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Part 2: The First Woman Director and the Beginning of Cinema

This is part two of a two-part blog post. For part one click here.

Still from “Midwife to the Upper Class,” Left to Right: Alice Guy-Blaché, Germaine Mugnier-Serand, Yvonne Mugnier-Serand.

 

What drew you initially to the work of Alice Guy-Blaché? 

 The incredible collection of nitrate and safety film, and related copyright and paper documents that bring these rare materials together in one place here at the Library. When I served as curator of the American Film Institute Collection and liaison to the Library of Congress from 2000 to 2008 I tried to acquire a diverse and representative range of material from different eras, but I also wanted to build on pre-existing moving image subjects in the Library, and particularly what was not accessible for viewing. Curation requires both responsibility and judgment in selecting material, whether it be a singular item or more. Keeping similar material in a singular location has many advantages for an institution and for the researchers and the public it serves.

The Library’s moving image collection is the most diverse and largest in the world thanks to copyright law and the acquisition of public domain material. The American Film Institute (AFI) was created for this reason, that is, to acquire public domain materials, and especially moving image on nitrate stock that had been destroyed during the Library’s paper era of registration. Due to the hazardous nature of nitrate, copyright submission in those years was limited to documents and paper prints or photographs of frames from a film, and for this reason the majority of silent era productions have been lost.

I became interested in digital preservation, which was initially controversial, especially for the American archival community. But the motion picture industry drives preservation and my European colleagues were exploring digital media, so I continued to research new methods. Over the years, the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division and AFI acquired and preserved a number of Alice Guy Solax and Gaumont titles on nitrate stock using analog methods which varied, according to the technology available at the time. Fair to poor quality safety duplicate negatives generated from deteriorating nitrate that was later discarded are some of the only extant copies of these films in the world. Almost all of the Library’s safety and nitrate films prints are singular copies. New digital technology vastly improves on their image quality such that we see details of sets, character facial expressions, lighting, color tinting and location settings that tell us much about the history of cinema as much as about the social and cultural history of the United States.

Still from “A Fool and His Money,” Left to right: James Russell, unknown actress.

What can you tell me about the acquisition and preservation of these films?

I spent over a decade preserving and acquiring films directed and or/produced by Alice Guy. The support of my colleagues in international archives, and the generosity of organizations such as the Film Foundation, the New York Women in Film and Television, and The Women Film Pioneer Project at Columbia University, and documentary filmmakers like Green, contributed to making this material more accessible to the public in different forms.

Today, the Library holds the largest collection of Alice Guy Solax productions, including A Fool and His Money (1912), which Guy produced and directed. It stars an all African-American cast, of mostly unknown players, with the exception of James Russell, otherwise known as the “cake-walk king,” a popular vaudeville and minstrel show entertainer. The film has been screened at numerous festivals and is on a previously released Kino-Lorber Pioneer Women DVD set. The Solax Collection, like the Mary Pickford Collection at the Library, attest to the incredible contributions women and particularly unknown immigrants and people of color, made to the early film industry, and not just as stars. So, there remains more that needs to be done with these collections, especially in terms of public access such as exhibits and online streaming and portals, as the process does show us that presentation allows for a more holistic understanding of these materials and their significance.

Still from “The Ocean Waif,” Left to right: Carlyle Blackwell, Doris Kenyon.

What do you wish more people knew about her?

She never received the attribution and acknowledgement she deserved, especially for a women in her time. Alice Guy did not save her films as did Mary Pickford, who donated her collection of original negatives to LC. But years later Alice traveled to Washington, DC, to visit the Library in an attempt to find her films. She made numerous other attempts to locate her films over the years and also wrote The Memoirs of Alice Guy-Blaché in the late 1940s, which repositions her place in film history. Guy was later interviewed by a number of renowned historians. Like the memories of many pioneers, Guy’s account is what she recalled, and what she remembered was that she was the only woman to witness and participate in the birth of moving images.

Throughout her life, Alice Guy trained and collaborated with other directors, all of them male. The notion of a director working without collaborators was uncommon at the turn of the century. Many of the earliest moving images were demonstration films that advertised a company’s motion picture hardware. The early years of cinema are often referred to as the novelty period because what attracted the interest of the public was the apparatus—projectors, cameras and technology itself—sound and color and movement. As moving images moved from a single shot to a series of shots, popular consumer culture like postcards, cartoons and performances, such as dancers and singers, and comedy sketches provided subject matter. Story-based films and non-fiction actualities like foreign locations and everyday activities—workers leaving a factory, a baby eating breakfast or young boys playing with a watering hose are other examples. At this time attribution is often difficult to determine as credits and names other than that of the production company logo did not appear on film prints.

Alice was rarely acknowledged by the pioneer film historians of her generation and the first writers of film history. Many of the men she trained and worked with received credit for her work. Without her films, Alice Guy was pretty much forgotten, as are many silent pioneers and protagonists. But years later she regained the confidence of her youth and recorded her life achievement in her own words, which is a valuable lesson for women and all of us, because it reminds us of the importance of writing history in our time.

 

What do you think the most significant legacy of Alice Guy’s work at the beginning of filmmaking has been?

To this day, she is the only woman to have owned and operated her own studio plant. It would be difficult to identify another pioneer (especially a woman) who witnessed, participated in, and contributed to the international development and art of moving images as much as she did. In 2011, the Directors Guild of America gave Guy a posthumous Special Directorial Award for Lifetime Achievement, reflecting her huge impact on film.

We might say Guy’s preferred milieu as a director was “the women’s room” or any setting that centered on the life experience of women, whether it be a cabbage patch, the domestic sphere of the home, the wild west, the urban city ghettos of immigrant strangers, or the living rooms and salons of bourgeois ladies. This does not mean Guy was a feminist, as she was not, but she did know what subjects to pursue for the large female audience going to the movies in the 1910s.

Like many women today, Alice Guy was ambitious and had her own ideas. She set her mind on making her own films and telling stories rather than making demonstration films that advertised company hardware. The daughter of a bookshop owner, Guy loved to read and so she convinced Leon Gaumont to allow her to create her own stories by making films. Her first film, Sage-femme de premiè€re classe (First Class Mid Wife, 1902), is about a young couple who visit the stall of a midwife in order to purchase a baby from a cabbage patch. Guy, her secretary and her secretary’s sister appeared in the film. Guy played the role of the husband and dolls, and live babies were used along with a painted cardboard set made to look like a cabbage patch. Popular postcards of babies being born in cabbage patches delivered by fairies was a theme widely repeated in early motion pictures and likely an inspiration.

Guy repeated ideas such as these later. Her imaginative ways of seeing become more defined when she moves to the United States, as do her distinct points of view, her intimate tone and visual style of storytelling, and, most of all, her wonderment at looking. Mothers and their children and young working- class girls would likely be interested in such stories. Babies and young children are motifs that appear throughout Guy’s oeuvre and were featured in many early French films. Guy used cross-dressing, which was part of the French Grand Guignol theatrical tradition, for comic relief. Two of her Solax protégées, female child actors Vinnie Burns and Magda Foy played both female and male parts. But she typically chose adult male characters dressed in drag as a source of pleasure for women spectators. Whereas young female cross-dressers, Foy and Burnes portrayed boy heroes.

But there is also the idea of disguise at play in many of these films, in which physical gestures, facial expressions, and bodily mannerisms, as well as costumes, function as a form of playful humor in which role reversal allows women to play at being powerful and men are the weaker sex.

Guy’s desire to make movies for women and in which women appear speaks to why lesser known and underrepresented figures like her merit our attention. Understanding Guy’s career trajectory in France, and then in the United States at a key moment in the development of the industry, is essential to understanding how the cinema was institutionalized and how film became a consumer product and form of mass-media communication. Her adventurous career reminds us of the possibilities offered to women before they earned the right to vote in 1920. It’s incredible to think that prior to World War I, ambitious and innovative women, many who were also mothers, worked as directors, screenwriters, producers and managers and with little resources and under difficult economic circumstances especially in comparison to what we have at our disposal today.

In today’s context, Alice Guy’s career resembles that of struggling independent filmmakers, except that today’s digital technologies and alternative methods of distribution, such as festivals and streaming, provide opportunities outside the commercial industry we know as Hollywood. But certainly, as a woman, Guy had far more success than most women today working in the industry, and this is important for us to reflect on and explore further with respect to other women in her time and ours.

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