Friday, 6 December 2019

Alice Guy-Blaché

The earliest days of cinema, from the late 1880s to the late 1900s, was a fascinating, fabulous time where pioneers came and went, rose and fell, and the art form grew and expanded from one day to the next. Almost all of the films made then are long gone, and what we have left now are bits and pieces, often with unknown dates and unknown makers, but what is left is exciting enough for a lifetime of studies. One of the most impressive and important contributors to this period is Alice Guy-Blaché, who was present at Lumière's first public screening of films in Paris in late 1895, and almost immediately began her own career as a filmmaker of great ambition and inventiveness. Last year a new documentary about her was released, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Pamela B. Green, 2018), which generated a lot of publicity and interest in Guy-Blaché's life and work. I finally watched it last week, and it is an engaging and well-edited and professionally narrated film. The topic naturally appeals to me, but at the same time, the title of the film, and its marketing campaign, had annoyed me a great deal because the story about Alice Guy-Blaché is not untold. There are books, articles, video essays, retrospectives and previous documentaries about her, about her life and career. As an example, The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché (Marquise Lepage 1995), a great Canadian documentary, tells the exact same story as Be Natural. The Canadian one is 40 minutes shorter, but that is not because Be Natural provides more information about Guy-Blaché. The extra time is primarily spent on celebrating the team who made Be Natural, whom, you might think, single-handedly discovered Guy-Blaché and gave her back to the world.

Despite all earlier research and books and films about her, Guy-Blaché is still not a well-known name among people at large, but if you have studied early cinema and film history you would have come across her name. Very few of the early pioneers are remembered today, and many of their careers ended in failure and they became invisible, but despite the contention of the title and the film itself, Guy-Blaché is one of the very few who actually is remembered today. It is made a point in the film that Thomas Edison and Lumière brothers are more well-known than she is, and this is true, but they are not known or remembered as filmmakers but as inventors. Guy-Blaché was not an inventor, she was a filmmaker and studio head, and those of her peers from the earliest days of cinema (before D.W. Griffith and that era) are almost all, with the obvious exception of Georges Méliès, forgotten today unless among film scholars specialising in that era. The way Griffith in particular has come to completely dominate conventional film history of the 1900s and 1910s is both unfair and ahistorical and Guy-Blaché, who was well acknowledged and celebrated at the time, is sadly a victim of this. So are many others. Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince made a couple of short films in 1888 in Leeds, and they are the oldest moving images I have ever seen, yet he is hardly ever mentioned. Max and Emil Skladanowsky organised a public screening for moving images in Berlin in November of 1895, almost two months before the Lumière brothers did their first public screening in Paris, yet it is rare that the Skladanowsky screening is mentioned. Such is the unfair nature of early cinema history.

Falling Leaves (1912)

There is another way that Be Natural lacks a necessary film historical context, and that is that, in the film, Guy-Blaché seems to have been alone at doing what she was doing. Yes, she experimented with sound, colour, editing, narrative, but so did many others, including, eventually, other women. She was perhaps unique in her business acumen, in the way she moved to the United States and started a film studio (Solax), but this does not make her a uniquely inventive filmmaker. It is suggested in the documentary that Guy-Blaché made a film in 1896, The Cabbage Fairy (La Fée aux Choux), that would be one of the first fiction films telling a story, which in some commentaries and reviews has been transformed into the claim that Guy-Blaché made the very first fiction film that tells a story. Given that the overwhelming majority of all films made at the time have been lost, it is impossible to say whether any remaining film was the first of anything. We cannot even say with certainty that Guy-Blaché made a film in 1896 and there is much speculation about The Cabbage Fairy (see here for example): did she make one in 1896 or is the one available now, which is referred to as the 1896 one, a remake from 1900, or maybe from 1902, and the one from 1896 is lost? Or is the one from 1900/1902 the first one, and she never made a film in 1896? Some have referred to a print in the archives at the Swedish Film Institute, which is listed as being from 1896, as proof that she made one in 1896, but the date of that print is an estimate and not a certainty either. It proves nothing. They only reason why we are debating whether she made a film in 1896, despite there being no proof of its existence, is that she said so in her autobiography, and in some later interviews. But our memories are not necessarily to be trusted, and her description of the plot of the alleged film of 1896 match a later film she made, and which does exist. These are important nuances that are not to be found in Be Natural.

But the bottom line is that it does not really matter if she made one in 1896 or not, either way her legacy and importance are the same, with or without that potential film. And even if a print was found and that it was established without doubt that this was the 1896 version, it would still not prove that it was the first of anything.

There is one version of The Cabbage Fairy available online with the year 1896 attached to it, which is, probably, erroneous. But if this one in fact is from 1896, as some claim, it is correct that it is a work of fiction but it does not tell a story or provide a narrative; it is just a woman walking through rows of cabbage, and picking up babies. It is not something new and not different from many other films of that year or the year before, such as historic re-enactments like The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), or the many fictional staging of crimes and chases that were made in 1895 and early 1896.

At another point in the documentary, there is some excitement about her film Matrimony's Speed Limit, which has editing, alternates between medium shots and close-ups, and tells a longer story than the earlier ones with one shot/one setup. But that film was made in 1913, and there was nothing new and interesting about it, technically. In 1913, what was new and exciting were full-length features of depth and complexity like The Student of Prague by Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye or Victor Sjöström's Ingeborg Holm. It becomes absurd of praising Guy-Blaché for doing something, a short comedy with a race against time, that had already been done for years, including by herself in all likelihood.


Celebrating the work and achievements of Guy-Blaché is a good thing, and easy to do. As Be Natural has brought renewed attention to Guy-Blaché and her work, I am in that regard happy that it was made, and can be shown around the world. But her achievements are exceptional as they are and do not have to be embellished and exaggerated. I think that it belittles her, as if what she had actually done was not good enough. One of her major accomplishments was her central position in Gaumont's production of chronophone films. Guy Blaché directed/supervised maybe as many as 150 of these short sound films, called Phonoscènes, but this is barely mentioned in Be Natural. They say she experimented with sound but not how, for how long and what that entailed. The focus of the film is not always to Guy-Blaché's advantage. The way the film highlights its own makers, make them out to be heroes, almost at Guy-Blaché's expense and certainly at the expense of all those scholars and researchers that came before this film, does raise some ethical questions.

I have been teaching film history for ten years and all that time Guy-Blaché is probably the one I devote the most time to when I talk about the early days of cinema. The students seem to be impressed by what she did, without me having ever felt any need to invent things or make her out to be more than she already was.

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Here are some previous documentaries that told this allegedly untold story:
Qui est Alice Guy 1975, produced by Nicole-Lise Bernheim
The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché (Marquise Lepage 1995)
Alice Guy ou l'enfance du cinema (Florida Sadki 1997)
Reel Models: The First Women of Film; Alice Guy, Lois Weber, Frances Marion, Dorothy Arzner (2000)
Looking for Alice (Claudia Collao 2008)

And there is a fictionalisation about her life: Elle voulait faire du Cinéma (Caroline Huppert 1983)

Here are some earlier books:
Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-2968): La première femme cinèaste du monde by Victor Bachy (1993)
Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alice McMahan (2002)
Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simon (2009)
Alice Guy, Gaumont et les débuts du film sonore by Maurice Gianati, Laurent Mannoni (2012)
Alice Guy Pionnière du cinéma by Daniel Chocron (2013)

The entry for her in Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia (1994) tells the same story too, although without mentioning all of Guy-Blaché's many siblings, children and grandchildren that take up a considerable part of Be Natural.

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