Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema

Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema - Alison McMahan

A few weeks ago I read Dance by Judy Cuevas. In reading the author's note at the end of the book, I was surprised to discover that the heroine, Marie Du Gard was, in fact, inspired by a real person named Alice Guy Blaché I found the idea of a woman at the turn of the 20th century making a name for herself in a male-dominated world of the motion picture industry in its infancy fascinating and so bought and read this book, Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alison McMahan because it concentrates on an analysis of all of Guy's films. I'm not a film student or aficionado in any way. My experience with movies is simple: sitting in a dark theater with my shoes sticking to the floor or in my home watching a DVD so some of the terminology was challenging. However, I really loved learning more about the birth of the motion picture industry and Alice Guy Blaché's role in it.


I can tell this book was carefully and thoroughly researched, sprinkled with Guy's words, her family and her colleagues' words, film critics, film historians of today, and most importantly a detailed analysis of her work. The author writes extensively on the many films produced/directed by Guy and provides many photographs of her, the studios where she worked, and stills from films she was involved with. Though it is scholarly in tone and a bit dry in places, the author does a terrific job of fleshing out Guy, her innovations in the film industry as well as a terrific history of the origins of photography and the motion picture industry.


One of the most fascinating aspects in this book which sent me spiraling down a rabbit hole to find more information was a section on early sound films, particularly the Dickson Experimental Sound film in 1894, the oldest attempt to marry sound with a moving image. In this very short film, an experiment by Thomas Edison, W.K.L. Dickson plays a violin while two men dance around on a wooden stage. The film and the sound cylinder became separated over time and though the Library of Congress had the film, the cylinder capturing the sound was lost. Or so everyone thought. In 1964, a broken cylinder was found at the Edison National Historic Site labelled 'Violin by WKL Dickson with Kineto.' In 1998 the cylinder was repaired, restored, preserved and finally merged with the film thanks to the cooperation and talents of Walter Murch of the Skywalker facility (yes, that George Lucas Star Wars Skywalker facility), Jerry Fabris of Edison National Historic Site, Patrick Loughton, curator of Film and Television at the Library of Congress, and Rick Schmidlin. Go here to see and hear the oldest example of film and sound synced together. I found it hypnotizing and caught myself just playing it over and over, really kind of amazed that this was even contemplated in 1894.


Alice Guy began as a secretary/office manager at Gaumont film studio in 1894 gradually working her way up to head of film production in 1897, a post she held until 1907. She was the director/producer of phonoscènes, a precursor to music videos and the forerunner to sound films and the director of many, many films while at Gaumont. Phonoscènes were short films of opera performances or solos by singers from cafes. At one point she negotiated with Enrico Caruso to appear in a phonoscène, but he declined for the rather shortsighted reason that to do so would 'demean' him. I loved Guy's retort that his refusal 'proves that a good voice is not always the sign of an excellent education.'


Her first film for Gaumont was La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy), see it here, (between 1897 and 1900) falls more into a what the author refers to as 'cinema of attractions', that being, as I understand it, lacking plot, mainly for entertainment value in its uniqueness. But it 'was so successful that it sold eighty copies and had to be remade at least twice, as the original prints disintegrated.' She remade the film in 1902, retitled it Sage-femme, link here, with a 'clearly defined plot' making it definitively a 'narrative' film.


I was intrigued by the discussion of the Histrionic Code versus Verisimilar in those early films. In the beginning Guy relied on the Histrionic Code for capturing actors' moods - staged, exaggerated series of gestures used to convey certain emotions: a clenched fist to signify conviction or being resolute, a hand to cheek to signify 'feminine distress.' But along the way, her experience with silent films and phonoscènes led her in a different direction so that she gradually eschewed theatrical poses for a more nuanced, natural method of conveying emotion. In fact she hung a banner in her studio with these two words: Be Natural.


She met Herbert Blaché-Bolton in 1906 who was employed as a manager at Gaumont when he subbed as a cameraman in order to familiarize himself with the motion picture camera. He was 24, she was 33. They worked on a film called Mireille in Camargue and apparently even many years decades later she still recalled their trip crossing the Rhone, the moonlight, and the toreador Machaquito who dedicated the bull to her. She kept photographs of this moment in her life for the rest of her life. She and Herbert became engaged on Christmas Day 1906 and married the next year. She worked at Gaumont in France from 1894-1907 when Gaumont sent Herbert to the States to obtain investors in a chronophone franchise here. They lived on his savings and her dowry. In 1910 they struck out on their own, forming the Solax film company. The couple divorced in 1922. Guy returned to France with the children, while Blaché remained in the U. S.


What is astounding to me is how many times the film company Pathé copied directly from Guy's work, using actors as spies. 'Plagiarism was rampant' in this business. Everybody was doing it, even Guy mimicked Lumière's fiction films. There are many examples cited in the book in which Guy's films are copied almost exactly: La Guérite (1905), a comedy based on Carmen; Le Pendu (1906); and Le Matelas alcoolique (1906) to name a few. I want to spend a little time on Le Matelas alcoolique for two reasons: it has a connection to a book I read a few weeks ago called Dance and it was the first film to afford Guy a degree of fame and accolade for her work.


Le Matelas alcoolique (The Drunk Mattress) (Gaumont studios) is a comedy completed in November/December 1906 starring a mattress-maker refreshing a mattress for an older couple:


She sets it up outside, slices open the mattress, and begins to work. In time she feels the need for refreshment and goes into a local bar. Meanwhile, a drunkard stumbles along, finds the mattress inviting, and settles into it, completely disappearing into the stuffing. The mattress-mender returns and sews him up into the mattress. She then tries to return it to its owners, but finds that the mattress has taken on a life of its own. It rolls her down a hill, leads her to fall off a bridge, pulls her into a pit, and so on. Finally she gets it to its owners, who quickly make up the bed, only to find that their sleep is interrupted by the mattress’s violent shaking. All ends well when the mattress is sliced open again and the drunkard is released. (Loc 1937)


The Pathé version, Le Matelas de la mariée (The Bride's Mattress), was also completed in December 1906, and except for a couple of changes certainly seems to be lifted directly from Guy's film. What I found funny and somehow fitting was that the changes Pathé made - a newlywed couple's comedic eagerness for their wedding night and though probably commercially successful for them - lacked the depth and that element of satire described in Guy's version. Guy recalls in her memoirs how the idea for this film evolved:


Searching for a setting for a film… I [saw] a mattress-maker had installed her frame for stretching the canvas. She finished filling it with wool which she had just carded. For I know not what reason, she left her work and went away for a few minutes. Almost at once a drunk arrived, climbed the mound and rested in contemplation before the half- finished mattress. (1947)


It's evident Pathé copied Guy's film, and the author states flat out that Pathé often copied Gaumont films 'shot-for-shot.'


When I read this section about the mattress, a little bell began ringing in my head. I remembered a section in Dance in which Marie Du Gard utilizes a mattress with a drunk man sewn up in it for very similar comedic and satiric effect in her fictional film, The Bride of Aubrignon, featuring Nelly who's always engaged but never married. In Dance, the drunk is an inebriated priest, the mattress-maker is the mother of the bride, and the porter chases the mattress 'down a hillside, across a bridge, through a warehouse, into a urinal.' (Dance, p.218) I loved finding this very concrete, irrefutable homage to Guy in Judy Cuevas' Dance.


It was Le Matelas alcoolique that garnered Guy the first small proof of appreciation by the public of her work. The film was rented by a vaudeville family who invited Guy to its first screening. After an appreciative audience made it clear they loved the film, Alice Guy Blaché was presented to the audience. It had to be an unforgettable moment for her.


Alice Guy Blaché may not have 'directed the first fiction film,' but she made great innovations in advancing the narrative aspects of cinema. Character coherence was of utmost importance to her. The way she focused on a single character, the way she utilized three shots in a point of view sequence instead of two - incorporating the 'looking shot' (character sees something), the POV shot (the object he/she sees), and a reaction shot - bumped 'cinema of attractions' up several levels. She was 'the first producer/director methodically to scout for locations, and she often made up a film story to fit a visually interesting location or event.' (2183) In Madame a des envies (Madame has her cravings) (1906) she eliminated the 'Peeping Tom' character so typical in films of the time. There's no middle man peering through a keyhole allowing the audience to voyeuristically see what he sees, in this case watching a woman suck on a sugar stick. Instead, as is explained, the actor is both 'spectacle and subject.'


At one point in the early 20th century, Alice Guy Blaché owned Solax Film Company, she ran the company, she owned 50% of the physical building. At Gaumont she taught herself filmmaking while working as a secretary/office manager. This meant she wrote scenarios, worked with set designers, bought cheap clothing for costumes, and twisted friends' arms to act in her phonoscènes plus her administrative responsibilities for Gaumont. She directed and was solely responsible for over 100 phonoscènes. These are incredible accomplishments for a woman of that time and today for that matter. Guy's family history - her father's lost fortune, his death when she was young, the ensuing economic hardship she experienced - must have left an indelible impression on her as well as a guiding force in the course of her life.


Alice Guy Blaché was an 'integral part' of French cinema origins and a 'leading force in the development of cinematic narrative.' She was the innovator who began shooting on location. She blazed a path in a 'hierarchical-but-still-cooperative system of studio management.' She trained other directors like Bosetti, Arnaud, Jasset, and Feuillade and set decorators like Menessier and Carre. She trained her husband, Herbert, who later directed Buster Keaton in his breakout role in The Saphead. She made over 100 synchronized sound films when sound synchronization was still experimental and 'directed approximately 1000 films and produced many more. Of these, slightly more than 100 survive.' Her body of work has been 'lost' or largely ignored over time. Still, some of her 'official' accolades are impressive:


January of 1907 the Palmes Académiques as “Directrice de théâtre” ('director' wasn't part of the lexicon at the time)
Awards at the Exposition Universelle’s (World Expositions) in which she was nominated by Gaumont including Diplôme de collaboratrice (Award to collaborator) at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 and at in Lille in 1903; gold medals in St. Louis 1904, in Liege in 1905, and in Milan in 1906.
In 1955 she was awarded Légion d'Honneur, the highest non-military honor in France
In 1957 Alice Guy Blaché was honored in a ceremony at Cinémathèque Française.


She was and is a voice for women everywhere, an advocate and champion for women in the film industry, and gave women characters in her films the power to choose 'their own destinies.' But... Her last film was in 1920 and coupled with the double whammy of divorce and a bankrupt film studio, it's not a surprise she returned to France in 1922. When she asked Gaumont for a job at his studio upon her return to France, he hired her son, Reginald. Read that again. She never made another film. She died in 1968, was buried in New Jersey, the state where Solax Films was born, and her accomplishments have largely gone unnoticed for decades. Even her tombstone doesn't even reflect her importance to the film industry.


There was no obituary and there was no indication on her tombstone that she was the first woman filmmaker and the only woman filmmaker for the first decade of the industry’s history. (4569)


I truly hope this kickstarter project, Be Natural documentary, reaches their goal so that Alice Guy Blache will never be forgotten. She deserves to have her story told and recognition for all her contributions to the advancement of the motion picture industry.