act passes the United States Congress on May 18, giving the President the power of conscription.

During the Stalemate in Southern Palestine the Raid on the Beersheba to Hafir el Auja railway by Desert Column of British Empire troops, destroys large sections of the railway line linking Beersheba to the main Ottoman desert base on May 23.

Over 30,000 French troops refuse to go to the trenches at Missy-aux-Bois on May27. This is one of several mutinies by French soldiers during the year 1917, as conditions at the Front become increasingly inhuman and the sense that generals sacrifice lives without concern spreads among the common people.

Pope Pius XII

Catholicism

The nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, is consecrated Archbishop by Pope Benedict XV on May 13.

Beginning May 13, 10-year-old Lúcia Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto report experiencing a series of Marian apparitions near Fátima, Portugal, which become known as Our Lady of Fátima. These visions continue until October.

Pope Benedict XV promulgates the 1917 Code of Canon Law on May 27.

Disasters

Over 300 acres (73 blocks) are destroyed in the Great Atlanta fire of 1917 on May 21 in the United States.

A tornado strikes Mattoon, Illinois on May 26, causing devastation and killing 101 people.

Transportation

A new Coast and Geodetic Survey Corps of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey is created on May 22, giving the Survey’s officers a commissioned status that protected them from treatment as spies if captured, as well as providing the United States armed forces with a ready source of officers skilled in surveying that could be rapidly assimilated for wartime support of the armed forces.

Crime

Eli Persons is lynched in Memphis on May 22 in connection with the rape and murder of 16-year-old Antoinette Rappal. Parsons was arrested on the evidence of authorities who claimed they could see his face frozen in the pupils of the victim. His death was a partial motivator for the foundation of the Memphis Chapter of the NAACP.

Civil Unrest

A month of civil violence in Milan, Italy, ends on May 23 after the Italian army forcibly takes over the city from anarchists and anti-war revolutionaries. Fifty people are killed and 800 arrested.

Film

Release of A Romance of the Redwoods, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Mary Pickford on May 14.

Release of One Law for Both directed by Ivan Abramson on May 19.

Release of  Souls Triumphant, starring Lillian Gish on May 20

May 21 – A Reckless Romeo, a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle short on May 21.

Release of Frank Hansen’s Fortune directed by Viggo Larsen – (Germany). Exact date unknown.

Births

May 1 – Danielle Darrieux, actress (in “5 Fingers” and “The Earrings of Madame de…”).

May 10 – Margo, actress (in “The Leopard Man” and “Lost Horizon”).

May 16 – George Gaynes, actor (in “Police Academy” and “Tootsie”).

May 21 – Raymond Burr, actor (known for “Perry Mason” TV series and also in the American release of “Godzilla”).

May 25 – Steve Cochran, actor (who was in “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Copacabana“).

April 1917

This is a big month in US history: the month that the United States of America entered the First World War. It had been coming for some time, and the German decision to re-initiate unrestricted submarine warfare in February clinched it, but now Americans were faced with the reality of troops being sent to fight and die in France. A large percent of the population was ready for war, although there would be anti-conscription demonstrations in several large cities. More upsettingly, there was a wave of anti-immigrant paranoia targeting German Americans – including many of Jewish extraction – which resulted in verbal abuse and violence in some areas.

The headlines for this month, a century ago include:

Woodrow Wilson speaks before Congress on the breaking of diplomatic ties with Germany.

World War I

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson asks the United States Congress for a declaration of war on Germany on April 2. War is formally declared April 6.

WWI: Canadian troops win the Battle of Vimy Ridge April 9-12.

The Nivelle Offensive commences April 16.

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force begins the Second Battle of Gaza April 17. This unsuccessful frontal attack on strong Ottoman defences along with the first battle, resulted in 10,000 casualties, the dismissal of the force commander General Archibald Murray and the beginning of the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne between France, Italy and the United Kingdom to settle interests in the Middle Eastern signed April 26. This is one of many arrangements by the allied powers that will be in contradiction to Wilson’s Fourteen Points at the end of the war, and hence a sticking point in negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles.

The locomotive that returned Lenin to Russia in April 1917.

Russian Revolution

In Petrograd on April 8, 40,000 ethnic Estonians demand national autonomy within Russia.

On April 12, The Autonomous Governorate of Estonia is formed within Russia from the Governorate of Estonia and the northern part of the Governorate of Livonia.

Vladimir Lenin arrives at the Finland Station in Petrograd on April 16, having been given clearance to ride in a “sealed boxcar” by the German High Command, who are gambling that escalation of the Revolution will knock Russia out of the war and free troops from the Eastern Front for combat in France.

Vladimir Lenin’s April Theses are published on April 17. They become very influential in the following July Days and Bolshevik Revolution.

Pacifism

In St. Louis on April 7, the Socialist Party of America resolves to resist conscription and the war effort. The IWW will also oppose the war, gaining many members from the AFL, whose leader, Samuel Gompers, chooses to support the war.

American WWI propaganda poster.

Propaganda

The Committee on Public Information is founded on April 14, to promote the war effort in the United States.

Disasters

An ammunition factory explosion on April 10 in Chester, Pennsylvania kills 133.

Diplomacy

WWI: Brazil severs diplomatic relations with Germany on April 11.

Journalism

The Times and the Daily Mail (London newspapers both owned by Lord Northcliffe) print atrocity propaganda of the supposed existence of a German Corpse Factory.

Film

Several film studios, including Universal, Paramount, and the Balboa Amusement Company, responded to war news by setting up recruitment drives or actually training actors for military service.

Thomas Lincoln Tally, in a meeting in New York, co-founds the First National Exhibitors Circuit.

Teddy at the Throttle, starring Gloria Swanson, released April 15.

The Cure, starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin, released April 16

The Butcher Boy, directed by and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle with Buster Keaton in his first screen appearance, released April 23.

Births

Valerie Hobson, actress (in “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Kind Hearts and Coronets”) born April 14.

Celeste Holm, actress (in “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “All About Eve”) born April 29.

Maya Deren, director (made “Meshes of the Afternoon” and “Ritual in Transfigured Time”) born April 29.

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.

Alice Guy

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.

Who’s this?

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!