Although many film histories ignore her importance in cinema history, the Frenchwoman Alice Guy is one of the inventors of the narrative film. Few of her films survive today, however, due to the twin exigencies of neglect and cellulose nitrate decay (all films made before 1950 were photographed on nitrate film, which produced a superior image but was highly flammable and chemically unstable). Indeed, her remarkable body of work went almost unnoticed until the late 1970s, when feminist historians began to reintegrate her life work into film history and scholarship.
Guy was born in Paris in 1873. She was raised by a middle-class family, the youngest of four daughters of a bookseller. Educated at a convent in Switzerland, she was hired as a secretary by Léon Gaumont. Not very long afterward, she began to take on more duties at the studio. In fact, Guy helped her employer build the first Gaumont studio in France.
Gaumont experimented with moving cameras and projectors, eventually building a 35 mm (standard theatrical gauge) camera combined with a projector. Then he designed and built an inexpensive machine for projection only, which was to be marketed to other distributors in the industry. Guy worked closely with him on these projects. Her first stabs at direction were instructional films, newsreels, and other short subjects, meant for advertising, promotion, and demonstration purposes. Gaumont was interested only in technique. Guy was the artistic side of the partnership.
In 1896, she directed La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Patch Fairy), one of the world’s first films with a plot. Described as a picture postcard that springs to life, the film tells the story of a woman who grows children in a cabbage patch. Guy shot the film with the help of Yvonne Mugnier-Serand in the garden of Gaumont’s house, with a few backdrops for sets and some friends as actors. The film displayed the French style of light humor and an appreciation for magic and the fantastic, similar to that of Méliès and other early French film directors.
After her first narrative film, Guy began to make films with well-known French stage performers. She would tackle many different genres: fairy tales, fantasy films, horror films, comedies, and trick films, making dozens of films for Gaumont, such as La Première Cigarette (The First Cigarette, 1904). In her 1903 film Faust et Méphist-ophélès she was already using close-ups to heighten dramatic effects. Guy also included shots of actors reacting to one another. In another short film, Le Crime de la Rue du Temple (The Crime in Temple Street, 1904), she used innovative cinematic devices such as masking and double exposure.
Guy was fond of literary classics such as Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, which she adapted for the screen as La Esmeralda (1905). One of the most famous works she directed during her early years was La Vie du Christ (or La Naissance, la vie, et la mort
A scene from La Première Cigarette (The First Cigarette), directed by Alice Guy for Gaumont in 1904. A scene from Alice Guy’s Gaumont producde Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ, 1906, and released in the tion La Vie du Christ (The Life of Christ, United States as The Birth, the Life, and the Death of 1906).
Christ). Made specifically to compete with the Pathé release of the same name, it was an ambitious production that had a lavish budget, large crew, and hundreds of extras, in settings designed and executed by Henri Mé-nessier. Guy managed to skillfully incorporate the use of numerous extras to give added depth to her work, the same way that the American director D. W. Griffith did many years later in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), with one subtle but telling difference: most of the onlookers in this version of the Christ tale are women and children. In addition, Guy used lap dissolves to show angels hovering over Christ at his birth and employed deep photographic space to suggest a sense of visual depth and detail that is missing in many early silent films. Under Gaumont’s supervision, Guy also went on to direct many of the earliest sound films. Gaumont invented a device that recorded sound on wax cylinders, called the Chrono-phone. It worked by recording sound synchronously with the camera’s recording of the visuals. Starting in the late 1890s, Guy directed at least a hundred of these new “talking pictures.”
Around this time Guy started to hire more directors to keep up with the output at Gaumont studios. She hired Ferdinand Zecca, who later became a well-known French director, as her assistant. When she could no longer handle the entire production end of Gaumont single-handedly, Guy signed on Ménessier as permanent set designer, Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset as production manager, and, later, Louis Feuillade as scriptwriter. Many film historians would subsequently forget Guy’s contributions but remember everyone she hired, and even misattribute her films to them.
With Blaché in charge of Gaumont’s New York office, Guy was able to make full use of that studio’s technical facilities, as well as gain access to Gaumont’s American clients, who would distribute her films. Located first in Flushing, New York, Solax eventually moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a number of fledgling film companies were setting up production facilities at the dawn of the studio era.
Perhaps one of the reasons Guy’s films have been lost to history is her distinct style of direction. Her films are highly theatrical, and film critics have traditionally despised theatricality. Her use of deep-focus photography, lush, expensive sets, and theatrical subjects may also have been ahead of its time. In addition, for many years it appeared that only a few of Guy’s films had survived. But due to renewed interest in her work, many rare prints of her films have been recovered throughout the world, preserved in archives, and in some cases distributed.