Alice's Wonderlands: On Alice Guy Blaché
Alice Guy was a 21-year-old secretary in Paris when she went to see her first film, which happened to be the first film ever projected on a screen. It was Louis and Auguste Lumière's Sortie d'usine, an actualité of roughly fifty seconds shot in 1895, in which a mighty volume of workers pour out of the gate of the Lumière factory in Lyon. The thing you notice is that most of the workers are women. Guy attended the screening with Léon Gaumont, the manager of a company that sold photographic equipment, and into whose employ she had talked her way with a pertness worthy of Myrna Loy, if her memoir is to be believed. Interviewing her for the position, Gaumont had balked: "I fear, Mademoiselle, that you may be too young." "But Sir," she replied, "I'll get over that." She got the job. Six or seven days a week, from 8 am to 8 pm, she sat at a typewriter hidden behind a screen and "had to answer the imperious bell-summons from the directorial desk."
Around this time Gaumont was poised to take over the firm he'd been managing, turning its focus toward the nascent motion picture camera. In 1895, the same year the Lumières began exhibiting the brief documentary scenes that their cinématographe was able to photograph, develop and project, Gaumont bought the patents to Georges Demenÿ's competing designs. With Thomas Edison in the United States tweaking his Kinetoscope (which exhibited moving pictures but couldn't make them), it was a time of jostling for position in an industry that had, as yet, no clearly marketable use. This much Guy could see after she accompanied Gaumont to the Sortie d'usine screening and, subsequently, watched Gaumont's technicians make comparable "demonstration films." She found them "both brief and repetitious" and "thought that one might do better." "Gathering my courage," she writes in her memoir with her typical mixture of modesty and pluck, "I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform in them."
Within several years, Guy was head of the Gaumont studio in Paris (by then rival to the commercially cutthroat Pathé-Frères), where from 1904 to 1907, in addition to making silent comedies and melodramas and trick films, she directed countless phonoscènes, among the first synchronized-sound films. These crooning, pacing, winking, bowing turns by popular singers of the day anticipate by some twenty years the Vitaphone shorts that would help build an appetite for sound in the late 1920s. At one point Guy managed to book the renowned Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, who backed out at the last minute. "Which proves," she observed, "that a good voice is not always the sign of an excellent education." At Gaumont, beginning in 1905, she also hired and oversaw the work of other directors and assistants, notably Ferdinand Zecca and Louis Feuillade; "It was as if, with one mighty stroke, she had single-handedly created the entire French film industry," Anthony Slide has written. Guy left Gaumont at 33 to marry a 24-year-old Englishman, Herbert Blaché, with whom she would have two children while juggling directing and the establishment of Solax, her own studio in New Jersey.
Not unlike other female directors who thrived after her in the 1910s, Guy had a career whose ending was abrupt (and linked to a wrenching divorce). All her work was thought lost by the time she returned to France in the mid-1920s. Not only was her directing career finished; her very name was fading to a ghostly footnote. In the 1950s she wrote her memoir in an attempt to reinsert herself into the history of filmmaking. The effort paid off, with a slight delay. This winter the Whitney Museum screened a selection of her more than 130 extant films (she directed about 700; of her forty or so features, only three survive). Recently Kino released a box set of Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913, with one of the DVDs devoted to the first decade of Alice Guy's career. Kino also issued a DVD of The Ocean Waif (1916), one of the three surviving features. It is the first time since World War I that her work is being looked at by audiences not taking notes for doctoral dissertations.
At the dawn of filmmaking, originality was neither a creative goal nor a commercial value. Many of Guy's oldest films are rehashes of the Lumières' single-shot views: a scene of reedy boys romping in the white cascades of a river; a scene of blacksmiths forging horseshoes. (In Guy's version of the blacksmiths, a little girl traipses across the scene clutching a doll. The smithies pay her no attention.) By 1906, as the business became more lucrative, Pathé-Frères placed moles in Guy's studio, and the company remade her ideas virtually while she shot them. When she protested, Pathé merely invited her to plant her own spies on their set. Elsewhere she economized by purchasing backdrops from the Lumières (for instance, a plywood set of Parisian rooftops) and then reshooting the Lumières' story with minor variations (thieves being chased across rooftops).