Alice Guy, Or How Little I Know About Movies

One of the greatest things about being a movie fan is discovery. There are various estimates, but I guess the figure of around half a million features in existence already tells you quite a bit about how deep you can go and never find the bottom. It’s like the oceans. They are less mapped than the moon.

But every once in a while, you come across something that’s upsetting. Not like a snuff film or anything like that (that’s a whole different issue), but just something about the history of movies that just feels wrong. In this case the omission of Alice Guy.

Yes, this is some SJW bullshit, if you want to feel that way about it.

I was watching a 14 hour documentary-slash-filmmaking course called Women Make Film. It explains various concepts in making movies by using examples from various movies directed by women. And at various points, Alice Guy comes up.

According to IMDb, her first directorial effort was in ’95. 1895 to be more precise. Wikipedia disagrees and places her first film in 1896. The disagreements seems to be over The Sprinkler Sprinkled, which was directed by Louis Lumiere (you know, one of the brothers who invented movies) and, according to IMDb, Alice Guy. There is no mention of her in the Wikipedia page, so I don’t know where this information comes from.

Anyhow, if she started in 1896, that’s actually the next year after the debut of movies. While there are many unknowns about the early years of cinema, we can be fairly certain she was the first female director and as far as we know, was the only female director for about a decade. A true pioneer. Not only because of her sex, but in actual cinema. Again, we might not know enough, but she might have been the first to ever direct a narrative movie, which is kind of a big step. She also experimented with special effects (such as they were at the time) and was the creative director of Solax, the biggest pre-Hollywood studio in the US. (And immigrants are bad, right?)

With a legacy like this, I should have known about her at some point, if the world was fair. And it doesn’t even stop there. She didn’t really care about the rules (which probably would have stopped her from directing anyhow), so she would do things like use interracial casting in a time when that was seen as a huge taboo. She worked for over two decades and IMDb lists 450 directorial efforts (although again, some might have been lost, while others are unconfirmed).

She was rightly concerned that she was been written out of the history of movies. She wrote an autobiography in the 40s, but it wasn’t published until 1976, which would be eight years after her death, and only translated into English well into the 80s. I probably should get that book.

There has been a resurgence of her work. Gaumont released two collections of her shorts just earlier this year and I have been watching those lately. Of course, they are mostly just curiosities, but as there were no rules back in those days, there is also a wonderful sense of discovery. It took a lot less to entertain people in those days, when we weren’t inundated with YouTube, Netflix and a continuous flow of 100 million dollar films. There’s a series of performances, like early music videos, from long before synchronization of audio and film was even possible, and there’s a series of shorts which seem to share a common theme of children popping up from various places. There’s just something innocent about these. Just take a simple concept and see what happens with it in a movie which only lasts a couple of minutes.

The first of these on the BluRay is The Cabbage Fairy, a movie about a faerie just picking up children from the cabbage patch. Just a fun little piece of film, which might have had a deeper meaning I don’t really understand (maybe it’s based on some French thing, like storks bringing babies in some other cultures), but that doesn’t really matter. They were just coming up with ideas all the time and putting them into practice with very little time and money. Many of the films are just these very simple scenarios you couldn’t really get away with even in a music video these days.

I wouldn’t recommend these to most people, but since these are no longer covered by any sort of copyright, you can probably find these easily on the Internet. At least one would hope so.

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