Alice's Wonderlands: On Alice Guy Blaché
Guy's comedies often feature cross-dressing as part of the joke, as if she couldn't stop appealing the life sentence of gender. In some films the cross-dressing is garden-variety, adding an extra wacky flourish to an already wacky tale. In Le Matelas alcoolique (The Drunken Mattress, 1906), the seamstress who unknowingly sews a drunkard into the mattress she's restuffing is, in fact, male. The comedy here is all in the gags--"she" rolls with the mattress down an embankment, hefts it across Paris, drags it from under an automobile, among other indignities. It probably helped that a man was performing these stunts. Alice attended a screening of the film in Rouen and later recalled "an explosion of gaiety" in the seats around her. "In front of me, one young woman twisted in her chair and begged between shouts of laughter: 'Enough, enough, I'll wet myself!'" Things get a little more Dada in La Femme collante (The Sticky Woman), a short but deep comedy of the same year, in which a genuine woman goes to the post office with her maid. The maid sticks out her tongue--an organ that could double for Mick Jagger's--to help with affixing stamps, exciting the attention of a mustachioed rascal nearby. When he lunges over and kisses her, they get stuck, and a scissor-snip leaves the scamp's mustache on the maid's deadpan, self-possessed face.
The theme reaches its wildest embodiment in Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism, 1906), a cutting satire of gender roles in which the cross-dressing is worn on the inside. Women are in charge; men preen and sew and cannot make up their minds. Women look through them unless there's a chance to pounce on one and devour him with kisses. One poor fellow swoons and his Lotharia revives him with smelling salts, the quicker to lure him into the double bed idling in the background. All this is genuinely funny--the guy who keeps mincing around with mannerisms that today look high camp must have ruptured a few laugh hernias in Guy's time--but it leads to a curiously ambivalent conclusion. When the woman who seduced the mincing fellow ignores his pleas to help care for their children, he summons a crowd of discarded men. Together they storm the women's club, kick the ladies out and claim it for their own--their rightful, dominant place in society finally re-established. But for the audience to cheer their triumph, we must accept the terms of this satire and absorb the thought that half of society gets a rotten deal from the other half. It's a sneaky little farce.
"What particularly excited me about film," wrote Maya Deren in a 1946 piece that appears in Red Velvet Seat, "was its magic ability to make even the most imaginative concept seem real. For if the tree in the scene was real and true, the event which one caused to occur beneath it seemed also real and true. And so one could create new realities which, being rendered visible, could stand up to the challenge of 'Show me!'" The political correlative of this notion--that women gained crucial confidence simply by seeing themselves in new ways on the big screen--emerges from the polyvocal Red Velvet Seat as a unifying theme. And to the extent that Alice Guy's work embodies this idea, the arc of her career also outlines its limits. By 1910, when she was directing her own Solax-produced films in New Jersey, Guy was married with a child (and had acquired a new surname: Blaché). She was no longer the only woman in the business, and it seems that her impulse to "make imaginative concepts seem real" changed into a simpler need to keep making movies. As Karen Ward Mahar writes in her valuable history Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, the industry by then had acquired a concern for moral standards (motivated by the bottom line, of course), which it looked to women to raise and maintain. The National Censorship Board was established in 1909, and by the mid-1910s not only were most censors women but female directors were often touted in advertising to underline the "artistic" status of their films. Guy Blaché, whose Gaumont offerings had once been deemed too risqué for squeamish American audiences, now was held up as an ideal filmmaker, a woman of "enlightenment and superior breeding." Her movies got longer and their narratives more elaborate, and though spunky heroines might rather breathtakingly save the day in her westerns, or little girls help save ailing siblings in her domestic dramas, some of her anarchic energy was sacrificed.
If Alice Guy Blaché aligned herself with a refined ideal that sought higher-class audiences, a younger generation of women were all too eager to pander to the masses. It can be jolting to see one of the early serials, ten- to twenty-minute capers that came out on a weekly basis in the 1910s and whose creative vision was inseparable from their leading ladies. They're the definition of good clean fun, but still, you don't expect a Victorian damsel--cinched waist and ankle-length skirt, her long hair in ringlets--to duke it out with gun-slinging smugglers. Helen Holmes, the original star of The Hazards of Helen, which ran for 119 episodes from 1914 to 1917, wrote many of its episodes and collaborated with her director husband, J.P. McGowan, later starting her own production company under which she made further serials. She begins more than one installment as a young lady politely defying the ranks of men in the railway office who'd deny her a job as telegraph operator, and finishes by single-handedly foiling a worse set of bad guys who had attacked her isolated outpost. In Pathé's The Perils of Pauline, the heroine travels the world hoping to become a great writer, all the while evading the homicidal advances of a man who's after her inheritance. During the early 1900s an image of the New Woman was taking shape--athletic, fearless, independent--and the popularity of serials showed how ravenous was the appetite for her: when a fan magazine asked readers to name their favorite motion picture star in 1916, Pearl White, a k a Pauline, beat out both Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.
The viral speed with which these heroines attained blockbuster fame and then melted away into second- and third-run houses rivals any career arc of the Internet age; and yet it's hard to dismiss the idea that they inspired a generation of girls who would, by the early 1930s, be forging a new image of femininity onscreen. For it wasn't only that, say, Grace Cunard playing Patsy Montez, a rich debutante in The Purple Mask (1916-17), donned a cape and stole from the rich in order to improve the lives of various unfortunate women; it was also that Cunard and her co-director, Francis Ford (John Ford's older brother), visibly collaborated on these films, and that the head of Universal, Carle Laemmle (several years before promoting Irving Thalberg), threw the mighty dollars of his promotion machine behind their serial--specifically, "a twenty-two-page press book, 'teaser' ads in newspapers, souvenir buttons, mirrors, postcards, and, of course, broken coins." Strong women had value.