In her memoirs, Alice Guy wrote, that she couldn’t understand why more women didn’t become filmmakers. After all, women are natural storytellers and superb analysts by nature. 42 years after Guy’s death— on March 7, 2010, Kathryn Bigelow changed history when she received Oscars for her narrative war film “The Hurt Locker,” honored in six categories including Best Director and Best Picture. Additional Oscar nominations were granted to Bigelow’s lead actor, composers and cinematographer. Unfortunately, there are still far too few women in the filmmaking arena, and most of these flock to documentary. Being a woman filmmaker working in experimental-narratives, I’m not exactly sure why fictive filmmaking is not as enticing to women as documentary, but that’s just the way it is—-for now.
Guy was born July 1, 1873 in Paris, France. In 1894, the inventor Léon Gaumont hired her to be a secretary at his still photography company. Fascinated by the evolving motion picture industry, Gaumont manufactured the Demeny Chrono in 1896. Under the name L. Gaumont et Cie, he built a large production house, film repository and extravagant theaters. From her secretarial perch, Guy watched the flowering and maturation of the movie industry within Gaumont’s walls. Being a brilliant and feisty woman, she wanted to take part in this history in-the-making, though she had absolutely no experience in the field, or the means to do so.
Very soon, the beautiful Ms. Guy managed to convince her boss that she should direct and film advertisements for the company. Hesitantly he agreed, with the clear understanding that such activity should in no way interfere with her regular secretarial duties. Thus, began the career of the world’s first female director of motion pictures, and pioneer of the fiction-film genre.
From 1896 through 1907, Guy was Léon Gaumont’s Chief of Production. It was within this period, prior to her marriage to Herbert Blaché, and their establishment of the pre-Hollywood, American studio known as The Solax Company, that Guy made her most experimental, provocative, beyond-feminist films. One film entitled, “Madame’s Cravings” (1906), may even be considered early porn— making a comical yet serious feminist statement about the plight of married women.
Guy’s cinematic experimentalism was not always apparent, as in the case of early avant-garde cinema that often suggested a moving abstract drawing, or played with the medium of film itself. It was not obvious because her films were always narrative, even when the story was nonlinear, concerned the motion of fabric or seemed ridiculous, slapstick. For Guy, experimentalism concerned how the narrative was presented, and the manner in which she camouflaged or sabotaged this. Some films incorporated documentary and then proceeded to merge this with fiction, making it difficult to perceive where one ended and the other began. Examples of these were “Spain” (1905) where the director herself made a cameo appearance, and “The Malaguena and the Bullfighter” (1905). In Spain, Guy discarded the stationary, long distance camera and experimented with a moving camera— tracking shots of people and terrain. However, being entirely self-taught and lacking any particular method in those early years, her approach was inconsistent. Thus, any progress in the year 1905 regarding camera moves and closer lens distance often reverted to stationary camerawork and long distance in 1906. Though aggravating to modern critics, it is important to understand that this flip-flopping was the way she learned and that because of her odd process, cinematography is what we take for granted, today.
Another little known fact was that Guy experimented with sound synchronization in 1905 and perhaps earlier— long before the emergence of
“The Jazz Singer” (1927). Utilizing Leon Gaumont’s elaborate Chronographe, invented in 1897, and Chronophone in 1903, sound could be played back while actors lip-synced to create the impression of synchronized sound. Her film, “Cook and Rilly’s Trained Rooster” (1905) not only refined this process, but employed close-ups as well.
In those early years, Gaumont also experimented with film colorization—long before the premiere of “The Gulf Between” (1917). He accomplished this by selectively hand-painting certain areas of the film frame. In another process, he tinted entire frames creating a more uniform colorization. Guy refined these techniques in Pierrete’s “Escapades” and “At the Floral Ball Featuring Miss Julyette of the Olympia,” two dance films dating back to 1900.
Guy’s early films toyed with identity and gender in a very blatant way. In the silent era, men were often used to play women’s roles in strenuous action films. After all, female stunt people were unheard of at that time. However, she often used females to play male roles, or bestowed close-up female roles upon males when there was no action involved. Examples are evident in certain close-up scenes in “Madame’s Cravings,” a feminist tale about a pregnant woman who insisted that her husband care for the babies while she stilled odd cravings in a most radical manner that often involved the theft of objects and food. Flabbergasted, we watch Madame (portrayed by a man in drag) engage in provocative oral activities with a herring, pipe, wine glass and lollipop—stunts that were not in any way arduous. Examples of non- pornographic, transvestism/transgenderism may also be seen in her early dance dramas such as “The Tango” (1905), where men portrayed women though the action was not in any way, rigorous.
So why did Guy manipulate gender in this way? Yes, she was clearly feminist and definitely, independent and ahead of her time, but her cinematic statement was not obvious. In fact, it did not necessarily concern men or women at all. From the beginning films onward, concerns about identity were reflected in the mutability of fabric. For Guy, fabric represented people, culture, religion and political history. As fabric moved, flowed, encircled, and suffocated, so it represented our status in society. This concept was later continued by her Gaumont Company successors, Louis Feuillade and Léonce Perret.
Alice Guy’s rare films of 1897-1907 may be viewed in Kino’s boxed set entitled “Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913.” The early films of Feuillade and Perret are also contained in this collection.