Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer

Joan Simon (ed.),
Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer.
New Haven/London: Yale University Press, in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-300-15250-0
US$40.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Yale University Press)

Historians now agree that Alice Guy Blaché is the most important woman director of the early 20th century, but her film career was virtually unknown until the late 1970s. Indeed, at the time of her death in 1968, Guy believed that only three films of hers had survived. In the wake of the burgeoning women’s movement and feminist film studies, Guy Blaché’s autobiography, Autobiographie d’une Pionière du Cinema (1873-1968)was first published in France in 1976, followed quickly by translations into German (1981) and English (1986), – the former inexplicably missing in the present publication’s bibliography – and interest in Alice Guy increased dramatically. However, only a handful of films had been identified in the archives, making further research challenging. And while the French ‘Films des femmes’ Festival (1994) presented several programs of Alice Guy films and hosted a conference, and the ‘Giornate del cinema muto’ in Italy (1999) screened as many as eighteen Alice Guy films in their ‘Un tresor dans une amoire’ series, publications about the director remained few and far between, except for Victor Bachy’s little reviewed and even less well-known book, Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968): La Première Femme Cineaste du Monde (1993). It was Alison McMahan’s absolutely ground-breaking study, Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema (2002) that made the greatest impact on film historiography. Indeed, all of the authors in the present volume credit McMahan, not only with jump-starting research on Alice Guy, but also with single-handedly finding, identifying, and animating the international film archive community to preserve the more than 130 titles now surviving, while more than 1,000 films have been identified. McMahan’s reworked dissertation remains the gold standard, while here she contributes an essay which summarizes and slightly updates her previous work.

The present slim anthology functions as a catalogue for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition of the same name, Alice Guy Blaché. Cinema Pioneer. Between 6 November 2009 and 24 January 2010, the Whitney in New York screened approximately eighty surviving films in the first ever retrospective of Alice Guy’s work, including new restorations of the Solax films, A Greater Love Hath No Man (USA 1911), Mixed Pets(USA 1911), The Sewer (USA 1912), A House Divided (USA 1913), and a number of Gaumont sound films. In cooperation with the Alliance Française, new musical scores were commissioned and composed by female composers/groups Tender Forever, a.k.a. Melanie Valera, Du Yun, Missy Mazzoli and her ensemble, and Tamar Muskal. According to the curator and editor of the catalogue, Joan Simon, the retrospective and book celebrate the filmmaker, the latter gathering together essays by film scholars who have either previously published work on Guy Blaché or early cinema.

Joan Simon’s introductory essay reads the filmmaker’s autobiography, covering the basic outlines of her career, starting as a secretary at the Gaumont Film Company in 1894, transitioning to the head of film production, and eventually moving to the United States in 1907 with her new husband, Herbert Blaché, where he tried unsuccessfully to sell Gaumont’s sound film system. Ironically, Guy herself had been responsible for most of Gaumont’s so-called Chronophone films, produced between 1903 and 1908. After the birth of their daughter, Alice Guy founded the Solax Film Company in New York in 1910, owning and operating her own film studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. However, Guy Blaché eventually took a back seat to her husband’s career, directing features sporadically until 1920, when she retired from filmmaking and divorced her husband. Simon also discusses her Gaumont films, identifying themes and tropes which would continue to appear in Guy’s work in America, including childhood, difficult family relations, chases, and “issues of class, money, and gambling” (p. 15).

Alan Williams, whose Republic of Images (1992) is an English language standard on French film history, focuses in ‘The Sage Femme of Early Cinema’, more heavily on the French Gaumont films, noting that she was the producer that helped develop the “studio system” at Gaumont (p. 34); through her films she addressed a mostly upper middle class audience, while Gaumont’s rival, Pathé Frères, targeted the working classes. Given this audience, Williams is quick to note that Guy was not only the first female auteur of cinema, developing a personal set of themes and a house style, but also an artistic and social conservative, who generally followed rather than created technical innovations – just as she had copied Lumiére’s work in her first films – and propagated traditional family values and social mores.

As noted above, Alison McMahan’s essay, “Madame Blaché in America: Director, Owner, Producer,” covers the same territory as her book – especially her discussion of the Gaumont ‘Chronophones’ (sound fims) – but her argument does point out some differences in interpretation. While Charles Musser, like other film historians, lays the blame for Guy Blaché’s derailed American film career and fall into obscurity on her philandering and generally despicable husband, McMahan argues that the economic recession of 1913-14 probably killed Solax, while World War I lead Gaumont and other French companies to pull out of the American market, leaving Guy without possible financial support and a distributor in France. Nevertheless, McMahan also notes the way Herbert Blaché continually undermines his wife’s position, losing lots of her money through stock market speculation, renegotiating deals to her detriment and leaving “her holding the bag when it came to the studio, which was auctioned off at a tremendous loss.” (p. 74) In fact, if one looks at other male colleagues working around 1900-05, not a single one was still working in 1920, so that Guy’s film career was in fact quite long and successful.

After Jane Gaines’ brief reading of Alice Guy Blaché’s 1912 Solax film, New Love and the Old (USA), which demonstrates melodrama’s subversive potential, Charles Musser’s “The Wages of Feminism: Alice Guy Blaché and Her Late Feature Films” tries to interpret the marital dynamic between Alice and Herbert in terms of the public perception of a companionate marriage relationship based on equality and professional commonality, while privately, gender roles remained absolutely traditional. As Musser notes: “Alice Blaché’a generous help to her husband facilitated his dalliances, creating new inequalities and stresses in their relationship.” (p. 84) Musser goes on to present close readings of three films, The Ocean Waif (USA 1916), The Empress (USA 1917), and The Great Adventure (USA 1918), discussing them in terms of an evolving (downward trajectory) image of a male artist who, in each case, is a would-be seducer of the heroine, but possibly also a version of her own artist-husband.

Finally, in “Wonderment – Seeing the World through the Eyes of Alice Guy Blaché,” film historian/archivist Kim Tomadjoglou discusses the preservation of Guy’s films at the Library of Congress, noting that one of the major issues of Alice Guy scholarship is the fragmentary nature of her legacy and the literal fragments that make up many of her surviving films. Some of the films at the Library had been previously preserved, but were now improved for the Whitney exhibition through digital tools; other nitrate based films were preserved for the first time in the analogue realm, including A Fool and His Money (USA 1912), the earliest known film with an all-African-American cast, and Mixed Pets (USA 1911). Tomadjoglou reads the latter film in comparison to the thematically similar French films, La Fée aux choux (France 1900?) and Sage-femme des premiére classe(France 1902), demonstrating Guy’s advancement in the use of film technique.

The volume closes with a useful bibliography and a complete list of all presently surviving Alice Guy films. As a quick introduction for a general public of the work of Alice Guy Blaché and as an exhibition catalogue for the Whitney retrospective, this volume is excellent. However, one might have wished for a stronger editorial hand to avoid the many repetitions in these introductory essays with slight variations. For example, Simon, Williams, and Tomadjoglou all discuss the controversy surrounding the dating of Guy’s first film, La Fée aux choux/The Cabbage Fairy, which Guy apparently misdates in her autobiography (1896, instead of 1900?) and possibly confuses with her later film, Sage-femme des premiére classe (1902). For film historians wishing to dig deeper, I suggest going first to Alison McMahan’s book, then this volume for an update on Alice Guy Blaché scholarship.

Jan-Christopher Horak,

Created on: Sunday, 18 April 2010

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →