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Alice Guy Blaché

The French woman who invented cinema?

By Jon Davies

Readers of France in London may well be thinking: "surely cinema was invented by the Lumière Brothers in 1895?” And you would be right but there is a strong case to be made that their achievement was ‘moving pictures’ and that ‘cinema’ as we know it in its all-singing, all-dancing way was the child of a little known French director Alice Guy Blaché.

So why do I say this? The Lumières, although pioneers, were at heart businessmen who saw moving pictures as a chance to expand their photographic business. They didn’t see themselves as creative artists and could never have anticipated the cultural importance of their invention. To be fair nobody could. The first years of films were characterized by the simplicity of the product. The camera would be set up in front of something interesting- a train entering a station or a fire engine roaring past, and whatever its lens picked up became the film. There were no pans or tilts and the only movement came when cameras were strapped onto the front or back of trains for the so called ‘phantom rides’.

Georges Méliès's Voyage to the Moon
Georges Méliès's Voyage to the Moon

Hard on their heels came Georges Méliès. In 1898 while making a film he had a technical accident. The shutter on his camera stuck and he found out that it had double exposed the film creating superimposed illusions. He seized on this technique and developed it to create magical fantasy films such as Voyage to the moon in 1902 that still retain their magic.

But what of Alice Guy Blaché – what was her contribution? Alice was one of the pioneers in French cinema though forgotten for many years. By chance she got her hands on one of the earliest film cameras and made film history with La Fée aux choux in 1896.  At the time she was working as the office manager at the Gaumont photographic business. Guy had seen some of the Lumière films and was intrigued. As she tells it in her memoirs:

"Gathering my courage I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform them. If the future development of motion pictures have been foreseen at this time, I should never have obtained his consent. My youth, my inexperience, my sex, all conspired against me. I did receive permission, however, on this express condition that this would not interfere with my secretarial duties."

What makes her experiment so special is that this was arguably the first fiction film in film history. Some would point to the Lumiere’s L'Arroseur arrosé (The waterer watered) but her film went beyond the everyday to a fantasy world where babies arrived in cabbages!  She had found the courage to use the camera and use it to tell a fictional story. (In this case a rather shocking use of tiny babies).

It was a stunning start and Gaumont recognized her talent by immediately appointing her as their head of film production a position she held until 1906. This was a time, I suppose, when gender played far less of a role than the ability to demonstrate talent and all at the tender age of 23! She became a skilled and organized filmmaker with drive and imagination and made hundreds of films for Gaumont.

Evidently ambitious she left for America founding her own studio, Solax, which flourished for a while before closing in the roller coaster world of early film making. Her talent was acknowledged and she worked throughout America but eventually became bankrupt and returned to France in 1922 where her career stalled. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that her contribution to the history of cinema became accepted. She published her memoirs before dying at the age of 95 in America.

An amazing woman, have a look at some of her films on line.

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Jon Davies is the tutor of French Cinema at Morley College, who runs classes in several venues around London (more info here). 


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