The Life and Times of Alice Guy
In a career that began with the birth of cinema itself, Alice Guy directed more than 1,000 films. But her own story is more dramatic than anything she committed to celluloid.
When she died in 1968 at the ripe old age of 95, pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy believed that all but three of her films were lost. In a career begun with the birth of cinema itself (she and boss Léon Gaumont were among those invited to the first demonstration of the Lumière brothers cinématographe), Guy had directed more than 1,000 films, including an estimated 100 sound films (long before the “talkies”), and had supervised the production of many more. After a divorce from her English husband Herbert Blaché and the shuttering of Solax, her New Jersey production facility (complete with film developing lab, a glass studio, a western town, and a lake and still the only film studio to be owned and operated by a woman), Guy returned to France and, in 1927, determined to work in film again began to search for her French-made films.
Turning up nothing, she traveled back to the United States in search of her American-made films, some of them freelance for studios like Metro and Pathé, hoping to use them as work samples to get a badly needed directing job. She came up empty-handed once again. An entire career that had spanned genres from short actualities to feature-length melodramas and science fiction and that had coincided with the crucial first two decades of cinema, when the language of film and its production techniques were codified, down the historical drain.
The enormity of the loss must have been devastating to Guy, then entering her 50s and, at this point, concerned with the practical matter of an income rather than of her legacy. While she taught some, she never directed another movie and languished, largely forgotten, first in France, then in New Jersey, dependent on her children financially. By middle-age, she had come full circle, as she had entered the workforce at 17 to help support her mother and her siblings.
Daughter to a French bookseller and his wife Marie, Guy was born in Paris even as her family home was located in faraway in Valparaiso, Chile, where her father had sought, as did many other countrymen, according to Guy, “to rebuild a fortune much shaken by the Revolution.” Her pregnant mother made the seasick voyage back through the Strait of Magellan and across the Atlantic to be sure that Alice be “truly French.” Raised in her early years by her grandmother in Switzerland, Guy was taken to Chile at age four and remained until age 6, when she was shipped back to Europe to be groomed for womanhood by the strict sisters of the Convent of the Sacred Heart located near France’s mountainous border with Switzerland.
Earthquakes, fires and theft, recounts Guy in her memoirs, destroyed her family’s businesses in Chile and the father returned to France in diminished circumstances when Guy was 12. The death of her eldest brother furthered the demise of the bread-winning Monsieur Guy, who died too young at age 51, in Alice’s words, “more broken by sorrow than by illness.” She was transferred closer to home to a more affordable school, then, at age 17, found herself in need of a job. A family friend suggested she train on the typewriter, the latest gadget to emerge during the late 19th century’s flurry of mechanical invention. At her first job, she was what we now call sexually harassed. She stuck it out for a time, even, according to biographer Alison McMahan, making friends with her tormentor. Eventually, she left for a better, less bothersome position at the Comptoire général de photographie, where the latest gadgets came in through the door almost daily.
If ever there was a right place, right time in film history, this was it. Not only was her new boss Léon Gaumont, whose namesake studio still operates today, Guy also met and mingled with a veritable Who’s Who of turn-of-the-century movers and shakers, among them engineer Gustav Eiffel and Brazilian aviator Santos-Dumont, whose love of gadgetry was legend (he parked one of his mini-dirigibles outside Maxim’s where he held court on chairs seven feet high.). Guy greeted Georges Demenÿ, former associate of Étienne-Jules Marey, who came to the comptoir to demonstrate his phonoscope, which created “the illusion of the motions of speaking and of facial movement,” in hopes of attracting Gaumont as an investor. To hawk their photographic inventions, many of these tinkerers and entrepreneurs knew the value of showing not only how their machines worked but also the final products they produced, of the kind that Guy went to see by invitation of the Lumières on March 22, 1895. She recalled the “demonstration films” as “brief and repetitious” and thought she could do better. “Gathering my courage,” she relayed in her memoirs years later, “I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform in them.” He agreed, as long as it didn’t interfere with her regular job as secretary.
The result was La Fée aux choux, Guy’s first film and one of the first pieces of fiction committed to celluloid. What followed was two decades of fairy tales, war stories, slapstick comedies, trick films, adaptations of literature (Faust’s deal with Mephistopheles cut in two easy minutes (Faust and Mephistopheles), the entire life of Christ in 30 minutes (The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ), heist films (The Burglars, who bungle the job when it goes rooftop), dance films (including gorgeous color films like Pierrette’s Escapades and reenactments of Spanish folk dances), travelogues (Guy makes a cameo with a group of children during the Granada portion of Spain), satires (the gleeful gender-reversal farce The Consequences of Feminism), morality plays (Making of an American Citizen), the downright bizarre (Turn of the Century Surgery), and even a “making of,” (Alice Guy Films a “Phonoscéne”) which shows her directing in 1905 on a Paris soundstage.
When she married and crossed the ocean once again, she and her husband set up shop in Cleveland to promote the Gaumont sound films and device, the chronophone. It never caught on (they lived off Alice’s dowry and savings), so she returned to directing and producing silent films. She was successful enough to start her own studio first in Flushing, then build one in Fort Lee, New Jersey, often supervising on horseback. She made a smooth transition to feature production, both at Solax and as a director for hire. Even as her fortunes declined, the studio in arrears, her husband run off to Los Angeles with a young actress, Guy briefly rebounded (with Blaché’s help) and worked with Nazimova in Hollywood during the larger-than-life actress’s most fertile time in Hollywood. Étienne Arnaud, Louis Feuillade, Henri Menessier, Victorin Jasset, Ferdinand Zecca, and Lois Weber all passed through her studio doors, trained in her production methods and exposed to her revolutionary acting philosophy: “Be Natural.”
Behind the scenes, there is more than enough personal drama for a movie of the week. She raised a son and daughter, writing, directing, editing, and producing during her pregnancies (in the early 1900s!). She took paraffin injections to plumpen her cheeks so she looked better on film (Alison McMahan says that’s Guy handling the babies in Midwife to the Upper Classes, which sadly contains an unforgivable racist moment intended as a joke.) She fled to Canada to avoid an outbreak of polio in the U.S. and spent time in North Carolina during World War I, nursing her children through the measles and volunteering for the Red Cross. Once in Chicago, one of them was kidnapped for a few hours. (Kidnapped!?) That’s all we know. And that she bought a handgun afterwards for protection (stashed somewhere in her Victorian bustle?). She caught and recovered from the Spanish flu, a pandemic that infected an estimated one-third of the population worldwide and claimed up to 50 million lives, including those of four Solax employees.
If ever there was a right place, right time in film history, this was it. Not only was her new boss Léon Gaumont, whose namesake studio still operates today, Guy also met and mingled with a veritable Who’s Who of turn-of-the-century movers and shakers, among them engineer Gustav Eiffel and Brazilian aviator Santos-Dumont, whose love of gadgetry was legend.
The work to resuscitate her place in film history also began with her. In 1930, Gaumont was going to publish a history of his company but left out any mention of the films made before 1907, thereby cutting out Guy completely. Guy politely wrote asking him not to omit those years. He acquiesced but his book was never published. After a few of her lectures met with positive responses, Guy began working on her own memoirs (published posthumously in 1976). She struck up a correspondence with Gaumont’s son Louis, also writing a history, and thanks to a speech he gave about her, she began to receive some public recognition for her contribution to cinema. In 1955, she received a belated Legion of Honor (Gaumont received his in 1924), and, in 1957, Henri Langlois put on a ceremony in Guy’s honor at the Cinematheque in 1957, though he had neglected to mention her in his earlier article “French Cinema: Origins.” All these years—and the toil of many archivists—later the enormous scope of her contribution finally came to light in 2009 at the Whitney Museum with the first ever retrospective of her extant films. (First, ever!). About 100 films in all showed over the course of three months of programs. (As percentages go, Guy’s surviving works are on par with the oft-repeated estimate that only ten percent of all silent films survive.)
She saw the world go from manure-fueled to jet-fueled and watched as the industrial revolution changed the very face of the planet. She watched discoveries of the mind in physics and philosophy become realities of daily life—from the way we get to work (from the horse to the tram to the subway to the car and the plane) to what we do when we get home (reading by electric light, radio, television, from indoor running water to dishwashers). She saw how cinema changed from a plaything, a curiosity, to become the most ubiquitous form of art and entertainment ever seen.
She also saw the creation of the first film archives and the interest in preservation grow with the establishment of an international federation of archives in 1935, cooperating to try to save what was lost. Yet her own films were credited to others or merely lost in the cycle of construction/destruction that marks our civilization.
Even now with more of her films available at archives and in consumable formats like DVD and online streaming, she remains a footnote in cinema histories (oh, yeah, the first woman director…). Will we ever see a best-selling graphic novel and an Oscar-winning 3D movie adaptation made by a world-famous director about her films, times, and poignant rediscovery? I doubt it. (Considering the statistics —women earn 77 cents of a dollar that men do—maybe we can only hope for a 90-minute version.) But at least we’ve got part of her films and some of her story, available to us in ways even the supple mind of Guy could not have imagined.