A brief history of the career
of a woman film pioneer
by Francesca Stephens
“Alice Guy-Blaché was the first director. Period.” (Cari Beauchamp)1
A French national, Marie Clotilde Franceline Guy, voyaged seven weeks by boat, from Chile to France, determined to have her fifth child on French soil. Alice Ida Antoinette Guy was born 1st July 1873, in Saint-Mandé. Alice’s entrance to the world was dramatic and intriguing. As was her film career.
Guy’s memoirs begin “… to interest the reader by anecdotes and personal memories concerning their great friend, the cinema, at whose birth I assisted.”2 She began her film career at Comptoir général de Photographie, a still photography company, where she learnt a considerable amount about the medium. Léon Gaumont hired Guy as a secretary, but she also assisted with taking photographs and their production, and associated with many innovators in Paris. Within a year, Max Richard, Director of the company, resigned due to a law suit, and a new company formed, Société en commandite Léon Gaumont et Cie.
Gaumont was involved with Georges Demenÿ and the development of a phonoscène – a camera capable of recording, and projecting moving images. The Lumière Brothers were developing their own version of a movie camera. In December 1895, Guy and Gaumont attended, by invitation, a demonstration of the new Lumière camera. Their first movie, La Sortie de l’usine, was projected onto a white sheet pinned to a wall, in the basement of the Grand Café, 14 Bd des Capucines, Paris.
Being well read, and with amateur theatre experience, Alice Guy, thought she could do better than the early demonstration films that filmed everyday occurances. She proposed to write some short fictional scenes, performed by friends. Gaumont agreed with the condition of this not interfering with secretarial duties. Guy was given a few hours to shoot some ‘shots’. The potential market of film had not yet been recognised by Gaumont, or his contemporaries: “If the future development of motion pictures had been foreseen at this time, I should never have obtained his consent.”3
And so began, with some luck, Guy’s prolific film career. She went on to write, direct and produce more than 1000 films in France, and then America. She was one of the very first to use moving cameras, the very first to discover many cinematic techniques and tricks to enrich her films. Guy did it all, inventing the scenarios, directing the actors, and choosing sets, locations, costumes. She created comedies, slapstick, drama and adaptations. The resulting filmography is diverse and astonishingly original.
Guy’s first film, La Fée aux choux (1896) was based on a fairy tale. In it she experimented with many different uses of film, becoming more sophisticated with time. In 1897, aged 23, Guy became head of production at Gaumont and remained in the position until 1907.
A short adaption of the story Doctor Faust, Faust et Mephistopholes (1903) demonstrated cutting techniques to create the illusion of characters and objects appearing and disappearing, and of their transportation from place to place in an instant.
At this time, Gaumont patented the Chronophone, a synchronised sound system. Guy made films for it, known as phonoscènes (effectively early music videos) such as The Five O’Clock Tea (1905) with Armand Dranem.
Between 1907-1908 Guy married cameraman Herbert Blaché; they moved to America, and had their first child. Herbert headed Gaumont there, and, in 1910, Alice started her own production company, Solax, in Flushing, New York. Solax’s film production went from 1 reel a week to 2. Their immense success led Guy to build her own studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many early filmmakers, including DW Griffiths, were producing their own early films. Guy’s films became more detailed in plot and development, and had greater depth of characterisation. An endearing film about a young man proving himself worthy of marriage was Algie The Miner (1912).
The movie industry evolved, moving west, and World War I broke out. Solax was auctioned in 1920. By 1922 Guy was divorced, with no career. She attempted to resurrect her career, and find her films, in 1927, but to no avail. Gaumont wrote a history of his company, in 1930, leaving out any production pre-1907. Guy wrote to get this corrected, but that didn’t happen until after her death. She was omitted from early film history and fell into obscurity. Not until 1954 did Gaumont’s son Louis recognise that “… Guy has been unjustly forgotten.”4
Slowly but surely, however, with rare interviews, her own memoirs, research, film recovery and restoration, her work has become more and more recognised. Most recently, funded through Kickstarter, Pamela B Green (writer and co-director) and Jarik Van Sluijs (co-director) are currently in production on a new, American, documentary film, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, scheduled for 2015.5
So Guy is making her way back into the story of film, as the true film pioneer she was. She was a formidable woman, funny, original, inspiring. A trailblazer to remember and revere.
1 In The Story of Film: An Odyssey (Marc Cousins UK 2011)
2 Guy-Blaché, Alice (1986) The Memoirs of Alice Guy-Blaché, trans Roberta and Simone Blaché, Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, Chapter 1, p1
3 Ibid, Chapter 3, p27
4 Key Events in the Life of Alice Guy Blaché
5 Full cast and crew list of Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2015) on imdb.
Further reading and viewing
- The website Alice Guy Blaché.com: The Research and Books of Alison McMahan
- Before Hollywood, There Was Fort Lee (Tom Hanlon USA 1964) released on DVD. Includes segment on the Solax studio.
- Le Jardin oublié: la vie et l’oeuvre d’Alice Guy-Blaché / Alice: The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché (Marquise Lepage Québec 1995)
- McMahan, Alison (2003) Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, NY and London: Continuum
- The Women Film Pioneers project
Francesca Stephens bio: I live and work in West London, with my two teenage children. Since I can remember watching movies has been my favourite pastime. As a small child I was completely enchanted with whatever black n white movie was on the small box. The synchronised swimmers with flowery swim hats, Dorothy in Kansas, Scarlet in Tara, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin and James Cagney. Now among my film heroes, thanks to extensive research of a dedicated few, I’m discovering Alice Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber, Marion Francis, Clare Denis, and many more.