Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Alice Guy

"In many respects she was a nineteenth century person. She believed in the family structure. And yet, she had strong feminist views. She was enthused by everything she saw and heard that was feminist in any way” -Simone Blache (on her mother)

Who is the first film director? You might be surprised to know that the very first narrative director was originally a secretary for Gaumont-Paris, a company that manufactured cameras. That secretary was Alice Guy. She was born to French parents whose work was located in Chile. Her mother returned to Paris on July 1st, 1873, to give birth to Alice, but returned shortly afterwards to Chile to continue her work. She was raised by her grandmother in Switzerland, with a brief two years with her parents in Chile before she was sent to a boarding school in France. She was a teenager when her parents finally returned home. Tragically, her father and brother dies shortly thereafter.

In 1897, a year after she joined the company, Gaumont went from making cameras to producing movies and it was Alice's creativity and imagination that put the company on the map with her films. Her first film was an adaptation of an old French story where a fairy that grows children in her cabbage patch, LA FEE AUX CHOUX - translated to The Good Fairy and The Cabbage Patch. She chose the story because it was familiar as a fairy tale. It was one minute long and was filmed on the Gaumont’s 60mm. Her career started more out of amusement with using an invention that was deemed futureless by a disenchanted Leon Gaumont, its inventor. At the time, neither of them probably realized that she was developing early cinema.

"I thought I could do better…Gathering up my courage, I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I would write one or two short plays and make them for the amusement of my friends. If the developments which evolved from this proposal could have been foreseen, then I probably never would have obtained his agreement. My youth, my lack of experience, my sex all conspired against me." -Alice Guy

No there wasn't some magical bubble of sexual equality in France. Had Leon Gaumont known the imaginative and financial possibilities the invention held, he would have most likely kept it for himself. It was because the camera seemed useless that it was passed on Alice who ingenuitively saw an instrument that had huge story telling abilities and mass appeal. At the same time, she was a woman living in a time where gender roles were an issue. Alice didn't let that dissuade, even though that meant she would be fighting for the rest of her life, and used gender stereotypes to her advantage.

She focused on the traditional role of women while portraying the female characters in her work in a very strong, sometimes almost masculine, role that was still nurturing. Alice would recognize the traditional gender assessment and use that in her arguments promoting female film makers. She was excited by feminism and it inspired her for the future. Though she didn't fight tradition, she was always an advocate that women are capable of accomplishing so much more.

"Not only is a woman as well fitted to stage photodrama as a man, but in many ways she has a distinct advantage over him because of her very nature and because much of the knowledge called for in the telling of the story and the creation of the stage setting is absolutely within the province as a member of the gentler sex. She is an authority on the emotions. For centuries she had given them full play while man has carefully trained himself to control them. She has developed her finer feelings for generations…and she is naturally religious. In matters of the heart her superiority is acknowledged, her deep insight and sensitiveness in the affairs of cupid…it seems to me that a woman is especially well qualified to obtain the very best results, for she is dealing with subjects that are almost second nature to her…There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art." -Alice Guy

Gaumont was so impressed with her that they made her the head of production where she would systematically continue to develop narrative film making. She would work for the company from 1896 to 1906, her career would span over twenty five years where she would write, direct, produce, and/or oversee over seven hundred movies. In 1906, she made THE LIFE OF CHRIST which was extremely ambitious at the time - with scenes requiring over three hundred extras.

Alice was also a pioneer for sound recording in conjunction with the images on screen through the Gaumont Chronophone System. The System used a vertical-cut disc synchronized to the film to join the sound with the picture. Her creativity made her innovative. She would use special effects to bring her fiction works to life using double exposure masking techniques or even running the film backwards to tell her stories. Her inventive films made her realize the vast marketability of the cameras, even though Gaumont dismissed the invention. Crowds came demanding the camera once they saw her work. Her imagination opened a world of cinematic possibilities.

"In experience acquired day by day, by mistake, by change, I discovered small tricks such as film turned inside out allows a house to collapse and be reconstructed again like magic. A person can tumble from a roof and go back up again instantly." -Alice Guy


In 1907, Alice met and married Herbert Blache. He became appointed Gaumont's production manager for their American operations. The two moved to the US and, in 1910, they decided to open their own studio with partner, George A. Magie. Historically, they created the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America - The Solax Company. The film studio was established in Flushing, New York, and within two years were so successful that they were able invest over a hundred thousand dollars in advancements. Alice opened an impressive film factory in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where her vision could reign.

For a time, there was a thriving film business on the east coast, but that ended with the establishment of 'Hollywood' on the west coast. The five major film studios - Famous Players (Later Paramount Pictures), RKO, Fox Film Corporation (later 20th-Century Fox Productions), Warner Brothers, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) - would bury The Solex Company and end Alice's American film making career. In 1922, Alice returned to France to start anew but her welcome was far from the warm reception that she was expecting. She and Herbert divorced at this time.

In 1927, she would return to America, but the travels and fall of her company would make her lose many of her works. Despite the coldness she was receiving from the industry she pioneered, she decided she would be a speaker on feminine psychology and film making at several universities. Her voice would not be silenced and she hoped to inspire other female film makers. Despite her strong voice, she was still living in a time where women were not valued in the same way men were. She fought hard to fight these misogynistic attacks, but even fell prey to them herself. For the person who is responsible for so much, she has not been given proper recognition. Many of her works were credited to male coworkers. Because of the lack of coverage or promotion of her accomplishments, some even question her contribution at all.

"Many of her films were cited as works by others. No one realized and tried to correct published errors more assiduously than Mme. Blaché herself. She anticipated that directing and producing credits for her films would be falsely assigned to her co-workers. She knew that her name, unintentionally or purposefully, would be omitted, or ignored, or demoted in the histories of French and American film." -Louise Heck-Rabi (on the injustices Guy faced)

Alice would return to the United States in 1927 with her daughters. This time not as a film maker, but as a speaker for feminine psychology and film making to inspire future generation film makers. She would speak at universities and share her experiences and knowledge. It was her greatest ambition to inspire, encourage, and promote women in film. It is sad to think how much she did for the film industry and how difficult it is to find any information on her or her work. Even though she was a pioneer feminist and advocate for women in film - she faced the exact same injustices as the women she fought for.

At 78 years of age, Alice was finally recognized by the French film industry as the first female film maker by Cinematheque Francais. She fought her entire life to inspire, encourage, and promote women's role in cinema. It is very sad that it is difficult to obtain much information on her as it was her words and her work that she spoke so clearly through. She passed away at the age of 95 with her daughters in Mahwah, New Jersey - only a few miles from where her studios once proudly stood.

The first film maker who developed the craft technically and creatively was a woman named Alice Guy. Be inspired, ladies. You are working in an industry made for you. Just remember to stay strong, focused, and be prepared for a fight.



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