On March 22, 1895, the Lumière brothers revolutionized the world by presenting for the first time a demonstration of their most recent invention, the cinematographer, through the screening in Paris of The sortie des ouvriers des usines Lumière à Lyon Monplaisir (Departure of the workers from the Lumière factory in Lyon Monplaisir) in what is told in history as the birth of cinema.
This 30-second footage showing a group of workers, the vast majority of them women, leaving their workplace, would set in motion a new art form, and inspire one woman, Alice Guy Blaché, to become the first filmmaker in history, even though her legacy has been ignored and erased for years.
Although official history recognized Georges Méliès for decades as the pioneer of fictional cinema, citing his capital work “Journey to the Moon” of 1902 as the starting point that would introduce this type of fantastic narratives to the cinema, until then focused on a more realistic and documentary perspective; the truth is Since 1896 Alice Guy was already doing this, and proof of this is his first film released that year called “The Cabbage Fairy”.
In the footage, barely a minute long, the first fiction filmmaker portrays an old French legend according to which boys are born from cabbages and girls from roses. In addition, in the “Fairy of the Cabbage” he inaugurates the use of visual tricks in moving images and montage.
This fantastical premise and the techniques used to film it were completely ahead of their time and represented a remarkably creative use of an invention whose own creators considered more scientific than artistic.
Alice Guy saw it differently, for her the artistic component was essential and that vision would translate into over 1,000 films he shot over the decades throughout his career, few of which survive today.
But how did history forget about Alice Guy Blaché? “In France as long as a woman is, as they say, in her place, she receives no reproach, but if she assumes and exercises the prerogatives assigned to her brothers, she is looked upon badly”, the filmmaker herself would say in an interview in 1912.
Alice Guy was born in Saint-Mandé, a former suburb of Paris in 1873. Her childhood was spent between her native France, Switzerland and Chile, studying at various boarding schools. She was the fifth daughter of a publisher, owner of a bookstore chain, with whom she never had a good relationship because he thought she was illegitimate. When her father died, Alice’s mother began to work and the young woman studied shorthand and typing, which earned her a job at the company Le Comptoir Général de la Photographie in 1894.
There I would meet Léon Gaumont, a French inventor and industrialist who is recognized as one of the pioneers of cinema. Gaumont founded his own company and brought in Alice to be his secretary. Together they would attend the function of December 28, 1895 in which the Lumière brothers made their first public screening in the Indian Room of the Grand Café, which they called “Ten Movies for a Franco”.
Seeing the performance, Alice, who had done fiction theater and had a fascination for the art of storytelling, convinced her boss that the future was here and that it would be an excellent business investment, but Gaumont saw the potential of the cinematographer. as an invention, rather than cinema as art.
After the filming of the “Cabbage Fairy” in 1896 and other similar shorts, Gaumont finally decided to create a film production division in his company, and entrusted Alice with his management, but on one condition: “provided that the task did not prevent me from continuing to perform my duties as a secretary,” says Guy herself in her memoirs. It was the year 1897.
Over the next decade Alice Guy directed 100 phonospheres, or films shot for the chronograph, a device that allowed recorded image and sound to be synchronized. Although many of them have been lost, there is evidence of their existence in letters, newspapers of the time and books.
He even recorded internationally, such as the films “Voyage en Espagne” or “La Malagueña y el Torero”, recorded in Spain in 1905. And one of the most ambitious projects of the time, “The Passion or the Life of Christ” (1906), the first blockbuster in history, with a 30-minute footage that used 25 sets, more than 300 extras and exterior locations such as the Fontainebleau forest.
In 1907, she married cameraman Herbert Blaché, adopted his surname, and moved to the United States, where Gaumont was seeking to expand his film business. But before long Alice and Herbert started their own business, first with the production company Solaz in 1910 and Blaché Features in 1913.
With these companies, Guy Blanché non-stop directed all kinds of films: westerns, comedies, dramas, science fiction, and even refused to adapt Tarzan of the Apes for the cinema. With the passing of the movies, Alice became a pioneer in filming techniques, in the use of special effects, lighting games, editing, the characterization of the characters, the use of special shots, and in general the construction of an artistic and cinematographic language.
In addition, she was a pioneer in the profession of producer and executive producer and an entrepreneur who ran her own company until a stormy divorce forced her to return to France in 1922.
There his star would begin to fade and she would end up reduced in the history books as the secretary, and possible lover, of her first boss Léon Gaumontwho when he told the story of his production company, published in 1930, decided to start it in 1907, thus nullifying Alice’s founding role in the early years of their business and erasing her credit in the works they produced together.
In addition, Gaumont never met Guy’s requirements for his work to be recognized, the divorce and subsequent bankruptcy of his production companies contributed to the loss of the work of this film pioneer, who according to one of his great-great-granddaughters “He dedicated the last 30 years of his life to searching for his films in France and the United States.”
“The most amazing thing in his life, and what made him suffer the most in his old age, was his disappearance in the history of cinema”wrote Alice Guy Peter in the introduction to the book “Life of Alice Guy Blaché” by the Spanish writer Alejandra Val Cubero.
And it is that despite having been director, producer, screenwriter, editor, producer and actress of her films in life, much of this credit ended up being attributed by film historians to its cinematographers or other men who participated in said productions.
But over the years Alice Guy’s legacy has been reclaimed and her place in history is being restored. Especially after the publication of her memoirs in 1976, and the subsequent investigations that have given credence to the words of the filmmaker about her legacy.
Although he died in New Jersey in 1968 at the age of 94 and with much of his work forgotten, in his lifetime Alice Guy was awarded the Legion of Honour, one of the highest honors bestowed by the State of France, in 1955 for her contributions to art.
In commemoration of International Women’s Day, it is worth remembering the legacy of this pioneering filmmaker and vindicating the role of women in one of the most influential art forms in our history: cinema.
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