KEYWORDS: Biography; Arts; Alice Guy; Film-maker; Fiction; Cinema; France; Chile; USA; 20th Century.
SHE THOUGHT IT
Alice Guy was a pioneer in developing the newly founded art of movie making and movie business. Aged twenty three she was working for Léon Gaumont in a company focused on photographic devices and asked for the personal use of the Biographe (a 60-mm motion-picture camera)³ (p.81) that the Company had developed soon after the appearance of the Lumiérè´s cinématographe. With the Biographe she started filming what would become the first movie with a scripted narrative: Le Feu aux choux. (1896)
Self taught, Alice was an independent and innovative filmmaker, and since the movie became a huge success Léon gave her the charge of head of the new production company he created. From that moment she directed, produced, and script-wrote almost seven hundred films, while at the same time she was establishing the bases of what would become the seventh art.
“She defined the role of movie director as separate from that of camera operator. She eschewed expensive backdrops in favor of real locations […] She pioneered the use of close-ups to dramatic effect […] several years before D. W. Griffith, who is usually given credit for that innovation, even started working in film. […] She was the earliest to deploy character arc and the psychological perspective of a lead character in a film story, a technique her competitor at Pathé, Ferdinand Zecca, failed to master when he plagiarized films such as La Marâtre (The Stepmother, 1906) and Sur la Barricade (1907)”³(p.81).
All of this she did in the space of a decade. She also pioneered special effects colouring films by hand, using camera effects such as reverse motion, the substitution trick, overprints or double exposure. With the cronomatographe, a synchronized-sound system that Léon Gaumont developed, she produced and directed about one hundred short films prefiguring today´s dubbing and video-clips.
In 1907 she travelled to USA and created her own film production company, becoming “one of the first women (along with Lois Weber) to manage and own her own studio: The Solax Company”¹ and continued to progress the language of modern cinema embracing all types of genres such as comedy, history, science-fiction, metafiction, drama or western.
She also filmed movies with feminist approaches like Les résultats du féminisme (1906), The call of the Rose, Madam’s Fancies (1907) or In the year 2000. In this direction “in 1913 she composed a text highlighting women’s exclusion from the movie world.”⁴ (My translation)
Hers was the first film involving an all African-American cast: A fool and his money.
Alice Ida Antoniette Guy was born in Paris, as the daughter of Emile and Marie Guy who were living in Chile where they ran a book publishing company. Alice stayed with her grandparents in Switzerland until she was four years old when she travelled to Chile to live with her parents. In 1879, aged six, she travelled to France to start her education at a convent school near the Swiss border. Some years later Alice´s father, Emile, and Alice´s older brother died and she had to take charge of her widowed mother. Therefore she studied to be a shorthand typist and stenographer.¹
In 1894, she was hired as a secretary in Comptoir général de la photographie, in Paris. The next year the company was sold to Léon Gaumont with whom Alice kept on working. On March 22 Léon and Alice were invited to see a demonstration of the cinématographe the Lumière brothers had just invented. The Lumière´s had a scientific view of their invention, but Alice thought of something else entirely.¹
Léon started to develop a competing design: the Biographe, and Alice asked him if she could use it to shoot short stories with some friends as actors and Gaumont agreed as long as it didn’t interfere with her secretary job.²
She was 23 when she wrote, produced, costumed and directed the one minute piece “La Fée aux choux” or The Cabbage Fairy. The first fiction-film (first to have a scripted narrative) made (few months before Georges Méliès short-films appeared¹). The short film was such a success that Léon Gaumont employed Alice as head of production of a new section in the company: film producing.
“After that first film she directed and produced or supervised almost six hundred silent films ranging in length from one minute to thirty minutes […] In addition, she also directed and produced or supervised one hundred and fifty synchronized sound films for the Gaumont Chronophone.”² This went on for a decade (1896-1906) in which important technical advances were made and special effects texted and experimented with. It was the birth of the film industry.
She would work as assistant director, co-director, co-producer, co-screenwriter, director, film company owner, lecturer, producer, screenwriter, and writer.
In 1906, the first world´s blockbuster and her most ambitious film for Gaumont´s company was born: The birth, the life and the death of Christ, a thirty five minute production (amazing for the time). “The film impresses not only with its scale and artful design, but also its technical sophistication.”¹ And it was a great success, copied by many other production companies. But success came also with envy from others, and many thought she was doing what was supposed to be a man’s job and there were even attempts to discredit her. In the same year, she travelled to Germany to sell Gaumont´s Cronophone and met Herbert Blaché who was working as a camera operator in her company. They fell in love in Berlin and got married the next year, 1907. The couple moved to the USA and Herbert started working as a production manager for Léon Gaumont in the United States and Alice was able to get the time to start a family in New York City. In 1908 their first daughter was born and Alice resumed to making movies. She founded her own film production company, Solax, in 1910, while pregnant with her second child. In four years working, the company became so successful it had to move to larger premises. “Whilst running Solax, Guy made around fifty films […] and oversaw the production of 300 others.”¹
From 1908 to 1920 not only did she make formidable films but continued to work on the development of special effects and technical devices creating films each one more sophisticated than the previous.
“Solax success made the Blachés rich and famous. In 1912 Alice Guy became the only woman in the United States to earn in excess of 25.000 dollars in one year. Her films were loved by the public and praised to the skies by the critics. The Blachés were on top of the world and then it all started to go wrong.”¹ As Taylor states, her fatal mistake was giving the presidency of her company to her husband who soon started his own company that absorbed Solax, putting his name in every film and erasing Alice´s. This and the birth of Hollywood (connected to World War I) made the Blanchés bankrupt in a few years.¹ Then, in 1918 Herbert fleed with an actress and Guy was left alone working in what would be her last film Tarnished Reputations (1920). Two years later the divorce was closed and Alice moved back to France looking for a job but no one would employ her, not even Gaumont. While in France, she realised her systematic erasement of the film industry, her films had been attributed to male assistants, Gaumont or her ex-husband. She was wiped out and forgotten, her name would not appear in any cinema histories. Therefore, Alice started writing her memoirs and looking for her lost productions. But she found so little, and no one would publish her memoirs (until 1976) and so Alice Guy died (again living in USA) in 1968, erased from history, her discoveries, achievements and creations neglected.
SHE SAID IT
“My youth, my lack of experience, my sex all conspired against me”
Alice Guy: Autobiographie d’une pionnière du cinéma (1873-1968)
THEY SAID IT
“The most famous woman you’ve never heard of.”
Alison McMahan on Alice Guy, ArtForum
“A French film pioneer who invented the director’s job”
Barbra Streisand: Reel Models: The First Women of Film
“I was very impressed in the way she looked at society and questioned it; she really felt there was a place for women in films and directing.”
Pamela Green: Be Natural, the untold story of Alice Guy-Blaché
PRIZES, ACHIEVEMENTS, HONOURS
2013: inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
2012: Director’s Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award.
2011: Accepted as a member of Director´s Guild of America.
2004: Historic marker dedicated to Alice Guy on the location of her Solax Studio.
1958: Honoured in the Cinematique Française ceremony.
1953: Légion d´Honneur. (France)
La Recua Teatro (2012) Alicia a la sombra de las maravillas or Alice in the shadow of wonderland, dir. Elena Diardes, Spain (Theater piece).
Circle X Theatre (2002) Laura Comstock’s Bag-punching Dog, USA, (musical about the invention of cinema, and Alice Guy was a lead character).
Green, Pamela, Jarik van Sluijs (2016). Be Natural: The untold story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Documentary)
-Lepage, Marquise (1995) The Lost Garden: The life and cinema of Alice Guy Blaché, National Film Board of Canada. (Documentary) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zli0mysaUeU
-Guy, Alice (1976) Autobiographie d’une pionnière du cinéma (1873-1968),Musidora, Denoël/Gonthier.
-McMahan,Alison (2002) Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, Continuum International.
–http://www.aliceguyblache.com/ (Research and books by Alison McMahan)
- Travers, James (2017) Alice Guy, in Films de France: <http://www.filmsdefrance.com/biography/alice-guy.html> (last accessed 2 Feb. 2018)
- McMahan, Alison (2013) “Alice Guy Blaché.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries <https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-alice-guy-blache/> (last accessed 2 Feb. 2018)
- McMahan, Alison (2009) “The Most Famous Woman You’ve Never Heard Of: Alison McMahan on Alice Guy Blaché” Artforum, p. 81-82.
- Ferrer Valero, Sandra (2017) “La primera cineasta Alice Guy” in <http://www.mujeresenlahistoria.com/2017/04/la-primera-cineasta-alice-guy-1873-1968.html >(last accessed) 2 Feb. 2018),