Alice’s wonderlands

Alice Guy’s celebrated La Fée aux choux (1900), from

There’s a fine long article on Alice Guy and women filmmakers in the early cinema period in The Nation, written by Jana Prikryl. Entitled ‘Alice’s Wonderlands: On Alice Guy Blaché‘, the article investigates the film career and its social significance of Alice Guy, the French filmmaker whose prodigious output, independence of spirit and creative invention attract ever more interest. It places Guy within the early cinema period overall, a time when opportunities for women as filmmakers and contributors to the filmmaking process were comparatively greater than they would be for decades afterwards. Alice Guy was at the start of this mini-phenomenon – and she was there, working in America, when she witnessed it all fade.

Here’s the opening two paragraphs, to whet your appetite:

“Records show that about three-fourths of matinee audiences are woman,” wrote the Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg in 1924, his use of an abstract noun underscoring his philosophy. “That is why I say that pictures should be made primarily for the feminine mind.” Barely 25, Thalberg had recently come to MGM from Universal, where in the space of five years he had managed a revolution–including streamlining production and yoking each director to a producer elevated to oversee every aspect of the creative process–that had spread in Hollywood after World War I. In this matter of the feminine mind, the wisdom he offered was not original: it had long been a truism that women went to the movies in large numbers and that a sagacious businessman would indulge their tastes. What many people had forgotten by 1924, or would forget soon after–and would never know to forget today–is that the “audiences are woman” hypothesis had been taken to mean something very different just a few years earlier. It had been one of many overlapping, contradictory explanations, often rehashed in the press, for the surprising power of women in filmmaking. If female viewers decided the fate of movies, who better to make movies than females?

At one point in the 1910s, Universal had as many as nine women under contract as directors. (After Thalberg became manager in 1919, only one woman was hired to direct.) It wasn’t just that an astonishing number of women occupied key creative positions–half of silent-era screenwriters were women, for example. Even women still working their way up could appreciate the egalitarian climate of the industry. Not yet standardized, it was struggling to meet a booming demand for fresh product. For a brief period its male entrepreneurs and innovators required all talent on deck; gender norms were a luxury they preferred to forgo. Social currents also fostered this openness: at the turn of the century women were finding their voices in public life, working outside the home in growing numbers and organizing and agitating for temperance, suffrage and birth control. “Never before in civilization,” wrote Jane Addams in 1909, “have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon city streets and to work under alien roofs; for the first time they are being prized more for their labor power than for their innocence, their tender beauty, their ephemeral gaiety.” As movies grew in popularity alongside these public revisions of feminine virtue, the notion of women making movies became less of a leap. The cultural moment lasted just under twenty years, collapsing under the combined weight of censorship and redoubled sexism around the time, ironically, that American women got the vote. Their power in Hollywood never recovered. In 1920 Houghton Mifflin, unwittingly heralding the end of an era, published a guide called Careers for Women, where among entries on architecture, business and medicine was a chapter on film directing. When the guide was reissued in 1934, the section on directing was simply dropped.

The article goes to to cover Guy’s career and films, particularly “the first decade of filmmaking, roughly 1896-1907” which she states “belonged to one female director alone” (not strictly true, but close enough). This was the period in which she became head of production at Gaumont, making short films in every genres and specialising in synchronised sound films, or Phonoscènes. She moved to America, where she made films for her own company, Solax, with studios in New Jersey. Interesting as some of these later films are, it is her French work that stands out and which Prikryl covers in most detail.

Just recently we have had a retrospective of her films at the Whitney Museum, the Gaumont DVD boxed set Le cinema premier, vol. 1 – Alice Guy, the Kino DVD boxed set Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913 (with discs on the films of Guy, Louis Feuillade and Léonce Perret), the Kino DVD release of one of her three surviving features, The Ocean Waif (1916), and a biography by the leading Guy scholar Alison MacMahan, Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema.

It still seems extraordinary that a woman should have been given the opportunity to set up and to head Gaumont’s fiction film production. What is also notable about Guy’s career was its longevity. Very few of the pioneering filmmakers of the 1890s managed to sustain careers in creative filmmaking beyond the 1900s. Georges Méliès, Edwin S. Porter, Robert Paul, G.A. Smith, the Lumière brothers – they all faded away soon into the new century. But Alice Guy made a successful transition to feature films and made her last film as late as 1920. Only Cecil Hepworth and J. Stuart Blackton among her pioneering contemporaries achieved the same, that I can think of. It shows a remarkable degree of imagination and adaptability to change in an emerging, uncertain business. She more than merits the increased critical attention that she is receiving, an attention that looks beyond the simplistic (and evidentially dubious) arguments made on her behalf in the past as being the ‘first’ this, that or the other, to a deeper understanding of a key creative filmmaker at a time of revolutionary social and industrial change.

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