Alice Guy

6 Oct

Cross posted to Sarah’s blog

In the early years, when filmmaking was still new and being developed as an art form, there were more women working in the industry than there has ever been since. In fact less than 10% of film directors working today are women and that drops to 6% for Hollywood directors.

There has only been one woman in the history of cinema to own and manage a film studio and this was between 1910 and 1914. That woman was the Grandmother of narrative film, Alice Guy.

Born in France, Guy worked as a secretary for Léon Gaumont, a renowned photographer. Gaumont had made his own movie camera after a visit from Louis Lumière, one half of the Lumière brothers. Up until this point film had just been used as a device to document but Guy saw potential for something greater. She was allowed to experiment with camera as long as she didn’t neglect her work. What resulted was one of the earliest (if not the earliest, though it is hard to date these early films) examples of narrative cinema, a 50 second film titled La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy):

This was the first step in a career that saw Guy write, direct or produce over 700 films in 25 years, even when she was pregnant with her children she was still making 2-3 films a week. When titled La Fée aux Choux premiered Gaumont relieved Guy of her secretarial duties and put her in charge of his filmmaking division. She later established her own studio in New Jersey with her husband, Solax Studio, which at the time was one of the most powerful studios in the world.

However, history was not kind to Guy’s memory. The studio went bankrupt after her divorce and the rise of Hollywood as a more cost effective place to make films. The studio was auctioned off and Guy returned to France in 1922 but she never made another film despite the fact that she was beginning to venture into another fledgling medium – sound. Gaumont made no mention of Guy’s role in developing his studio or even the medium itself when he wrote an account of his company in the 1930s despite Guy’s protestations. She was effectively edited out of the history of a movement she helped to kick-start. It even took until the 1950s for own country to honor her for her services to filmmaking with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest, non-military award.

photo from here

Though she ceased making films, Guy continued to write about them and worked for International Film Service and we can only wonder at how she would have made use of the multitudes of technological advances that were introduced to the film industry after 1922.

Alice is Guy is an important figure in the early years of cinema not just because she is a woman but because the codes and conventions of cinema today have their beginnings in a whimsical experiment from a woman who realized before anyone else that a story could be told with a medium that many others thought would not see out a decade.

About the writer: Sarah is a filmmaker and writer with an obsession for luscious visuals and a distain for tomatoes (they are a sneaky and untrustworthy foodstuff). If she’s not blogging, she’ll be watching films or running around with her video camera.


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