Alice Guy’s biography might be summed up with the simple locution: despite everything.  Despite having been the first person to shoot a fictional film, despite having been the first female filmmaker, despite having made the first blockbuster in the history of cinema, despite having been a pioneer in the use of special effects; montage, close-ups, moving shots, and so on, Alice Guy is still all but unknown even today.

Film histories continue to award the positions of honor to the Lumiére brothers and to the prestigious Georges Méliés in the seventh art’s genesis. None of them, despite their unquestioned merits, had a vision of the future comparable to that of a simple woman who worked as a secretary to Leon Gaumont. It was at Gaumont Laboratories —legendary today for having produced early films for the French cinema— where Guy learned the rudiments of photography, and where she witnessed some of the first cinematic experiments.

In 1895, the Lumiére brothers invited Guy and Gaumont to see a demonstration of their invention. One can imagine the shock that entrenched the future filmmaker as she contemplated the miracle unfolding before her eyes. Although Lumiére was to claim it had no future, Guy must have immediately felt that the invention constituted an unparalleled business opportunity and an unlimited field for artistic experimentation. With her reluctant temperament, the secretary was able to convince her boss to grant her permission to experiment with the newly born art form. Guy even described the scene in her memoir:

My youth, my inexperience, my gender, everything conspired against me. I thought something better could be done than these demonstration movies. Arming myself with only courage, I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two scenes and have a few friends act in them. If the future development of films could have been foreseen at that time, it would have never won their consent. My youth, my inexperience, my gender, everything conspired against me. But I did get permission, on the express condition that it could not affect my duties as a secretary…

So, even as the famous train seemed to crash into unscathed spectators at the Lumiére brothers’ first public screening, Alice Guy was already dreaming of storytelling.

With Gaumont’s lukewarm consent, Guy embarked on a path of experimentation that would not rest until the 1920s. In that time, she made more than a thousand films, of which about one hundred have been preserved. Westerns, dramas, science fiction, comedies… Guy went on to shoot what is considered the first blockbuster in the history of cinema, The Life of Christ. In it, she used for the first time more than three hundred extras and about twenty-five studio sets. This was significant for a woman who’d not yet won the right to vote.

Her frantic cinematic activity includes discoveries like the synchronization of image and sound and the first attempt at adding color. But all this activity ended abruptly in 1922. She divorced the cameraman, Herbert Blaché, with whom she’d emigrated to the United States. They’d founded the production company Solax in 1910, but the divorce forced her to return to France. The creative freedom she’d experienced on the other side of the Atlantic came to an end and the pioneering momentum slowly faded.

Already of an advanced age, Guy tried to recover the films lost between France and the United States, and she worried that her name had been erased from the reels. What would be her reaction to seeing that so many of her own works had been attributed to cinematographers or simply considered anonymous films? Again, history overlooked one of its most important personalities, and simply because she’d been a woman.

Since 1990, Guy’s place in history has been repeatedly vindicated. Today, the unanimous view is that she was the true mother of narrative cinema. One need only watch her delicate Falling Leaves —a film we dare to  recommend here— to realize that all the ideas which would later make cinema into an art all on its own had already been buzzing in her head.

Image: Public domain

Alice Guy’s biography might be summed up with the simple locution: despite everything.  Despite having been the first person to shoot a fictional film, despite having been the first female filmmaker, despite having made the first blockbuster in the history of cinema, despite having been a pioneer in the use of special effects; montage, close-ups, moving shots, and so on, Alice Guy is still all but unknown even today.

Film histories continue to award the positions of honor to the Lumiére brothers and to the prestigious Georges Méliés in the seventh art’s genesis. None of them, despite their unquestioned merits, had a vision of the future comparable to that of a simple woman who worked as a secretary to Leon Gaumont. It was at Gaumont Laboratories —legendary today for having produced early films for the French cinema— where Guy learned the rudiments of photography, and where she witnessed some of the first cinematic experiments.

In 1895, the Lumiére brothers invited Guy and Gaumont to see a demonstration of their invention. One can imagine the shock that entrenched the future filmmaker as she contemplated the miracle unfolding before her eyes. Although Lumiére was to claim it had no future, Guy must have immediately felt that the invention constituted an unparalleled business opportunity and an unlimited field for artistic experimentation. With her reluctant temperament, the secretary was able to convince her boss to grant her permission to experiment with the newly born art form. Guy even described the scene in her memoir:

My youth, my inexperience, my gender, everything conspired against me. I thought something better could be done than these demonstration movies. Arming myself with only courage, I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two scenes and have a few friends act in them. If the future development of films could have been foreseen at that time, it would have never won their consent. My youth, my inexperience, my gender, everything conspired against me. But I did get permission, on the express condition that it could not affect my duties as a secretary…

So, even as the famous train seemed to crash into unscathed spectators at the Lumiére brothers’ first public screening, Alice Guy was already dreaming of storytelling.

With Gaumont’s lukewarm consent, Guy embarked on a path of experimentation that would not rest until the 1920s. In that time, she made more than a thousand films, of which about one hundred have been preserved. Westerns, dramas, science fiction, comedies… Guy went on to shoot what is considered the first blockbuster in the history of cinema, The Life of Christ. In it, she used for the first time more than three hundred extras and about twenty-five studio sets. This was significant for a woman who’d not yet won the right to vote.

Her frantic cinematic activity includes discoveries like the synchronization of image and sound and the first attempt at adding color. But all this activity ended abruptly in 1922. She divorced the cameraman, Herbert Blaché, with whom she’d emigrated to the United States. They’d founded the production company Solax in 1910, but the divorce forced her to return to France. The creative freedom she’d experienced on the other side of the Atlantic came to an end and the pioneering momentum slowly faded.

Already of an advanced age, Guy tried to recover the films lost between France and the United States, and she worried that her name had been erased from the reels. What would be her reaction to seeing that so many of her own works had been attributed to cinematographers or simply considered anonymous films? Again, history overlooked one of its most important personalities, and simply because she’d been a woman.

Since 1990, Guy’s place in history has been repeatedly vindicated. Today, the unanimous view is that she was the true mother of narrative cinema. One need only watch her delicate Falling Leaves —a film we dare to  recommend here— to realize that all the ideas which would later make cinema into an art all on its own had already been buzzing in her head.

Image: Public domain