Guy, Alice


Guy, Alice
(1873-1968)
   Director and screenwriter. Alice Guy was born to Émile and Mariette Guy, the youngest of four daughters. Although the family lived in Chile, Guy was raised by her maternal grandmother in Switzerland and then sent to a Paris boarding school. She did not even meet her father until the age of four. In 1893, after a series of misfortunes following the death of her father, Guy was forced to leave school to train as a typist and stenographer so as to be able to support herself. She began a career as a secretary, first at a varnish company, and then, in 1894, with Léon Gaumont, who was, at the time, working for Felix Richard at his photography works.
   When Richard abandoned the business later that year, Gaumont bought the company out, and Guy remained as his secretary. She was, therefore, present when Georges Demeny demonstrated his phono-scope to Gaumont, and more important, in the following year, when Louis Lumière demonstrated his cinématographe. It was as a result of the Lumière demonstration that Guy entered the world of cinema. Moved by what she had seen, she persuaded Gaumont to loan her their newly patented biographe motion picture camera (which Gaumont purchased from Demeny) so that she could make one or two "story" films.
   La Fée aux choux, a short film that tells the story of a woman who makes babies in a cabbage patch, was written and directed by Guy and produced in 1896, several months before Georges Méliès's first film. The date is significant, since Méliès is often cited as having made the first narrative film when the credit rightly belongs to Guy. While it is true that Guy made this film as a sort of advertisement for Gaumont's cameras (at that time Gaumont was still in the equipment business), her film is nonetheless a narrative film, and her title of "first woman director" notwithstanding, Guy's true place in film history has often been overlooked. In fact, even Gaumont, who made Guy the head of film production at Gaumont Studios in 1897 (a post she held until 1906), failed to mention her in his 1930 history of the studio.
   As head of film production from 1897 to 1906, Guy trained most or all of the future directors of Gaumont silent film, including Louis Feuillade, Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset, and Roméo Bossetti. Alison McMahan, Guy's biographer, has concluded that Guy was responsible for most if not all narrative films made at Gaumont during that period, although very few are attributed to her. McMahan notes that in 1927, when Guy went looking for examples of her films, she could not find a single one. If indeed Guy did make or collaborate on all narrative films made by Gaumont between 1897 and 1906, then her work consists of a catalog of several hundred films. Of those several hundred, there are a number of films that are universally attributed to Guy. Among the most important are Madame a des envies (1906), which features what is probably the first dramatic close-up (typically attributed to the American director D. W. Griffith), La Guérite/ Douaniers et contrebandiers (1905), La Fée printemps (1906), and the tableau film, La Vie du Christ (1906).
   In 1907, Guy married Herbert Blaché, a Belgian cameraman who worked for Gaumont. Shortly after their marriage, the Blachés moved to the United States, where Herbert was to manage the New York offices of Gaumont. Alice gave up film for a time. She had two children, Simone in 1908, and Reginald in 1911. However, in 1912, she went back to work, founding the Solax Film Company (with her own money) in rented Gaumont studio space. Solax became a success, producing largely Westerns and melodramas, and the company moved to new studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1912. In 1913, Herbert joined Guy at Solax, and the studio prospered. The company enjoyed great popular and commercial success until 1917, when Herbert moved to Hollywood, both of Guy's children became seriously ill, and Solax began to feel the pressure from the increased centralization of the American film industry.
   Solax was forced into bankruptcy in 1920, and the Blachés divorced in 1922. Guy returned to France in the hope of rebuilding her career in the French film industry, but since she was unable to find a single copy of her films to serve as proof of her expertise, she was unable to find work. She became financially dependent on her children, who were by that time old enough to support her. In 1940, Guy's daughter, Simone, began a career with the U.S. embassy service, and she and Guy moved to Washington, D.C., in 1947, where they began work on her memoirs. Guy moved again with Simone to New Jersey in 1967, near to the site where Solax Studios had been located. She died there in 1968.
   In 1954, shortly before Guy's death, attention was refocused on her place in film history. Louis Gaumont gave a speech on her, "the first woman director," whom, he said "had been unjustly forgotten" and in 1955, Guy was honored with the Légion d'Honneur for her contributions to film. This contribution cannot be overstated. She rooted cinema firmly in a narrative tradition, seeing from the very beginning the possibility for telling stories through the use of the film camera. Taking into account the broad range of films she produced during her early career, it is also clear that she helped conceive or establish many of the existing film genres, including fantasy films, such as La Fée aux choux (1897), comedies such as her remake of Les Apaches pas veinards (1903) and the original Le Matelas alcoolique (1906), historical dramas, such as L'Assasinat du courier de Lyon (1903), melodramas such as Le Fils du garde-chasse (1906) and La Marâtre (1906), and literary adaptations, such as Faust etMephistopholes (1903) and La Esmerelda (1905). She was, as McMahan has noted, an early pioneer of sound film, working with Gaumont's chronographe, and filming many early synchronized sound films both for Gaumont and subsequently for Solax.
   In recent years, attention has been refocused on Alice Guy's work. In 1963, just prior to her death, Guy met with Belgian film scholar Victor Bachy, who spent several years researching Guy and her work. Bachy's book on Guy, which was published in 1994, did much to shed light on her role as a filmmaker. Guy's memoirs, along with a filmography, were published in French in 1976 and in English in 1986. In addition, a number of television documentaries have been done on her life and work. She is progressively becoming recognized as a woman who was well ahead of her time and who was one of the most influential and unsung pioneers of silent film.
   Historical Dictionary of French Cinema by Dayna Oscherwitz & Mary Ellen Higgins

Guide to cinema. . 2011.

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