In the first episode of his 2011 documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey (airing tonight at 10PM EST on TCM), Mark Cousins examines the technical roots of film by taking viewers on a brief visual tour of, among other places, the factory of the Lumière brothers in France. Fascinated by the possibilities of motion pictures, Auguste and Louis Lumière began filming scenes and screening them for public viewing in 1895 using a device called a “cinematograph.” The Lumières almost intuitively realized the potential for the moving pictures to be something more than a novelty—they were a new form of mass media, and the brothers were only too willing to bring the films to an increasingly enthusiastic audience.
Other filmmakers brought their products to the Lumières to screen in public venues, and a distribution model of sorts was born. Among those filmmakers whose work was licensed to the brothers was a fellow Frenchman named Léon Gaumont. At first, the Gaumont films mimicked the typical Lumière picture—a scene from real life, with no notion of story or characterization. But that changed when Gaumont allowed his secretary, Alice Guy, to make a short film.
Like the Lumières, Alice Guy—who was barely in her twenties at the time—understood that the motion pictures had great potential. But rather than limit her filming to staged scenes from everyday life, Guy decided to use the camera to tell a story. In the process, she helped introduce the concept of narrative film structure to the movies. Her first short film, 1896’s La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), is one of the first narratives to have been produced and, at a full minute in length, was also one of the longer pictures to come from the early days of filmmaking.
The art of the narrative was not Guy’s only contribution to the early days of filmmaking. She implemented numerous camera tricks and techniques, such as superimposition and split screens, in her films. She was also one of the first directors to experiment with color and sound, long before Technicolor and the “talkies” revolutionized Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s. Gaumont premiered his “Chronophone,” an early method of synchronizing sound and picture, in 1902, and Guy directed a number of films using the process (though it is generally believed that none of the Gaumont early talkies have survived).
Guy worked for Gaumont in France for ten years as the head of film production, making dozens upon dozens of films before marrying and moving to the United States with her husband, cameraman and future director Herbert Blaché. The newly-christened Madame Blaché co-founded Solax Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey with her husband, and there she spent another fifteen years crafting film projects. She not only produced and oversaw the work of the directors on staff at Solax, but she also directed a majority of the studio’s releases herself. Over the course of her career, Guy-Blaché made several hundred films (some sources put the number at closer to a thousand), though a great deal of those films have since been lost. But the ones that remain show Guy-Blache’s particular genius—an instinctive eye for light, creative framing of scenes, and a decided dedication to telling an interesting story.
Three of those films will be shown on TCM this evening after the screening of the first installment of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which provide a good cross-section of Guy-Blache’s talents as a director. The first, Falling Leaves (1912), is a beautifully-shot, sentimental melodrama about a young girl who tries to help her dying sister in a most fanciful way. The next film, Canned Harmony (1912), is a comedy about a young man who wants to marry his girl, but must first prove his (nonexistent) musical chops to her disapproving musician father. And the brief tribute to Guy-Blaché ends with A House Divided (1913), a marital comedy of errors that anticipates the rise of the screwball genre two decades later. The three films will air beginning at 11:30PM EST.
Though Alice Guy-Blaché was one of the most prolific early filmmakers, with a long and successful career that spanned more than two decades, she is far from a household name. She directed her final film (Tarnished Reputations) in 1920, and at that point, she virtually disappeared. Her name is sometimes left out of the annals of film history, though there have been many efforts, particularly as of late, to bring her story to the forefront once more. Put aside that she was the first female director, and the first woman to own a film studio–that in itself makes her a marvel–and consider the fact that Alice Guy-Blaché was also one of the first directors, period. She was, by every definition of the word, a true pioneer of the cinema.