Saturday, July 1, 2017

Born Today July 1: Alice Guy


Ground breaking film director and writer Alice Guy-Blanche was born Alice Ida Antoinette Guy in Paris on this date. Her parents were based in Chile and this left little Alice in the care of elderly grandparent in a French speaking area of Switzerland.  Around the age 4 (possibly 3), she was sent to live briefly with her parents in Chile.  At the age of 6, she was sent to school in a convent in France on the boarder with Switzerland.  When her father's book business in Chile went bankrupt, the family could no longer afford her private Jesuit education, and so she was sent to a regular school.  By 1893, she was training as a typist and stenographer.  She soon went to work in that capacity at a vanish factory in order to help support her family.  One year later, she went to work as a secretary to Léon Gaumont at the still photography company that he would eventually run through a type of by-out.  When the company went bankrupt, Gaumont purchased the company's inventory and started a business for himself, taking Guy with him.  Although she was working as a secretary, she showed a keen interest in learning all aspects of the business and became acquainted with many of the company's clients.  Three of these were early film pioneers: The Lumière Brothers and Georges Demenÿ.  On the 22nd of March 1895, she and Gaumont attended an event by the Lumière Brothers that they were billing as a "surprise."  The event turned out to be the first ever demonstration of a film projector.  Though they were selling their equipment for "demonstration films"--actualities, newsreels and moving photographic subjects--a light immediately went off in Guy's head that the medium could be used for fictional narrative stories.  The exact date surrounding her being "green lit" to explore her ideas in film is not really known, however it is known that her first film came out in 1896: Les démolisseurs was made using Gaumont's funds, making his company a de facto production venture.  Though her one-woman power-house project La fée aux choux (1896) (The Cabbage Fairy) is often cited as being her first film--in fact, it is often tagged as the first film directed by a woman--she actually made some 4 shorts before this.  It is correct to say that it is probably the world's first narrative film; and one that gave her credits in writing, cinematography and acting.  This had her off to a start in one of the most influential careers in film history.  From 1896 to 1906 she was Gaumont's head of production--their very own in house director.  During this period of time she experimented heavily with various techniques, with hand tinting proving to be one of her talents.  Her films became so popular, that Gaumont licensed them to both Lumières and Edison, making her internationally known.  She became one of the very first film-makers to adapt works of literature to film (she directed the first film adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1905 with Esmeralda). She was also an early sound pioneer, utilizing Gaumont's in house Chronophone system. A good example of this is her 1905 Le boléro cosmopolite. She garnered her first actual producer credit in 1902 with Midwife To The Upper Classes (she wouldn't have another until 1911, when she became a producer at her own company). Guy also was probably the first film maker to feature interracial casting in a narrative film. 

Colored still from La Tango (1905)

One of her true groundbreaking moments came in 1906 with the huge production that was The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ.  The film boasted 300 extras and several of her on inventions for special effects; the film also features a very early sweeping pan shot.  In all, many of her innovations included things she either came up with on her own, or perfected from the techniques of others; they include:  double exposure, running film in reverse,  and various masking treatments.  In 1907 she married filmmaker Herbert Blanché, and thus hyphenating her last name (though the pair divorced in 1922, she used the name for the rest of her life).  It was truly a marriage of equals; they were put in charge of the Gaumon't newly created American house and thus left for the U.S. to run that.  They stayed the U.S. Gaumont until 1910, when they left to found their own production house--the hugely influential Solax; they promptly built a studio in Flushing, New York.  Gaining in influence and popularity (and poaching talent from production companies that people were unhappy with), the company built a brand new studio in Fort Lee, NJ in 1912 to the tune of $100,000.  

The Solax "Factory" under construction (photo from great little book Fort Lee: Birthplace Of The Motion Picture Industry).

Rumors began to swirl around the power couple that all was not well with their relationship, that Herbert Blanché spending wildly to try and out do his more talented wife--Solax was reputed to be bankrupt.  She, herself, blamed the money woes on her husband's bad stock investments.  With the delusion of her marriage and the rapid decline in east coast film production, she auctioned off what assets were left at Solax, while claiming bankruptcy.  She then quietly went back to France.  Before this, and while dealing with the money woes of her production studio, she directed her last film Vampire, during which she came down with Spanish flu and almost died--the year was 1920.  In 1927, she returned to the U.S. to try to resume her film making career, but to no avail, so she returned to her birth country.  In the 1940's she wrote a memoir, but it was not published during her lifetime.  She never remarried and in 1964 again returned to the U.S. to stay with one of her daughters and 4 years later, she died in a nursing home in Mahwah, New Jersey at the age of 94.  She is buried at the Maryrest Cemetery there.  During her lifetime she often did not get anywhere near the credit that was her due because of her sex, it is so important to give her the credit that she deserves, as many of her personal innovations were claimed to have been invented by later filmmakers--all of them male

Her original grave marker

Newer marker giving her credit where credit is richly deserved!

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