Screen Studies - Introduction: The Search for Alice Guy
Alice Guy Blaché
Alice Guy Blaché

Alison McMahan

Alison McMahan is an award-winning screenwriter, author, and filmmaker. She is the president of Homunculus Productions, LLC. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2003


Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

Silent cinema

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Introduction: The Search for Alice Guy[1]

DOI: 10.5040/9781501340239.0007
Page Range: xxv–xlii

I had to invent Alice Guy before I could find her.

I was a filmmaker before I was a film scholar. In the late 1980s, as I wrote my scripts, I began to ask myself questions about the representation of women in the media. Many works have critiqued or deconstructed the representations of women in male-authored texts and in texts by a few well-known female filmmakers such as Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Although not an experimental filmmaker myself, I was not insensitive to the discourse of the late sixties and seventies, mostly promoted by experimental women filmmakers, that films addressing women would have to be constructed in a filmic “language” different from that for films that came out of the dominant culture. This included films by women who were token members of that culture. But would female filmmakers, removed from the economic and stylistic influence of Hollywood, necessarily come up with a cinematic language of their own? And if so, what would that language look like?

What I decided to do was to find a woman filmmaker who had produced a large body of films outside of the Hollywood system. In other words, if I was really going to make films myself using a feminist filmic language, the first thing I needed was a role model. Before I even embarked on my search for her I drew a profile of what this role model might be like. I knew that alternative modes to the dominant cinema proliferated in the first two decades of film history, so perhaps I would find her there, a woman filmmaker making films before 1913. It even occurred to me that I would be more likely to find her in Europe than in the U.S. because that would put her at a further remove from what became classical Hollywood narrative. What I was looking for was a female filmmaker who had a large measure of control over her production, someone who had left behind a substantial body of work. This would then be material for my narratological analysis.

I thought I would find at least a dozen female filmmakers working in that period, and there were a few. But in the end, there was only one woman who produced a consistent body of work before Lois Weber started directing English-language phonoscènes at the Gaumont Flushing Studio in 1908.[2] This woman, of course, was Alice Guy, later known as Alice Guy Blaché.

1 Alice in white feather hat

Guy’s career is fascinating from various perspectives. Her career lasted much longer than those of her contemporaries who also began in 1896: the Lumière brothers had ceased producing films by 1905, Georges Méliès by 1912, Edison by 1917. Even Romeo Bossetti, one of her trainees, ceased working as a director mid-1910s, although he returned as a character actor after the First World War.

The length of Guy’s career is a testament to her ability to adapt in order to meet the changing demands of the industry. It is also a testament to her ability to fulfill various roles. From the available evidence it seems that she was almost solely responsible for every detail that appeared in front of the camera in the films she made at the Gaumont Company before the film studio was built in 1905.[3] The ideas for the films originated from her; she scouted the area around Paris tirelessly for locations; she herself went out searching for props and costumes and made many of the costumes herself; she roped her friends into playing parts, hired set designers, and acted in films herself. At Solax, the film production company and studio that she owned and operated in Flushing, and then in Fort Lee from 1910 to 1914, she had complete control over every film, from scripting to art direction to editing, and directed the majority of them herself. She directed approximately 1000 films and produced many more. Of these, slightly more than 100 survive. In this book I focus on these surviving films, especially the ones she directed.

Attribution, however, is a challenge generally, and especially for the films she made at Gaumont. Given the length and breadth of Guy’s career and the variety of roles she played within the industry, how is one to approach the body of films labeled as “hers”? Indeed, which films do we say are hers—the films she wrote, the films she directed, the films she produced, or all of the above? My search through the archives was long and expensive because the archives defined a “Guy” film as one she had directed. Even if I asked to see all of the Solax films in a particular collection, for example, I was given only the films already attributed to Guy as a director. Twice I had to return to two archives to see other Solax films in their collection that they had not told me about.

Most efforts to attribute the earliest Gaumont films to a particular director are met with considerable controversy. I discuss these controversies in the appropriate chapters of this book (especially One, Three and Six). In some cases the Gaumont Company has attributed specific films to Guy (La Vie du Christ, Madame a des envies, and most of the phonoscènes, for example). In other cases, I have found documents with evidence that she directed it, or stylistic earmarks that made me think a film might be hers. The basis for the attribution of each film is discussed in the section of the book covering that film.

Though Guy was not recognized in credits in her French films (early films carried no credits, and until 1912 there was no copyright process for film scripts), she did receive plenty of official recognition in the form of awards. In January of 1907 for example, she received the Palmes Académiques as “Directrice de théâtre” as the title “metteur-en-scène” (director) had not yet been coined. She also regularly received awards at the Exposition Universelle's (World Expositions) where Gaumont films had an important presence, which means that her contribution was officially recognized by the Gaumont Company (who nominated her for the awards) as well as the award judges and juries. Her awards include Diplôme de collaboratrice (Award to collaborator) at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 and again at the Exposition Universelle in Lille in 1903. She received gold medals at the Exposition Universelle in St. Louis 1904, the Exposition Universelle in Liege in 1905, and the Exposition Universelle in Milan in 1906.

2 Beaux Arts Academy Medal, front
3 Beaux Arts Academy Medal, back
4 Silver Medal from the Exposition Universelle in Milan, 1906

Whether Guy directed every film made at Gaumont until 1905 or not, we know that she did produce them. According to her memoirs, until the glass-house Gaumont studio was built in 1905 she was pretty much left alone to shoulder all the responsibilities of production, writing, and directing the Gaumont story-films. In the rest of this introduction I describe how I went about finding, identifying, and working for the preservation of Guy’s films. I contextualize this study of her work within other ongoing research into early film history. Finally, the introduction ends with an account of how Guy ended up as the first woman filmmaker.

The Search for the Films and Documentation

The first step in this study was to find the surviving films. Guy herself had conducted an intensive search at various archives for her own films, first in 1927 and again throughout the fifties, both times without success. At the time of her death in 1968, she believed that most of her films had already been lost, except for three that Gerhard Lamprecht had found in Berlin in 1958. When I began this study in 1992, about 40 films were known to exist. As a result of the efforts of many archivists and others like myself, the number now hovers at 110 (some in need of preservation), only two of which are feature length, from at least twenty two that she directed. A third feature, The Empress (U.S. Amusement Corp., 1917), lies unpreserved at the Cinémathèque Française. The research for this project required that I travel from archive to archive all over the U.S. and Europe. It took almost ten years. The story of my search is itself of interest, because it was alternately aided or hampered by how I, or others, conceptualized early cinema and the authorship of early filmmakers. Since these issues are theoretically important, I have interspersed accounts of my search with my account of Guy’s career and the analysis of her films.

In this search I was aided by many people. I have done my best to mention everyone in the acknowledgements. Future researchers will have the benefit of Joan Simon’s and Steve Higgin’s efforts to create an Alice Guy Archive at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This archive will include documents: specifically the Roberta Blaché Collection, which was carefully watched over by Guy’s daughter, Simone, and then by her daughter in law, Roberta Blaché.

This project was designed to fill a gap because there was no independently written biography or book length critical analysis of Alice Guy or her work when I began my search. General historical texts mention her only in passing or don’t mention her at all.[4]

Others discuss her, but their work is controversial.[5] Some of these controversies are addressed in this book, especially in Chapters One, Three and Six. Henri Langlois published an article entitled “French Cinema: Origins”[6] which mentions Guy’s assistant Victorin Jasset by name, as well as Georges Méliès and Ferdinand Zecca, and mentions the titles of several Guy films, without ever mentioning Guy herself, even though Langlois personally invited Guy to a ceremony in her honor at the Cinémathèque Française in 1957. Charles Ford, Gerald Peary, and Francis Lacassin all wrote articles about her, some of them based on interviews.[7]

5 Alice in her writing smock

Guy’s memoirs were first published in French[8] in 1976. The first English version was published without the introductory chapter as The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché (1986), translated by Roberta and Simone Blaché, daughter-in-law and daughter of Alice Guy, and edited by Anthony Slide. Scarecrow Press released a new paperback version of the Memoirs in May of 1996 that included the missing chapter.[9] In either language, the autobiography is tantalizing in what it leaves out. The memoirs inspired a flurry of articles, most notably by Victor Bachy, Jean Mitry, Jacques Deslandes, Francis Lacassin, and Marc Wanamaker.[10] Slide included a chapter on Guy in his book Early Women Directors[11] and the chapter on Guy was reprinted in Richard Dyer MacCann’s book, The First Filmmakers.[12]

In French, Jovette Marchessault’s paper on Guy was published in a Canadian anthology on experimental theater,[13] Émile Breton included a chapter on Guy in his book Femmes d’images,[14] and Bachy’s paper on why Guy was forgotten, as well as the transcript of his interview with Guy herself from the early sixties, were published in the anthology Les Premiers ans du cinéma français.[15] The autobiography also led to some retrospectives, most notably at the Festival des Films de Femmes at Créteil (near Paris) in 1994, as well as the retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1985. The work also received the attention of feminists, especially authors of survey texts that focus on women filmmakers.[16] These books tended to rely on the autobiography and some articles in Motion Picture World, as well as on Lisa Viscenzi’s master’s thesis on Guy Blaché’s Solax years (Columbia University).[17] As a result of these articles and of a handful of partial retrospectives of Guy Blaché’s work organized both in France and the U.S., she is now being regularly included in general history texts.[18]

Victor Bachy then made giant strides in filling the gaps in the autobiography with his book Alice Guy Blaché: La Première femme cinéaste du monde (1993).[19] He established a very complete list of films that Guy worked on, but not without attracting much controversy. To a large extent, I have re-done Bachy’s research and attempted to resolve the most pressing questions.

Others attempted to fill this gap with documentary films.[20] Anthony Slide, to whom this study owes much, made The Silent Feminists.[21] A portion of this film is devoted to Guy and includes an interview with her daughter, Simone. Nicole-Lise Bernheim made a short documentary in the late seventies that presented the basic facts of Guy’s life.[22] Other documentaries are listed in the appendix. The best documentary on Alice Guy is still The Lost Garden, directed by Marquise Lepage for the National Film Board of Canada in 1994. This film successfully combines biography and film history, and makes a large selection of Guy’s films accessible to a general viewer.

Documentaries such as The Lost Garden have helped make Guy and her work better known; but even so, a series of myths about her life and work persist. Each chapter in this book is built around one of these controversies. I have taken pains to debunk these myths and clarify the real issues that the myths obscure. Anyone who has heard of Alice Guy at all has probably heard that she was the first woman filmmaker and that she might have made the first fiction film, a claim that has generated considerable debate (see Chapter 1).[23] Even if those who question Guy’s role in the development of narrative cinema were to remain unconvinced by the case I make here, there is no question that she played a key role in early sound film production, as she directed over 100 synchronized sound films between 1902 and 1906. Yet this part of her story is almost never mentioned (see Chapter 2). Europeans may have seen the movie Elle voulait faire du cinéma, which postulates that she and her boss, Léon Gaumont, had an affair. I deal with this and other issues relating to the difficulties she had in maintaining her job at Gaumont in Chapter 3.[24] Americans have probably read the general historical texts that lay the blame for the demise of Solax, her American studio, at the feet of her husband, Herbert Blaché; I argue against it in Chapter 4. The demise of Solax is also attributed to “Alice Guy losing her touch” or not being able to make the transition to features; I counter this in Chapter 5. Finally, in Chapter 6 I try to answer my original question: what does Alice Guy have to say to viewers today? Was she a feminist? Are feminist readings of her films possible once we adjust to the language of early cinema? Can she, in fact, serve as a guide for feminist filmmakers, and are her films a fertile ground for theoretical analysis?

The myths and controversies surrounding Alice Guy’s life have had two effects: they make Guy look like a victim, especially with the loss of her historical record, the blame for which is often laid at the feet of various (male) historians;[25] the myths have also seduced us into overlooking her work. At the homage to Alice Guy held as part of the Films de femmes Festival in Créteil in 1994, it became clear that even for feminists, Guy’s films have taken second place to the historical and emotional value of her personal achievements. This is partly because only slightly more than 100 of the approximately 1000 films that she directed still exist, and almost half of these have been found only recently. Her films are spread out in archives all over the world. Not all of them are available for viewing even to scholars, and many of them are in desperate need of conservation and preservation.

My goals in this book are to carefully examine some of these “well-known truths” about Guy and sort out, as much as possible, fact from fiction, as well as to summarize, analyze and critique what remains of her work. My principal aim is to make her films more intelligible to modern viewers. In the process, I hope to shed some new light on the birth of cinema and the beginning of the visual culture in which we live today.

This book is partly a product of the movement that started at the 34th annual conference of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) held in Brighton in 1978. FIAF was set up in 1935 to serve the world community of film archives; the purpose of the annual conference is to bring together archivists from all over the world and study specific aspects of world cinema which are not well documented or researched. The original mission of the 1978 conference was to view and discuss fiction films made between 1900 and 1906.[26]

The importance of this mammoth effort to view the films cannot be underestimated. The work of film historians previous to the Brighton Conference of 1978, especially film historians writing on early cinema, was engaged with documents as many films had not yet been found and archived, or if archived, not yet preserved, or if preserved, not yet correctly identified. By putting such an emphasis on film viewing and film screening, a new approach to film history was born. The emphasis on films made between 1900 and 1906 matched the new interest among film historians: historically speaking, this was almost virgin terrain, unexplored and untheorized. A love-affair between academe and early cinema was begun, and, partly as a result of the Brighton Conference, key advances in how film history is theorized were made by historians working on early cinema, those who wrote from 1978 to the present day.

Decisions and observations made at Brighton and immediately after influenced the course of future research for almost two decades. For example, though the conference organizers had chosen to focus on fiction films, non-fiction films dominated the market during this period. The focus on fiction led to a later over-emphasis which is only now being corrected. (Many developments in fiction films came out of non-fiction films.) Also, most of the films brought to Brighton from the U.S. were produced by Edison and Biograph (where D.W. Griffith started out as a director), even though films produced by Pathé Frères dominated the U.S. market until 1907. A further contrast is that most non-fiction films were shot on location, and fiction films on sets, until around 1905; the choice to focus on fiction led to a focus on sets. Furthermore, the decision to focus on fiction was not an easy one to put into practice: were “fake” newsreels (restagings of newsworthy events) fiction or non-fiction? (The organizers decided they were fiction.) And what about a film that recorded a vaudeville act, were they fiction or non-fiction? (It was decided they were fiction, because up until 1904 almost all films produced were designed for inclusion in a vaudeville program.)

Many of the papers given at Brighton, and papers inspired by Brighton, grew into books by scholars such as Richard Abel, Ben Brewster, Noël Burch, André Gaudreault, Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, Judith Mayne, Charles Musser, Barry Salt, and Janet Staiger. Thomas Elsasesser’s anthology, Space, Frame, Narrative[27] reprinted some of the papers given at Brighton and added others.

Writing 13 years after Brighton, Gunning tried to sum up the effect the conference had on the participants:

I think that for many of us, our experience with early cinema began with something we just could not understand... the aspect of early film that exerted a magnetizing effect on me at first encounter was how little I understood what was happening on the screen. Processes that had become automatic for most film viewing—getting a joke, identifying a genre, or even such fundamental phenomenological acts as understanding spatio-temporal relations or knowing where to look in the film frame—loomed for me as uncertain ventures in early cinema.[28]

The astonishment felt by Gunning and others led to a wealth of scholarship that revolutionized how all film history is written, not just early film history. And by 1992, when Gunning wrote that follow-up article, he was also able to point to areas that at that time had not been addressed: actuality filmaking; the cinema of the 1890s; the role of genre in early cinema; narrative modes of one-reel film; the contrast between national cinemas (many countries produced early cinema, and all of these needed to be studied, not just US, UK and France which were prioritized in Brighton); and finally, the interconnections between all the cinemas.

Much work has been done in the decade since Gunning wrote that article. Scholars all over the world are recovering the earliest cinema history of their own regions. Genre analysis proceeds apace, most notably on genres like the western. The cinema of the 1890s and pre-cinema has been carefully examined, especially by French scholars such as Laurent Mannoni. And some scholars such as Richard Abel (especially in The Red Rooster Scare) are looking at the relationships between countries. Even that most difficult area for early cinema—reception—is currently being studied by scholars such as Judith Thissen, Ben Singer, Shelley Stamp, and Kay Sloane.

Gunning’s 1992 list of work still to be done left out some key aspects: though some feminist analysis had been done, most notably by Linda Williams and more recently by Constance Balides, much work remains, and female filmmakers, whether directors, producers, writers, or editors, or working in exhibition, all have stories remaining to be told.[29] In addition, work by filmmakers of color, immigrant filmmakers working in foreign countries, etc. has been conspicuously left out until fairly recently; four recent books on Oscar Micheaux (see my discussion in Chapter 4) have begun to fill the gap and encouraged other writers such as Anna Everett, Jacqueline Stewart, Elizabeth Ezra and this writer to focus on race production and representation in the U.S. and Europe before 1915. Some work, most notably by Alison Griffiths, has been done on colonial film; but much more work is needed. Animation and early sound films have also been neglected, though some work has been done by Rick Altman and Donald Crafton.

Another legacy of Brighton was a new and almost unprecedented level of cooperation between film scholars and film archivists. Without the collaboration of archivists from all over the world and the increased access to films that the era after Brighton provided, this book could never have been written.

Alice Guy’s early years

How did guy come to be a film director at all, years before other women took on directing?

When Alice Guy was born on July 1, 1873, her father, Émile Guy, who was French, owned a chain of bookstores in Santiago, Chile. Guy’s mother made the sea voyage to France so that Guy, her fifth child, would be “properly French.” Guy was born in Saint-Mandé, then a Parisian suburb near the Bois de Vincennes.

Information about Guy’s childhood is sketchy. In her autobiography she explains that many French people went to South America “in order to rebuild a fortune much shaken by the Revolution.” Among these were the aunt and uncle of Guy’s mother, Marie. These relatives, having made their fortune, returned to France for a visit and noticed that their niece, Marie, was beautiful and charming and offered to help her marry well by matchmaking her with another member of the French expatriate community in Chile, Émile Guy. In an arrangement typical of the day, Alice Guy’s mother was taken as a teenager out of the strict convent where she had been educated, and suddenly married to Émile Guy on a ship bound for South America. Once there, she resolved to help her husband with his book business and to perform philanthropic services in the Chilean community.[30]

When Guy was born, her mother was twenty-six years old and already had numerous children. How many exactly is not quite clear; Guy mentions “brothers” in the plural in her Memoirs, and later mentions the early death of her oldest brother at the age of seventeen, of a rheumatic heart. The other brother is not mentioned again. More information is available on Guy’s sisters, in order of age: Julia, Henriette and Marguerite. Julia never married, though Gabriel Allignet indicated that she had a love affair with “a Corsican,” and died in a convent in Lyon. Henriette (b. 1872, d. 1939) married and had one child, Yvonne, the mother of Christiane and Gabriel Allignet. Guy’s nephew Gabriel went into the film business (as an animator) and became friends with Alice Guy after she retired from film directing.[31]

Then there was Marguerite, who died at the age of twenty-five, and finally, Alice. Apparently, Guy’s mother only took the trouble to make the seven-week sea voyage to France with Alice, her fifth child. Roberta Blaché, Alice Guy’s daughter-in-law, who knew Guy intimately at the end of her life, told me how Guy would recount with glee a kind of “family legend”: Marie, Guy’s mother, took the precaution of going to France to give birth to her fifth child because she had been having an affair with one of the Chilean vaqueros on the hacienda. If the child was not Émile Guy’s this could have been obvious at the birth, so it was prudent to give birth far away from prying eyes. When pressed to confirm or dispute this story, Alice Guy would simply shrug, with a twinkle in her eyes. There is no accurate way now to confirm nor dispute this story, but the fact that Guy chose to tell it herself in her later years gives us an idea of her sense of humor.

However, the circumstances of her birth make it seem unlikely. As soon as each of the Guy children reached the age of six, they were sent to Jesuit boarding schools in Europe “to receive the only education judged proper at the time,”[32] as Guy put it. When her older brother and three sisters were ill or had a school holiday, they took refuge with her maternal grandmother, who lived in Switzerland. Guy’s childhood differed slightly from that of her siblings because her mother and father went to Paris where Marie gave birth to her. Guy’s father returned to Santiago immediately and Guy’s mother followed a few months later, leaving her baby in the care of her mother in Switzerland. Guy remembered her three years with her grandmother fondly, and claimed that her parents’ “abandonment” of her “did her no harm.” The abandonment, however, was not permanent, as four years later Marie returned to take her baby back to Chile. This was traumatizing, as by then Alice Guy had completely forgotten her.[33] She was distracted from her loss by the ship itself, and in her memoirs vividly recounts many of the sights she saw, especially the passage through the walls of ice at the Strait of Magellan. As usual her mother suffered greatly from seasickness and could hardly walk when she got off the ship. Upon arriving in Valparaiso, Guy met her father for the first time:

The cabin-boy... conducted me to my mother whom I found, to my profound astonishment, in the arms of a tall gentleman who kissed her repeatedly and then examined her with care: “The voyage has tired you my poor Marie,” he said, “you don’t look well.”... My father... for the gentleman with the Gallic moustache was my father... seemed to notice me for the first time. He drew me near him and looked long at me.

“She resembles you, Marie,” he said at last, embracing me.[34]

So from age four to age six Alice Guy lived on the Guy hacienda in Valparaiso, Chile. Again, for this part of her life, the only information we have comes from the Memoirs. She specifically says that she did not see much of her parents, as her father was engaged in his business and her mother in her social and charitable duties. She was entrusted to the care of a Chilean nanny named Conchita, and spent every day with her, even Sunday, following her from the laundry room to the market, to mass, to the cliffs on Sunday afternoon where Conchita socialized with her friends as they pounded flour for empanadas on the rocks, and all over the hacienda. She slept in a hanging willow basket and learned to speak Spanish.

When she turned six, it was her father and not her mother who took her back to France. Apparently this turn of events was associated with some kind of trouble, either in her parents’ marriage or in her father’s business, as she remembers her father being distressed and unapproachable throughout the trip. Upon arrival he enrolled her at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, at Viry on the Swiss border, where her three sisters were also enrolled. The contrast with her previous life could not have been greater. The convent was dark and gloomy, the order strict. Meals were eaten in silence while a sermon was read to them, punishments like kneeling for hours with arms crossed was meted out for the smallest offense. The only relief were the times when she was sick (she suffered often from tonsilitis) and had to spend a week with her grandmother.

Guy remembered her six years at this convent as “years of imprisonment,” but she also said: “But the Sisters were not cruel. The Order was a strict one for them, also. The superior, a very great lady, wished to make us into strong, accomplished women, capable of conducting themselves correctly in any rank of society. To that end she employed the means of that era... We enjoyed, however, my sisters and I, a certain favor: we four were the protégées of Monseigneur Merlinod, then Bishop of Geneva, and family friends.”[35]

The “imprisonment” ended when Guy was twelve. In her memoirs, she runs through the pain of those years quickly and briefly:

A series of catastrophes put an end to our imprisonment. In Chile violent earthquakes, fire and theft ruined my parents. My father returned alone to France. He gathered up with him my brother and two eldest sisters and we, my last sister and I, were placed in a less expensive convent at Ferney, in the ancient chateau of Voltaire, properly exorcised. Who knows if his shade did not wander sometime in the garden or the rooms, listening with irony to our lessons

The death of my eldest brother, carried off at seventeen by a rheumatic heart, brought my mother back to France and reunited us all in Paris, in living conditions very different from those we had known. My eldest sister entered l’École normale, the two others were hastily married. I finished my studies in a little class on the rue Cardinet, while my father died at fifty-one, more broken by sorrow than by illness. I remained alone with my mother, who had never until then had to occupy herself with the realities of life.

However, he had kept several friends. Thanks to them, my mother was named director of the Mutualité Maternelle, a society created by the textile unions to aid needy women workers entering on maternity, social security being nonexistent in those days.... Thinking that contact with true misery could only be healthful for me, my mother took me with her to aid her in her work. My debut was difficult. I was to perfection the little white goose of the period. A bit of a snob, I felt the suburban people to be a different class of being. A few visits sufficed to waken my sympathy, my pity, often my admiration.[36]

This brief and stoic description of catastrophe piled on personal tragedy shows that Guy had learned the lessons taught in the strict convents very well.

Unfortunately, their troubles were not over. A disagreement with the management ended Madame Guy’s employment at the Mutualité after only a few months. But they had a new friend, the Secretary General of the Syndicate, nephew of the foundress of the convent where she had been educated. He was seventy years old and Alice, seventeen, but she found herself “perfectly charmed by him.” It was this friend who suggested that Guy study typing and stenography, new “sciences” at the time. Guy learned rapidly, and her teacher soon found her a job at a varnishing factory. The job was meant to be temporary from the beginning, a way of polishing her skills. At this job Guy experienced sexual harassment for the first time. She was the only female in the building, and one of her male colleages felt free to shower her with coarse language and innuendo. Guy stood up for herself, but then the man complained to management that she was harassing him. Guy stood her ground with the management as well, and strangely enough she and her harasser ended up becoming friends!

In March of 1895,[37] her old stenography professor informed her of a better position that might be suitable for her. And so at twenty-one Guy found herself knocking at the door of Le Comptoir général de photographie, a company that produced still photography and optical equipment owned by Felix Richard. A young inventor named Léon Gaumont was second-in-command and interviewed Guy for the secretarial position they had open. According to Guy’s Memoirs, after reading her recommendation he said:

“The recommendation is excellent, but this post is important. I fear, Mademoiselle, that you may be too young.”
  All my hopes crumbled.
“But Sir, I pleaded, “I’ll get over that.”
  He looked at me again, amused.
“Alas, that’s true,” he said, “you shall get over it. Well, let’s try.”[38]

The “try” went well and Alice Guy got the job. She described her job conditions as follows:

In front of one of the windows giving on the avenue of the Opera, a little table was placed for me, with a typewriter. I was surrounded by a screen. An electric bell linked me to the office of the directors, and, from eight in the morning until eight at night, six days per week, I had to answer the imperious bell-summons from the directorial desk.[39]

Jules and Félix Richard had taken over their father’s precision-tool company in 1877, and in 1882 re-organized it as Richard Frères, with a capital base of 60,000 French francs. Also in 1882, three other businessmen (Perrichont and the Picard brothers) started a boutique to sell photographic equipment at 57 rue Saint-Roch.

November 29, 1891, the Richard brothers decided to end their business collaboration. Félix sold his rights to his brother for 300,000 French francs, and agreed not to create or work for any kind of competing company. But Félix took his cash and bought the photographic company from Perrichont and the Picard brothers. He immediately began selling the photo-jumelle camera invented by Carpentier, the engineer who would later manufacture the cinématographes for the Lumières.

On October 5, 1893, the Paris Court found Félix Richard in violation of his non-competition agreement and forbade him to continue with his photographic boutique or to promote Carpentier’s photo-jumelle. Léon Gaumont, who had been an apprentice of Carpentier’s, went to work for Félix Richard sometime in 1893. Félix Richard appealed, but the decision was re-affirmed on the 28th of May of 1895. Once Richard found he had to retire from the business, he convinced his second-in-command to buy the company from him for 50,000 French francs. Gaumont didn’t think the company was worth that much, but Richard assured him (falsely, as it later turned out) that he would have exclusive rights to Carpentier’s photo-jumelle. Gaumont bought the company on July 6, 1895. On August 10, 1895, Gaumont’s Company, L. Gaumont et Cie, was established.[40] According to Guy’s memoirs, this occurred a few months after she came to work for the company as a secretary. When Gaumont bought the business and turned it into L. Gaumont et Cie., Guy remained as a trusted employee (her position was roughly what we would call an office manager today). And so she was in an enviable position to witness and participate in the birth of the industries of motion that characterized the 20th century: aviation, studies of human and animal locomotion, and cinema, all three of which were closely linked in their development.

[1] In the course of her life Guy had three names: Alice Guy (during the Gaumont period of her career) until she was married at the age of 34; Madame Blaché until she was divorced at the age of 50; and Alice Guy Blaché until she died at the age of 95. In France she is known as Alice Guy. In the U.S., the Library of Congress has filed her memoirs under Guy. For those reasons and for the sake of simplicity, I will call her Alice Guy, and I will refer to her husband, Herbert Blaché, as Blaché.

An earlier, abridged version of this introduction was given as a paper entitled “Voice and Voyeurism in Early Cinema,” at the Before the Auteur: Text, Filmmaking, Authorship From Early Cinema to the Thirties, International Conference on Film Studies, Udine, Italy, March 23, 1996.

[2] Slide, Anthony, Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History, Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

[3] There is some controversy about whether Henri Gallet also directed some of the early Gaumont films. For more on this, see Chapters One and Three.

[4] Brownlow, Kevin The Parade’s Gone By…. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Fell, L. ed., Film Before Griffith, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1983. Mast, Gerald, A Short History of the Movies, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1971. Roud, Richard ed. Cinema, A Critical Dictionary: The Major Filmmakers, Vols. I & II, 1980.

[5] Mitry, Jean Filmographie universelle t. II Paris: IDHEC 1964, Histoire du cinéma t. 1: 1895–1914 t. 2: 1915–1925 Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1969. Sadoul, Georges, Histoire générale du cinéma Tome I: L’Invention du cinéma (1893–1897), Paris: Denoël 1946 re-edited, with corrections, in 1947, Histoire du cinema mondial des origines à nos jours, Flammarion, 1949.

[6] Langlois, Henri “French Cinema: Origins” in Richard Roud, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary of the Major Film-makers, Vol. I, Aldrich to King, New York: Viking Press, 1980, pp. 394–401.

[7] Ford, Charles “The First Female Film Producer,” Films in Review 15, 3 (March 1964): 141. Lacassin, Francis, “Out of Oblivion: Alice Guy-Blaché,” Sight and Sound, 40, 3 (Summer, 1971): 151–54. Peary, Gerald, “Czarina of the Silent Screen: Solax’s Alice Blaché,” Velvet Light Trap 6 (Fall, 1972): 2–7. Smith, F.L., “Alice Guy-Blaché,” Films in Review 15, 4 (April, 1964): 254.

[8] Guy, Alice, Autobiographie d’une pionnière du cinéma (1873–1968), Collection Femme, Paris: Denoël/Gonthier, 1976.

[9] Slide, Anthony, ed., The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché, transl. Roberta & Simone Blaché, Filmmakers, No. 12, Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1986, Revised and re-released, 1996.

[10] Mitry, Jean: “À propos d’Alice Guy’ in Écran, no. 49, 15 juillet, 1976 p. 5. Deslandes, Jacques: “Sur Alice Guy-Blaché: polémique” in Écran no. 50, 5 septembre 1976, p. 4. Wanamaker, Marc: “Alice Guy-Blaché in Cinema, no. 35, Beverly Hills, 1976, pp. 10–13. Koehler, M.:” Die Filmpionerin Alice Guy in Medien und Erziebung no. 2, Munich, 1983. Bachy, Victor: “Un oublié de l’Histoire: Alice Guy, première femme cinéaste du monde” in J.M. Peters, Liber Americorum, Leuven, CeCoWe, 1984 pp. 47–58. Heck-Rabi, Louise: “Guy Alice” in The MacMillan Dictionary, vol. II, Directors (MacMillan Publications, 1984, pp. 239–241.

[11] Slide, Anthony Early Women Directors, Their Role in the Development of the Silent Cinema, South Brunswick and New York, A.S. Barnes and Company, London Thomas Yoseloff Ltd. 1977, pp. 15–33.

Reprint: New York: Da Capo Press, 1984.

Re-issued (and extensively rewritten) as The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors, Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996.

[12] MacCann, Dyer, The First Filmmakers, American Movies: The First Thirty Years Metuchen, N.J. & London: The ScareCrow Press Iowa city, Iowa: Image and Idea, Inc. 1989.

[13] Marchessault, Jovette, “Mon héroïne,” Les Lundis de l’histoire des femmes an 1, Conférences du théâtre expérimental des femmes, Montréal: Les Éditions Remue-Ménage, Quebec, 1981, pp. 150–187.

[14] Breton, Emile, Femmes d’images Paris: Éditions Messidor, Octobre 1984 pp. 10–17.

[15] Guibbert, Pierre, ed., Les Premiers ans du cinéma français, Perpignan, Institut Jean Vigo, collection des Cahiers de la Cinémathèque, décembre 1985, 319 p. Contains: Bachy, Victor “Les Raisons d’un effacement,” pp. 27–30, “Entretiens avec Alice Guy” pp. 31–42. Spehr, Paul C. “Influences françaises sur la production américaine d’avant 1914,” pp. 105–115.

[16] Acker, Ally Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema New York: Continuum, 1991. Foster, Audrey Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press 1995. Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Women Who Made the Movies. New York: Women Make Movies, Inc. 1991. Video. Heck-Rabi, Louise Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception Metuchen, N.J. & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1984. Quart, Koenig Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema New York, Wesport CT., London: Praeger 1988. Smith, Sharon Women Who Make Movies Cinema Studies Series, Lewis Jacobs, Consulting Ed. New York: Hopkinson & Blake 1975.

[17] Viscenzi, Lisa, Alice Guy Blaché’s Solax Company, unpublished Master’s Thesis, Film Division Library, Columbia University, c. 1984.

[18] Abel, Richard, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896–1914, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. As ed., Silent Film, Depth of Field, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996. Bowser, Eileen, The Transformation Of Cinema, 1907-1915, History of the American Cinema Series, Vol. 2, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. Burch, Noël, Life to Those Shadows, Ben Brewster, transl. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Fernett, Gene, American Film Studios: An Historical Encyclopedia, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc. 1988. Hayward, Susan, French National Cinema, National Cinemas Series, New York: Routledge, 1993. Herbert, Stephen and Luke McKernan, Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, London: BFI Publishing, 1996. Koszarski, Richard, An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915–1928, History of the American Cinema Series, Vol. 3, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. Hollywood Directors 1914–1940, London: Oxford University Press, 1976. Sklar, Robert, Films: An International History of the Medium, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993. Slide, Anthony, The American Film Industry: A Historical Dictionary, New York: Limelight Editions, 1990. Vincendeau, Ginette, ed., Encyclopedia of European Cinema, New York: Facts on File Inc., 1995. Williams, Alan, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

[19] Bachy, Victor, Alice Guy Blaché (1873–1968) La Première femme cinéaste du monde, Collec. “Les Cahiers de la Cinémathèque,” Perpignan, France: Inst. Jean Vigo, 1993.

[20] See complete list of films with distribution information in appendix.

[21] The Silent Feminists, produced by Anthony Slide (documentary on early women filmmakers). Distributed on video by Direct Cinema, P.O. Box 10003, Santa Monica, CA. 90410–9003.

[22] Qui est Alice Guy?, documentary produced by Nicole-Lise Bernheim, 1975.

[23] See principally, Francis Lacassin’s comments in The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché, Anthony Slide, ed., translated by , Filmmakers no. 12, Lanham, Md. and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1996 (1986), p. 28 and 136.

[24] Elle voulait faire du cinéma, Tele-film. Co-production: Cinémas (Mag Bodard), Antenne 2, R.T.B.F., R.A.I. II, S.F.P., Ministère de la Culture, 1985. Scénario et réalisation: Caroline Huppert.

[25] See for example Acker, Ally Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present, New York: Continuum, 1996, p. xix.

[26] For more on the Brighton Conference of 1978, see Cinema 1900–1906: An Analytical Study by the National Film Archive (London) and the International Federation of Film Archives, compiled by Roger Holman, Brussels: FIAF 1982 and Cinema 1900–1906: An Analytical Study by the National Film Archive (London) and the International Federation of Film Archives, Vol. 2, “Analytical Filmography,” under the supervision of André Gaudreault, Brussels: FIAF 1982.

[27] Elsaesser, Thomas, ed., Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London: BFI Publishing, 1990.

[28] “Enigmas, Understanding, and Further Questions: Early Cinema Research in Its Second Decade Since Brighton” by Tom Gunning in Persistance of Vision, The Journal of the Film Faculty of the City University of New York, No. 9, 1992, pp. 4–10.

[29] Jane Gaines at Duke University maintains a database on researchers working on women filmmakers and has started an organization, the Women Film Pioneers, to support research and film preservation in this area.

[31] From a personal interview with Gabriel Allignet in Paris in 1995.

[35] Ibid. , pp. 9–10.

[36] Ibid. , p. 11.

[37] Though Anthonly Slide believes it might have been March of 1894. Blaché, Memoirs, p. 15.

[39] Ibid. , p. 17.

[40] Mannoni, Laurent, “Le Quatrième Centenaire du Cinéma,” in Théorème: Cinéma des premiers temps, nouvelles contributions françaises, No. 4, Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1996, pp. 32–33. This information is repeated with some minor updating in a biography by Mannoni, de, Ferrière le Vayer and Paul Demenÿ, Georges Demenÿ: Pionnier du cinéma, Douai: Pagine Éditions, 1997, pp. 83–84.