Rewriting history — or how Alice Guy created the cinematic medium

It is possible that women are the David Bowies of innovation.    They leap into the beginning of something — did you know that the first computer programmers were women? — and then, after satisfying their curiosity, blithely move along to the next flower in the garden, leaving others to create a sub genre out of an idea explored to perfection in one glorious package.

In Jane Austin’s Persuasion, Anne Elliott responds to a man’s historical litany of the flightiness of women in love with something along the lines of:  “But those histories were written by men.”  It very often seems that women are doomed to introduce things — to create things of interest, even splendor, that are noted in passing.  And then ten — twenty — and more years later, a man creates a flickering montage of fury and is credited with beginning an industry.

A pattern begins to emerge.

Marjorie Baumgarten, film critic of The Austin Chronicle, mentions “Alice Guy-Blaché (who is credited with having created the first feature-length narrative film)” as early as back in April of 1999, but as is often the case, writer Michael Ventura, who pens “letters at 3am:” was the first writer to catch my attention with what is known of Guy’s story.

In Letters at 3AM: The Script Needs a Rewrite, Ventura shows us that it is not only the sciences that can be completely rewritten with one atypical piece of information.  And I quote: “The new Kino DVD set, Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913, proves that – with apologies to D.W. Griffith, among others – it’s rewrite time for all we thought we knew about how cinema was born and grew.”

The jacket notes are mere crumbs, meaning that film historians have their work cut out for them, but the discs — the discs give us what appear to be the true beginning of cinema.  Leon Gaumont hired 21 year old Alice Guy to be a secretary for his photography business.  How, within two years, she became the top director and driving force of Gaumont’s new film company is unexplained.  But in the 64 films of Guy’s early career, we are promised cinematic gold.  Ventura gushes over Guy’s 0-70 mph in five seconds mastery of black and white cinematography.  He used the words “breathtaking” “still unsurpassed” and “rarely equaled.”  Alice Guy is easily a decade ahead of anyone else in the field, and she made hundreds of films between 1896 and 1907.  D.W. Griffith did not direct his first picture until 1908.

Guy literally dabbled in everything.  She did drama, she did comedy, she did political commentary, she did short-shorts, she did the first full-length (for the time) movie.  She did closeups, intercutting, dissolves and camera pans long before America ever contemplated more than stage shots and florid dialog cards.  Alice Guy did a couple of indoor films that Ventura swears are perfect — when she wants a shadow, she gets it — when she wants no shadows, there are no shadows.  How she did it is revealed in a fragment of a 1905 documentary, and it is genius.  She even taught what she figured out, and film historians will recognize the names of a few of those who worked with her.

Guy is not the only forgotten genius highlighted in this collection.  It appears that Leonce Perret, not D. W. Griffith, was the first director to master the “feature-length motion picture idiom”.  Perret blended the various fragments and elements of visual grammar in a fashion still in use.  So the Gaumont collection is not merely a song to the almost forgotten first woman director.

But Ventura suggests that Alice Guy was, simply, and so far without peer, the first genius of the cinema.

Well — he’s got my attention.  Netflix has this set, and I’ve added it to my queue.  Entering the next stage of my life, playing with pencil, ink and paint in ways I never explored decades ago, I now am once again noodling with the idea of making my own movie.  Why let someone else screw up my characters?

I may be too ADD to show the dedication of Alice Guy, but I want to see where it all started, and what she did at the birth of a creative medium.  I suggest that you check out Ventura’s article, and add Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913 to your Netflix queue.  If you work fast, you can do a thesis on Alice Guy before anyone else gets there.

And thanks to the individuals who protected these early films, so we can see where it all began.  Better late than never.

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About Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

Cat Kimbriel is working on a a contemporary fantasy about curses, ecological change, and very different ways of looking at the twilight worlds. She's still working on a short Nuala piece and mulling over a new Alfreda novel. You can find her fantasy & science fiction, including free samples, at her Book View Café bookshelf. These books can also be found at major online booksellers. Her personal blog is here, and you will find her on whatever social media currently interests her. Cat builds worlds that contain compassion and justice -- come join the journey.

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Rewriting history — or how Alice Guy created the cinematic medium — 6 Comments

  1. I’m glad you wrote on this. I read Ventura’s column, too — I”m a big fan of his writing — and was stunned, but pleased, to learn this news. I’d like to see the films, too. I don’t remember her being mentioned back when I took a course on modern culture that included films when I was in college. I remember seeing D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation — a racist film that celebrates the KKK — because he was considered an early genius, and writing a paper on Leni Riefenstahl despite her work for Hitler, because there weren’t many women directors to choose from. Too bad we didn’t study Alice Guy, who was more of a genius than Griffith and didn’t make films for mass murderers.

  2. Another ground breaking movie director was Leni Reifenstahl. People don’t like to mention her, though, because she made a major pr film for Hitler. Nevertheless many consider her to be a cinematic genius.

  3. Brenda, I thought I got that bit across — I missed Marjorie’s blip on Alice back in 1999. But my life was imploding then, so I plead SomeWhere Else. I tweaked the monster sentence a touch — but I was writing at 3 am myself last night, and this miserable excuse for a paragraph sort of made sense when I posted it.

    If it still doesn’t say what I obviously mean, feel free to tweak, if you’d like!

    Yes, I need to see some of Leni’s work. My profs were very anti-anybody who tried to work during the Nazi regime, so I know little to nothing about her.

    — k