I am often reminded of something that D W Griffith said about his innovative film making. It was more or less that he didn’t see himself as innovating. He was just trying to tell stories. I think that’s generally true of artists. Very few people see themselves as pushing an art form in new directions. They are just trying to communicate in their own way. Of course, Griffith gets rather more credit than he deserves for his work. Today, we talk about someone who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her work. (Yes: of course it’s a “her.” It had to be, right?)
On this day in 1873, the great film pioneer Alice Guy (later Guy-Blache and often just Blache after marrying Herbert Blache) was born. She started very early in the business—in 1894. She is generally considered the first female filmmaker, which is probably true given that she was one of the first filmmakers full stop. She was pretty much the first person to make narrative films. Like most things in the early history of film, it is hard to say anything for certain. For one thing, what exactly qualifies as a narrative film? And there were so many people making so many films in so many different places that it is impossible to say anything for certain. But Guy was hugely important in moving films in that direction.
Early films were, by and large, just slices of life: a train pulling into a station or girls having a pillow fight. The closest you got to having an actual story was Lumiere’s 1895 film, L’Arroseur Arrose, a film in which a kid restricts a water hose causing the gardener to spray himself in the face. But it is hardly a narrative. It is more or less the same as the pillow fight.
She made at least 700 films during her 26 year career. This includes 22 feature length films. Most of them are lost. The Internet Movie Database lists only 430 films and according to Wikipedia, only 350 are still known to exist. And it is still hard to find much of her work outside of film archives.
In 1907, she married English director Herbert Blache. At that point, she had to resign from the Gaumont Film Company. This was very common in the “advanced” countries: married women couldn’t work outside the home. So Guy and Blache emigrated to the United States where they started their own film business, The Solax Company. It was very successful for a decade or so. But the company eventually died off because of the break up of Guy and Blache’s marriage and also the move of film production to Hollywood.
Guy made her last film in 1920, Vampire—which, like most of her films, I know nothing about. And there is a reason for that. There was a systematic, if not conspiratorial effort to write her out of film history. Human beings are amazing at justifying their own self-satisfying narratives. Leon Gaumont’s success owed an enormous debt to Guy for her work from its beginning in 1894 through 1906. But when he published the history of his company, he started it in 1907.
After 1920, Guy made a living lecturing and writing what would come to be known as novelizations. Mostly, she was forgotten for a very long time. However, in 1953, the French government awarded her the Legion d’Honneur. Otherwise, she was pretty much ignored during her long life. (She died in 1968, just short of her 95th birthday.)
It is really hard to find films made by her. In addition to there just being few, most of the ones that are available are not confirmed to have been made by her. It is a shame. You might want to check out The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ, a half hour long blockbuster that by the standards of the time is amazing. But here, from 1905, is an actual sound film, Five O’Clock Tea. Think of it as one of the first music videos. It features Armand Dranem, the French music hall singer and comedian.
Happy birthday Alice Guy!