Beyond the Sea

Alice Guy, Cinema’s Forgotten Pioneer

History sometimes suffers from terrible amnesia. Between 1896 and 1916, film-industry pioneer Alice Guy directed almost 700 movies, each one adored by increasingly large audiences in France and the United States. But despite the incredible success of her work, she was forgotten from the 1950s onwards. It now seems right to pay tribute to a woman whose only mistake was being ahead of her time.
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Alice Guy (behind the tripod) on the set of The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ – the first blockbuster and the first sword-and-sandal movie – in Fontainebleau, 1906. © Société Française de Photographie Collection

Alice Guy may have had her transatlantic education to thank for her singular personality. Strict boarding schools in Switzerland – along with her father’s bankruptcy after his investments in Latin America collapsed – seemed to hardly affect the little French girl, whose childhood was spent between Valparaiso in Chile and the Geneva region. As for her combative character, her father’s death in 1891 almost certainly played a major role. She was forced to find a job at the age of 17 and became a stenographer in Paris. This led her to become a secretary for the Compoir Général de Photographie, a company that sold devices designed to record and project static – and only recently at the time – moving images.

Both lively and creative, Alice soon made herself indispensable to Félix-Max Richard, the owner, and Léon Gaumont, the manager. Together, they attended the screening of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon in Paris in March 1895. This was the first private demonstration of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s invention, the cinematograph, which rendered obsolete the individual kinetoscope created by American inventor Thomas Edison. With that, the race for patents began. Richard and Gaumont joined forces with engineer Georges Demenÿ to develop a range of processes. So began the golden age of the “phonoscope,” which later became the “bioscope” and then the “chronophotograph” over a number of months and technical innovations.

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Alice Guy in New York, 1913. © Apeda Studio/Solax Collection
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Movie star Olga Petrova in The Black Butterfly (1916), directed by Burton L. King and produced by Alice Guy. © Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

Secretary and Part-Time Filmmaker

Now that cinema has been born, movies had to be made to continue feeding into the collective dream. But Gaumont was too obsessed with developing increasingly reliable, safe, and efficient projectors to pay much attention to the subject. As a result, when Alice Guy suggested that she could use her experience in amateur theater to produce short films, her boss agreed on the condition that his mail was still managed correctly. In 1896, at the age of 23, the newly appointed “camera director” completed her first movie, entitled The Cabbage Fairy. This was 51 seconds of Alice Guy playing around with the new technology, but it represented a huge leap in cinematic history, which had previously only portrayed everyday situations. A total of 80 copies of the reel were sold to fairground projectionists and wealthy individuals.

This was followed by more than 100 increasingly long and elaborate fictional movies, including The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ, a multi-episode epic of unprecedented complexity – 25 sets and more than 100 extras – lasting more than 33 minutes. The movie was a triumph when it was released in 1906 – so much so that it overshadowed productions by the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès. However, success breeds jealousy. With the realization that filmmaking was a creative and lucrative pursuit, others tried to take Alice’s place. But her perseverance and her patience in the face of hostility from certain male colleagues paid off, and she became a shareholder of the Société des Etablissements Gaumont in 1906.

The Adventure Continues Beyond the Sea

At the age of 33, Alice Guy married Herbert Blaché, an English polyglot employed by Gaumont to boost the sales of cutting-edge inventions such as the “chronophone,” which was used to synchronize projectors and phonographs. In 1907, Blaché was sent to the United States to promote Gaumont’s reputation along the East Coast, and Alice begrudgingly accompanied him. Her future seemed to be that of a wife and a mother. But in 1910 – as their daughter turned two – she returned to the movie industry and founded the Solax Film Company in New York. She initially used Gaumont’s sets in Flushing, Queens, before building her own studio. It appeared that Alice Guy-Blaché was still at the top of her game, and her first movies filmed in America were hugely successful.

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Alice Guy (left) on the set of The Great Adventure, starring American actress Bessie Love, in the Everglades in 1918. © Courtesy of Anthony Slide

Having initially made a one-reel movie (10-15 minutes) every week, Alice began to produce two long films every week, making her the only woman in the country earning more than 25,000 dollars per year. She was rich, famous, respected by all, and even had a second child. In 1912, the Blachés moved to New Jersey, where Solax built the country’s biggest studio in Fort Lee. The venture worked so well that Herbert left Gaumont to jointly manage his wife’s business. But this new partnership heralded the start of a slow decline. Not only was Herbert terrible with money, but he had a horrible habit of falling for the actresses employed by Alice. As if this were not enough, Hollywood and its year-round sunshine gradually emerged as the main cinematic hub in America. The couple separated in 1918 as the company’s debts climbed ever higher. Alice was forced to sell her studio, followed by everything else that she owned. Ruined, divorced, and desolate, she
was left with no other choice than to move back to France with her two children in 1922.

Cut!

Alice was just 49 when she returned to her native country. Yet after several attempts to rejoin the film industry, she was forced to admit that her career was over. No one was interested in the screenplays she continued to write, nor by her memoirs, which were rejected by every publisher in the country. As for the movies that she had produced and which she tried to promote, most of them had been registered under her company’s name – or worse, under those of her assistants. Even a definitive move back to the United States with her daughter in 1964 did little to help, and Alice Guy grew old as she sank further into oblivion. She died on March 24, 1968, at the age of 94 in New Jersey – the place where she had risen to fame – regretting simply that she had not been recognized as the “world’s first female filmmaker” in her lifetime.

Center-Screen

While she was ignored in her later years, Alice Guy is enjoying a certain boom in popularity. In 2011, she posthumously received an award from the Directors Guild of America. A few years later, in 2018, she was the focus of Pamela B. Green’s documentary Be Natural, coproduced by Jodie Foster and Robert Redford, and presented at the Cannes Film Festival. More recently, Rowman & Littlefield have just released an English version of her memoirs, Autobiographie d’une pionnière du cinéma, originally published by Denoël in 1976 (and set to be republished by Gallimard on June 16) and translated by her daughter and her daughter-in-law. And June 28 will see the publication of an English version of Alice Guy, a biographical graphic novel created in 2021 by Catel Muller and José-Louis Bocquet. What’s more, a square in the 14th arrondissement of Paris and a cinema on the Yale campus are now named after her!

 

Article published in the May 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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