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Alice Guy Blaché Retrospective at the Whitney will Rediscover an Early Force in Film
Madame a des envies, 1906 (Gaumont) Courtesy of Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris.

NEW YORK, NY.- An unprecedented large-scale retrospective of the films of Alice Guy Blaché (1873–1968)—the first woman director in the history of cinema—will be presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art, from November 6, 2009, to January 24, 2010. Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer features more than eighty rare films that will be screened in the Whitney’s second-floor Kaufman Astoria Studios Film & Video Gallery.

After a pioneering decade working in Paris at Gaumont (1896–1907) as its first director and head of production, Alice Guy Blaché came to the United States where she was the first woman to establish and run her own film company, Solax (1910–1914), located initially in Flushing, New York, and then in Fort Lee, New Jersey; she continued working in the US as an independent director through 1920. During these formative years of cinema’s evolution, Blaché wrote, directed, or produced more than 1,000 films, ranging from under a minute long to multi-reel features. She made films in a wide range of genres, including comedies, dramas, Westerns, fables, detective stories, a biblical epic, and films based upon literary classics. She wrote scripts, experimented with camera techniques, made films that were color-tinted by hand, and shot more than one hundred synchronized sound films between 1902 and 1906, decades before sound became the standard for the medium.

Until a decade ago, only forty of her films were known to exist; today, some 130 works have been identified in archives internationally. The recovery of Alice Guy Blaché’s work—both its identification as hers and its conservation and restoration—has involved an enormous worldwide undertaking by film historians, archivists, and preservationists.

Joan Simon, the Whitney’s curator-at-large and organizer of the exhibition, notes: “Alice Guy Blaché—cinema’s first woman director, screenwriter, producer, businesswoman, and studio owner—is unique in film history. This exhibition introduces new audiences to a little-known but historically key figure who had decade-long careers in France and the US, and affords film scholars a ‘critical mass’ of Blaché’s body of work by which to place her films within the international context of early cinema. Her films are important examples of film’s evolution as popular entertainment: they are bold, her stories fascinating, her point of view singular, her comedies raucous, and her characters (especially her women and child heroes) complex. Her career is worthy of renewed investigation and she deserves recognition as a pioneer of early cinema.”

Born in Paris in 1873, and raised in Switzerland, Chile, and France, Alice Guy, as she then was known, studied the new “sciences” of typewriting and stenography, and began working as secretary to Léon Gaumont in 1894 at Le comptoir général de photographie, a manufacturer of still cameras and other optical equipment. This was the corporate predecessor of L. Gaumont & Cie, established in 1895, soon to become one of the world’s leading film companies and today the oldest in continuous operation. Guy learned the photography business through correspondence, familiarizing herself with clients, marketing, and the company’s stock of cameras, and became acquainted with the new technologies being invented for shooting and exhibiting motion pictures.

Inventors Gaumont and the Lumière Brothers were friends as well as competitors; both were trying to solve the problem of projecting film. Alice Guy and Léon Gaumont were among the audience at a private screening in March 1895, when the Lumières presented their projection of a film of workers leaving a factory.

Until this time at Gaumont, filmmaking had been in the service of science or used as a promotional tool for selling cameras. “In the beginning, everyone was always shooting street scenes, parades, or moving trains, which I did not find terribly interesting,” Guy later recalled. “So one day I said to Monsieur Gaumont: ‘It seems to me we could do something better.’” Perhaps with the courage of youth, Guy asked Gaumont if she could try making a film that would tell a story. He said yes. Thus, Alice Guy became Gaumont’s first director (although the term did not yet exist) and soon became head of production, spending the next decade making films at Gaumont’s studios in Paris and elsewhere in Europe, between 1896 and 1907.

Guy’s earliest films at Gaumont share certain subjects and visions with some of her colleagues, such as the Lumières. As Joan Simon writes in her catalogue essay, “The magical antics when body parts come undone from a body, as in Guy’s Chirurgie fin de siècle (Fin de Siècle Surgery, 1900), are in the spirit of Méliès’s famous and numerous deconstructions. She also, like many of her contemporaries, made travel films and dance films, sometimes the two genres conveyed in one moving picture, such as her dances filmed in Spain, particularly the beautiful hand-tinted films Le Bolero (1905), performed by Miss Saharet, and Tango (1905).”

Guy’s distinct point of view was to be seen in her story films, and she was among the first to make them. She worked from scripts, which she wrote as well as directed. Though she produced such typical period genres as chase films or those derived from fairy tales, these often featured a twist. The folktale of children born in a cabbage patch is the subject of her first film, La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy). In the story, babies are presented as if they are new cameras for sale. The theme of the complications of parenthood recurs in many of her films, whether La Fée Printemps (1906), in which a fairy magically transforms winter to spring and delivers a newborn from a garden to expectant parents, or Madame a des envies (Madame Has Cravings, 1906), a new kind of chase film, where a pregnant woman races through town, husband and child in tow, stealing foods to satisfy her cravings. Guy also addressed the duplicity and brutality of a stepmother (La Marâtre, 1906) and the same year made her epic La Vie du Christ, with sets and costumes based on the realist illustrations in a famous James Tissot bible, using some twenty-five sets and hundreds of extras, for a film running ca. thirty-four minutes long, at a time when the norm was a maximum of six or seven minutes.

Guy’s decade-long career at Gaumont alone would have earned her a place in cinema history. However, this was followed by a second decade in the United States, from 1910 to 1920, where she was known as Madame Blaché (or Alice Blaché). Here she worked at her own company, Solax, which existed from 1910 to 1914, first in Flushing, New York, and later in Fort Lee, New Jersey (where she built a studio plant at a cost of $100,000), and subsequently as an independent for companies such as Metro and Pathé. While some of her American films explore genres new for the filmmaker, including detective stories and Westerns, others address in new ways themes she had already considered in France. Several Solax films continue her use of cross-dressing—Officer Henderson (1913), for example, in which undercover police dress in drag to pursue purse-snatchers—that was earlier employed to great comic effect in Les Résultats du féminisme (1906) to depict a world where male and female roles are reversed (the latter also re-told in her Solax film In Year 2000, made in 1912, whereabouts unknown). Others again ponder the nuances, the difficulties, and the human comedy of domesticity, such as Mixed Pets (1911), in which neither baby nor dog is wanted in a household, or A House Divided (1913), in which a couple estranged by suspicions of infidelity must live together under one roof and communicate exclusively by handwritten notes. She also continued to make films which feature child heroes and heroines, such as Falling Leaves (1911), as in the earlier Gaumont film Une Héroine de 4 ans (1907).

Madame Blaché also addressed modern social problems in several of her films. The Making of an American Citizen (1912) is a story of immigration and relearning the expected roles of husbands and wives. Other films explore prejudicial views toward the poor (The Thief, 1913), and, in the case of A Fool and His Money (1912), the follies of social climbers and the well-off. This last film is also significant for being the earliest known film to feature an all black cast.

In her three surviving feature-length films, The Ocean Waif (1916), The Empress (1917), and The Great Adventure (1918), her leading women demonstrate increasing sophistication, finding their way by using their wits and with the help of some surprising comrades. Her characters (and relationships between characters) are psychologically complex, even as they play out the kind of melodramas that were becoming the standard in the industry at that time.

Alice Guy Blaché (the name she chose to use after her divorce and return to France in 1922) produced a singular body of work that spans the evolution of filmmaking on two continents. Her oeuvre in both her French and American periods reveals her to have been a gifted scriptwriter who transformed imagined picture-stories into motion pictures and a new kind of director who asked actors to “be natural.” She established the house style at Gaumont, trained its next generation of directors (including Ferdinand Zecca, Etienne Arnaud, Louis Feuillade), and then did the same at her US company, Solax. Her role as a studio owner is still rare in the film industry; among the few women who followed her were Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball.

Although her moviemaking career ended in 1920, when she was only forty-seven years old, cinema occupied her whole life. She corresponded with historians and others, sharing documents with them, to correct early film histories that had not included her work. Well into her eighties, she gave lectures and was interviewed on radio and television about her roles in the nascent film industries of the US and France. In 1955, she was recognized with the Legion of Honor (France’s highest non-military honor), and in 1957 was honored by the Cinémathèque Française. The posthumous publication of her memoirs, first in French in 1976 and then in English in 1986, with the assistance of film historian Anthony Slide, initiated an important cycle of rediscovery. In his catalogue essay, film historian Alan Williams calls Blaché’s memoirs “one of the very best books of its kind…a basic text in the history of early cinema.”

This exhibition underscores the importance of film preservation in the study of early cinema. From the American portion of Madame Blaché’s career, five films that are in the collection of the Library of Congress have been restored by the Whitney, including the feature The Ocean Waif. Two others, also in the collection of the Library, have been restored by gift: Falling Leaves (1911), thanks to Dayton Digital Filmworks, and Mixed Pets (1911), with a grant from New York Women in Film and Television, Women’s Film Preservation Fund and contributions by the Whitney. The occasion of this exhibition has been the catalyst for other archives to begin to restore films in their collections, including the Academy Film Archive Center for Motion Picture Study, Los Angeles; BFI, London; and the Filmoteca Española, Madrid.

Whitney Museum of American Art | Alice Guy Blaché | Joan Simon |

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