The Ranks of the Auteurs: Alice Guy-Blaché
Note: “The Ranks of the Auteurs” is a written series that traces notable people, studios, and series throughout film history and ranks their work. This is the fourth installment, featuring Alice Guy-Blaché, who was born on July 1, 1873 in Saint-Mandé, France and died March 24, 1968 in Wayne, New Jersey.
Considered the only female filmmaker in the world until the mid 1900s, Alice Guy-Blaché (initially known just as Alice Guy) has a truly remarkable story. Guy-Blaché began her time in the film industry working as a secretary at Gaumont, a photography supply company that would become a leading film producer and distributor; it’s marked as the oldest movie company in the world. Guy-Blaché was the secretary for the namesake of the company, Léon Gaumont, and the pair attended the Lumière brothers’ seminal March 1895 screening for industry insiders. Guy-Blaché was apparently not interested in the “actualities” of the era, and obtained permission from Gaumont to make her own film. The result was THE CABBAGE FAIRY, considered the first narrative fiction film, an honor that could be argued, but only by splitting hairs. In spite of only being about a minute long, Guy-Blaché’s film was the first to truly tell a crafted story, predating Georges Méliès’ own distinctive work. The title is undermined a bit by Louis Lumière’s 1895 short THE TABLES TURNED ON THE GARDENER, a comedy short that established a staged bit of comedy. Still, Guy-Blaché’s achievement cannot be taken away from her. She invented narrative film as we know it, and even if she didn’t, her long career that outlasted nearly all of her contemporaries would solidify her place in film history.
Guy-Blaché would make films in the style of the Lumières or Edison in the years to come (that is, dance or vaudeville act actualities), but her work after moving to America is probably her most interesting. Guy-Blaché got the “Blaché” from her husband Herbert Blaché, an English-American director and producer. The couple married in 1907, and Guy-Blaché stepped down as head of production at Gaumont. Yeah, that’s right, a woman was the head of production at one of the most important film companies in the world in 1907. The two moved to America, where Herbert was appointed the head of production for Gaumont’s American wing. But in 1910, they left Gaumont to form Solax Company, a major player for a brief but incredibly important time. As president, Guy-Blaché was the first woman to run a film company, but by the time she appointed her husband as the new president, she had slowed her own output as a director considerably. Herbert left for Hollywood and the burgeoning film industry there (Solax was still based in New Jersey, the old HQ of American film), and Alice joined him just before she directed her last film in 1919, Solax collapsed in 1921, and the couple divorced in 1922.
She returned to France and never made another film again, but it should be said the longevity of her career in film was greater and, in many ways, more impactful than her earliest, Victorian era contemporaries. As an innovator of various cinematic techniques and proponent of social change (she made the first film to star an African American cast in 1912, A FOOL AND HIS MONEY, a film I haven’t been able to find online), Guy-Blaché shaped the earliest language of film as it was being born in France and refined in pre-Hollywood America. Not many other directors of her era can claim quite as many achievements in multiple spheres, and her legacy has only recently been restored. Without further ado, let’s take a look at her most accessible movies. I almost certainly missed works in her vast filmography (which, as IMDB lists, contains 444 directorial credits alone), but I think my selection below is worth viewing.
#43 — AN UNTIMELY INTRUSION (1902)
This minor comedy short features an arguing couple interrupted by, presumably, a housekeeper. There’s actually a pretty funny moment that erupts into bedlam when the husband accidentally hits the new arrival with a sock (?) intended for his wife, but at less than a minute long, AN UNTIMELY INTRUSION doesn’t offer anything extraordinary.
#42 — AT THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S (1900)
A photographer has difficulty getting his subject to sit still to comedic effect in this film. It’s pretty conventional stuff for comedy of the era, but it’s interesting to see a depiction of photography in film; even though people in 1900 didn’t have a lifetime of experience and understanding about photography, the confusion that surrounds taking a picture with certain people never changes.
#41 — THE TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY BLIND MAN (1898)
This comedy short is a little tough to follow, but essentially a (probably not) blind man saddles an unwitting bystander with his stuff, causing the policeman who harassed the “actual” blind man to pick on an innocent man. It’s a silly little bit, but the set decoration and the dog make this movie.
#40 — BATHING IN A STREAM (1897)
BATHING IN A STREAM is the kind of actuality work Guy-Blaché would end up doing, but the simple beauty of the stream and the strangeness of a bunch of bathing boys gives this a bit more of an interesting edge.
#39 — AN OBSTACLE COURSE (1906)
This five-minute film is a bit too static to convey true speed, but Guy-Blaché achieved a sense of mania and frenzy with her adult contestants in an obstacle course. The transition to various activities gives the movie an otherwise missing sense of momentum.
#38 — AT THE HYPNOTIST’S (1897)
AT THE HYPNOTIST’S could very well be a Méliès film, as can be seen by the set that is nearly identical to the one used by Méliès for many of his early magic trick films. Some simple substitution splices solidifies the connection, but this is a little entertaining novelty and great insight to the fledgling film industry of the era.
#37 — THE BRICKLAYERS (1905)
THE BRICKLAYERS has a spot of impressive physical comedy, revolving around the verticality of a pulley system and silent comedy’s favorite punching bags, cops.
#36 — THE FISHERMAN AT THE STREAM (1897)
This is clearly the same stream (and boys) from BATHING IN A STREAM, but Guy-Blaché creates a little comic narrative here involving the shithead boys plunging an innocent little fisherman into the water.
#35 — AVENUE DE L’OPÉRA (1900)
This city movement actuality, a staple of the genre and era, is given an interesting wrinkle by presenting it all in reverse motion, giving it a sluggish and magical air. The look at a famous, historical street is a major bonus.
#34 — AT THE CLUB (1899)
AT THE CLUB is kind of a humorous escalation of the Lumières’ CARD GAME (1895) or Méliès’ PLAYING CARDS (1896), where a disagreement over a game leads to the upending of a table. I love the indignation of the table-flipper.
#33 — THE MAGICIAN’S ALMS (1905)
THE MAGICIAN’S ALMS feels like a truncated mix between the style of silent comedy that emerged in America at this time and flowered under Mack Sennett and Keystone in the 1910s and the trick films of the era. That means it’s a pretty amusing little short with substitution splices and a slight development of a defined space.
#32 — WONDERFUL ABSINTHE (1899)
A man drinks pure absinthe and freaks the fuck out. Thank you Movies Silently for providing some much-needed context that elevates this otherwise shallow short!
#31 — THE TRUTH BEHIND THE APE-MAN (1906)
While the appearance of the titular ape-man appears to be, at first glance, racist caricature, peering through vague prints actually reveals an overabundance of hair, causing the appearance of an “ape.” A balding man overindulges in a new, experimental tonic that inexplicably also affects his behavior. THE TRUTH BEHIND THE APE-MAN is a fantastical, speculative comedy short with some cross-cutting and scene transitions that build it out into a more impressive experience.
#30 — THE ROLLING BED (1907)
Guy-Blaché puts an evicted old man and his rolling bed through some funny scrapes and scrambles. There’s just something about seeing a bed rolling around streets, ya know what I mean? That old stand by, bed in the streets. Universal comedy.
#29 — THE DRUNKEN MATTRESS (1906)
This expansive comedy (at ten minutes long) takes a man mistakenly sewn into a mattress on a hilarious journey. The mattress-maker is taking the mattress and, by extension, this man to a client in the city, and he gets beat up in the process. Really a great example of comedy as escalation as things get more ridiculous and the hits get more painful.
#28 — SERPENTINE DANCE BY MME. BOB WALTER (1899)
I’m a sucker for “serpentine dance” films that were all the rage at this time, and Guy-Blaché’s films of the type are no exception. Mme. Bob Walter’s dance is faster and more intricate than others I’ve seen, but no less hypnotic. Just a great display of fun and visual acuity; the film is very pure.
#27 — MISS DUNDEE AND HER PERFORMING DOGS (1902)
There’s a little bit of unease watching this film since I have a suspicion these dogs weren’t exactly treated super humanely. I mean, their whole existence was doing tricks, that’s not super fun for them probably. But the presentation of their tricks is really inventive, and I just love doggos. It’s weird how my brain goes to the fact that dogs in old movies are long dead before I think about the humans. Because so is Miss Dundee!
#26 — THE MALAGUENA AND THE BULLFIGHTER (1905)
Hand-tinted color always gives turn-of-the-century films a certain magic and charm, and combine that with some impressive traditional dances and costumes, and you get THE MALAGUENA AND THE BULLFIGHTER.
#25 — HOW MONSIEUR TAKES HIS BATH (1903)
Presented similarly to a couple of Méliès’ films, this film follows Guy-Blaché’s monsieur as he struggles to dispel the magic that keeps layers and layers of clothes on his body. The escalation of his frustration is the reason to watch this one.
#24 — DISAPPEARING ACT (1898)
DISAPPEARING ACT features an incredibly smooth substitution splice, replacing a woman with a man in a Victorian era ape costume. It’s right up my alley.
#23 — SURPRISE ATTACK ON A HOUSE AT DAYBREAK (1898)
There is a bit of surprising action here, as cannons are fired and wagons pulled into view. I’m just wondering what’s going on off camera the whole time.
#22 — THE BURGLARS (1897)
The rooftop set is convincingly artificial (as in, the very craft of the thing is beautiful even if it’s not realistic), but the violence of the battle between the cops and the criminals is surprisingly unsensational and just kind of awkward, in a somewhat realistic way.
#21 — MAKING AN AMERICAN CITIZEN (1912)
MAKING AN AMERICAN CITIZEN is probably the most complex work of Guy-Blaché’s legacy. As you might be able to tell from the title, this is the first American film from the director on this list, and its scope and intention is admirable. At 16 minutes, it’s the longest film on this list so far, and the most dramatic. Essentially, Russian immigrants come to be equalized in America; the brutish husband learns to be more “American” and mellows out and treats his wife better, while his wife learns to be more “American” and stand up to her husband. There’s a distinct feminist message, interestingly tied to Americanism (things I wouldn’t necessarily associate with each other), but considering Guy-Blaché’s own immigrant experience puts things into perspective. Perhaps she felt that America was much more progressive in the field of women’s rights, in spite of the fact that neither the United States or her home country of France offered woman suffrage. But then, America passed it in 1920, while it took France until 1944 to do the same. So maybe she felt an inherent, “advanced” progressivism in her new country. On the other hand, however, MAKING AN AMERICAN CITIZEN extends some ugly stereotypes about immigrants, such as their inability to assimilate and inherent violence. It takes beatdowns and prison to rehabilitate Ivan, the central character. Still, the pressure of assimilation, a key part of the American immigrant experience to this very day, resulted in a film with the heart of reform but the underbelly of misguided condemnation. Technically speaking, however, this is Guy-Blaché’s most advanced film on this list so far, a film that feels decidedly different than her trick film/actuality/early narrative roots from the Victorian era.
#20 — THE GLUE (1907)
THE GLUE is a neat little comedy short in which a little shithead boy (seems to be a common theme in Guy-Blaché’s work) goes around applying heavy duty glue to various surfaces, causing much consternation for his victims and humor for himself…until he gets stuck too.
#19 — THE GAME-KEEPER’S SON (1906)
This drama is a short exploration of a son taking up the mantle of his game-keeper father (go figure) as he chases down local poachers who, inadvertently or not, killed his father. There’s an impressive amount of complexity in the set up of this five minute film, and some great landscape cinematography besides.
#18 — SAHARET PERFORMS THE BOLERO (1907)
Hand-tinting and dances were Guy-Blaché’s marks of a good time, and it’s hard to deny the magic of a group of people dancing in cool costumes and a set that communicates an impressive amount of depth.
#17 — DANSE FLEUR DE LOTUS (1897)
Aaand put that hand-tinting onto a “serpentine” or “flower” dance and I’m all in. Just going to rely on the ol’ standby descriptor: hypnotic.
#16 — LITTLE TICH AND HIS BIG BOOTS (1903)
This is probably one of the most impressive vaudeville acts captured on film during the actuality era. Little Tich’s facial expressions are genuinely amusing, and his balancing across his big plank shoes is fun to watch. LITTLE TICH AND HIS BIG BOOTS is a great look at the popular entertainment of the day, much of which is impossible to experience today.
#15 — A HOUSE DIVIDED (1913)
A HOUSE DIVIDED operates on a central conceit of situation comedy: misunderstanding. A wife and husband both separately come to the conclusion the other is cheating on them with the same evidence, and engage a lawyer to end their relationship, before discovering the truth and coming back together. By this time, Guy-Blaché was working in more convincing spaces than she ever did in France, moving away from Méliès-esque, small fantasy sets to, for lack of a better term, “realistic” home settings. To that end, the dramatic/humorous development of the story is aided by cross-cutting and even close ups, as well as more “naturalistic” acting than what Guy-Blaché typically worked with.
#14 — FAUST AND MEPHISTOPHELES (1903)
I’m a sucker for Satanic imagery, so Guy-Blaché’s interpretation of a favorite Méliès subject (Faust and/or the devil) was already set for at least some interest from me. But she takes it further than Méliès had yet done with the characters at that point, in 1903, using similar techniques across three distinct sets. FAUST AND MEPHISTOPHELES is a simple film, but a remarkably enjoyable extension of the trick film of the day.
#13 — THE FOUR YEAR OLD HEROINE (1907)
Co-directed with Louis Feuillade, this sweet little comedy/drama sees a, well, four-year-old heroine, out wandering the streets after getting away from her nurse.She foils a robbery, saves a blind man, and steers a trio of drunks out of danger. Once she realizes she’s lost, she wisely gets the attention of a policeman and gets home safely. THE FOUR YEAR OLD HEROINE is a cute, life-affirming bit of film that vitally celebrated the power of little girls long before it was acceptable or normal to do so. Much of the film takes place out on the streets, as well, giving it an expansive feel away from its set-bound elements.
#12 — CANNED HARMONY (1912)
CANNED HARMONY is an amusing comedy short, inversing the common disapproval of fathers of the artistic deadbeat boyfriends of their daughters. In this short, the father, a musician himself, actually wants his daughter to marry another musician. The initial slapstick business of the father abusing his daughter’s love is fine, but the central premise is established when the boyfriend decides to mimic the playing of a violin with the aid of a phonograph. This is an inventive use of a relatively new technology, and while the simple premise is stretched a bit too far, the overall humor of the piece makes it a top effort from Guy-Blaché.
#11 — PIERRETTE’S ESCAPADES (1900)
I hate to be so shallow, but something we take for granted as much as color can really elevate a film from an era where black-and-white or monochrome tinting was the norm. The bright, pastel hand-tinting of PIERRETTE’S ESCAPADES is nothing short of beautiful, an example where print degradation actually ends up doing something sort of beautiful with the film. I’m always a fan of Pierrot usage; the outfit for the stock theatrical character is always so distinct, but the magic of this film is in inhabiting a bright, otherworldly art project gone somewhat awry.
#10 — AUTOMATED HAT-MAKER AND SAUSAGE-GRINDER (1900)
Guy-Blaché innovated with many of her own film styles and techniques, but just as often she would pretty blatantly turn to the work of her contemporaries (as everyone did). AUTOMATIC HAT-MAKER AND SAUSAGE-GRINDER’s premise is quite similar to Louis Lumière’ THE MECHANICAL BUTCHER (1895). But Guy-Blaché takes it to an even more bizarre place with a machine that uses some unknown input to produce both sausages and hats, accentuating the humor of the situation by injecting more business into the characters operating the machinery. Just a brilliant, kind of weird parody of an already weird idea.
#9 — THE CABBAGE FAIRY (1896)
Probably Guy-Blaché’s most famous and influential work, THE CABBAGE FAIRY, as mentioned earlier, is arguably the first narrative fiction film. But even divorced from that, it’s an ethereal, strange movie that is limited in scope but magical in its potential and presentation. Quite simply, this short, at just under one minute, shows a woman (a fairy, I guess) in a flowery dress amid a field of cabbages, plucking a baby from it (in later versions I believe?). A wrought iron fence stands in a background with an impressive amount of depth, cementing the mystical setting. Are we in a forest? Or a park? Just a garden of some kind? Whatever the answer, the lack of context serves to only strengthen the “legend” and status of this landmark film. THE CABBAGE FAIRY is an echo of another time, as potent as a film of its kind can be.
#8 — COURSE À LA SAUCISSE (1907)
Opening with a close up of a dog is a good way to get an audience on your side. COURSE À LA SAUCISSE is another “comic chase” film from Guy-Blaché in the style of THE ROLLING BED or THE DRUNKEN MATTRESS…but it’s about a dog. It’s also a bit shorter, keeping a breakneck pace with plenty of slapstick action throughout. It’s just a goofy movie; dogs and sausages are a match made in heaven for silly comedy.
#7 — THE GIRL IN THE ARM-CHAIR (1912)
THE GIRL IN THE ARM-CHAIR is an early example of film melodrama and contains some distressing anti-Semitism, but the key of this film is an evolution of dramatic style in Guy-Blaché that represents the shift into the beginning of Hollywood, and an awesome dream sequence. In it, the central main character lays in a bed as ghostly playing cards spin around him. It’s one of the most striking images in Guy-Blaché’s entire filmography, and the titular girl character delivers a strong performance in pulling the deteriorating Frank out of his debt to the stereotypical Jewish moneylender.
#6 — A STORY WELL SPUN (1906)
Yet another chase film that spins out of control, quite literally, A STORY WELL SPUN puts a drunk in a barrel and kicks him around all kind of dangerous and painful situations. It’s only about two minutes long, but like COURSE À LA SAUCISSE, its pace is maintained exquisitely. There are some great, standout moments, like when the barrel balances on a raised train track and bumps over a person laying in the grass on a hill.
#5 — ON THE BARRICADE (1907)
An example of Guy-Blaché’s turn to drama, precipitated by her pending transition to American film production, ON THE BARRICADE is set during the time of the French Revolution and follows a boy who accidentally finds himself on the “wrong” side of a barricade manned by revolutionaries. The band is slaughtered by French men in uniforms, and he returns home with milk for his mother after promising to come back to the authorities. When he comes back with his desperate mother, the men let them go. It’s a brief piece, and I’m not quite sure what the intended message was, but I think it embodies the chaos and despair of the era, as well as the human decency that can be found in it. ON THE BARRICADE is a pretty potent oddity in the middle of plenty of fantastical shorts from Guy-Blaché’s more comedy-centric French era.
#4 — THE CONSEQUENCES OF FEMINISM (1906)
And the blending of that potency and comedy comes in the form of THE CONSEQUENCES OF FEMINISM, a film that reverses traditional gender roles. In this satirical movie, “weak” men are bossed around by “strong” women in the manner traditionally associated with the other gender. The men are dandies and do the housework, have little card parties with other men, and generally defer to their female partners. Some modern criticism of the film seems to think it’s a condemnation of feminism, but I think Guy-Blaché was actually satirizing the fear men felt about feminism, poking fun at the idea that feminism somehow means men will be treated poorly. Of course, this very fear exhibits the guilt and knowledge abusive men feel and have of their actions. I think THE CONSEQUENCES OF FEMINISM is a brilliant little piece of social commentary and comedy, and certainly stands as a key part of Guy-Blaché’s legacy.
#3 — FALLING LEAVES (1912)
FALLING LEAVES is, rightly so, considered one of Guy-Blaché’s greatest works, if not the greatest. A crucial part in the developing, elevated style of silent film melodrama that would grow in Hollywood (even as Solax still operated in New Jersey), FALLING LEAVES has a beautiful mise-en-scène that embodies its very title. It follows a family with a daughter seriously ill with consumption, tracking it from the development of a cure by a doctor to the family’s happiness to the family’s despair to, finally, the doctor’s stumbling across the situation. It’s a positive, uplifting drama with a great performance from the younger sister, Trixie, and generally natural, relaxed acting compared to its contemporaries. The scene with Trixie and the doctor in a walkway leading to the home, flanked by autumnal trees and leaves, is pretty stunning. A true classic of an underappreciated era of film.
#2 — THE BIRTH, THE LIFE, AND THE DEATH OF CHRIST (1906)
But as impressive as Guy-Blaché’s transition into a markedly different style from that of his origin is, THE BIRTH, THE LIFE, AND THE DEATH is a marginally more impressive evolution of the style that informed and was informed by Méliès. Guy-Blaché’s closest brush with a feature length film (besides #1, at 32 minutes long), the pretty straightforward chronicle of Jesus’ birth…and life…and death was the second most ambitious film to tell the tale to date. Shout out to Ferdinand Zecca’s VIE ET PASSION DU CHRIST (1903), which at 44 minutes long (admittedly split into various, shorter films) and in hand-tinted color probably takes that distinction. Regardless, Guy-Blaché’s film features numerous impressive sets that belie small sets with tremendous depth, accented by a sizable number of people on screen at any one time. As mentioned, it’s the crowning achievement in the two “eras” of Guy-Blaché’s career.
#1 — THE OCEAN WAIF (1916)
At just about 40 minutes long, I would classify THE OCEAN WAIF as Guy-Blaché’s only feature on this list; the traditional definition of a feature is 40 minutes. And I would also classify it as the crowning achievement of the second part of Guy-Blaché’s career, the naturalistic period in America. This melodrama sees a battered young girl abused by her stepfather falling in love with a famous author. The narrative that results is simple by today’s standards, but complex for much of Guy-Blaché’s work, and rendered in great detail with close up shots and naturalistic sets that weren’t necessarily the norm in much Guy-Blaché’s accessible work. It can seem unremarkable, but THE OCEAN WAIF embodies the very integrity of Guy-Blaché’s canon and its incredible evolution. There are other films of hers you should probably watch first, but return to this one to see why Guy-Blaché was one of the greatest directors of her era.