First Lady of Film–For movie buffs and film historians, new biography of film pioneer Alice Guy is a must-read

Review by C.J. Bunce

Were I to offer a college course in film, my textbooks would include TCM’s 20th Century Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio, TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood, Special Effects: The History and Technique, TCM’s Essential Directors, American Visions: The Films of Frank Capra, Roger Christian’s Cinema Alchemist, and Aardman’s A Grand Success, and I’d have students watch Paramount’s The Offer, Prime Video’s The Last Tycoon, and Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s WorldAdd to that the new English translation of French writer José-Luis Bocquet and artist Catel Muller’s new 400-page graphic novel, Alice Guy: First Lady of Film, available this month here at Amazon, a rich, densely layered look at one of the world’s first movie directors, the first woman director (1896), an early movie producer, and the creator of the first film with an all-black cast of actors–way back in 1912.  Her life is a chronology of the first decades of the invention of cinema, and she helped mold modern film-making in France and the U.S. as she rubbed elbows with the likes of Gustave Eiffel, Georges Méliès, the Lumière brothers, Rose Pastor Stokes–subject of one of her films–and American film pioneers Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

The graphic novel was originally published in French in 2021.  It goes far beyond the typical graphic novel, pulling in all aspects of life in America and France between the 1890s and 1920s, including cultural influences and norms, improvements in the arts and sciences, struggles of women in society and in the workplace, and the shifting nature of entertainment in light of social class differences and war.

From showing ordinary aspects of life at the early cinema to creating extraordinary films, 23-year-old Alice Guy rose up the ladder at a French company selling modern scientific equipment, including the binocular camera.

The battle among members of a new breed of scientists and business entrepreneurs in conflicts in the cinemal world was equal to the fight between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over electricity.  Guy was an influencer as secretary working under Léon Gaumont at his company, where they worked through many aspects and breakthroughs leading to the cinematograph, beginning with chronophotography and the phonoscope, creating the biographe and bioscope and then combining the two, growing in tandem with Thomas Edison’s single-viewer moving images kinetoscope device to projecting moving images, moving from discs and glass to film, interspersing the cinema magic from magician and illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin and the first visual effects, competing with Méliès’ theatrograph and kinetograph, adding sound in the form of music, then synchronizing actor speech to phonograph records to make the first talking films or chronophones, on-location filming, early color films, and selling curated films instead of the machines that show them to make big money, with bigger and bigger screens as an audience attraction from the very beginning of cinema, strategizing ways to bring audiences back for more like releasing sequential films, learning the importance of using safe materials as she witnessed the first movie theater fire, and carrying forward the idea of creating holiday films for holiday releases.
Creating her first film, a fantasy genre work called The Cabbage Fairy, she went onto hire a camera man, costume and prop makers, actors, and script writer for future films, even adapting award-winning novels to film, and differentiating horror movies from thrillers.  She also witnessed and participated in all the bad in the first decade of film: producers taking advantage of much younger production talent (Men and women), along with lawsuits for stealing ideas, and Guy’s own use of animals being harmed in film years before animal protection laws.  Ultimately she created nearly 200 films in six years. Married as Alice Guy-Blaché she moved to New York where she started her own production company, Solax, adding another 200 movies to cinema, including the first film with an all black cast.  All-in she directed more than 300 films before 1922–many lost forever just as many films were not preserved in film’s early years.
Pulled in part from research from a historian and book editor who died in 2008 after extensive interviews with Guy, who died in 1968, the book includes Catel & Bocquet’s 15-page timeline of film, as well as 51 pages of detailed biographical portraits of major players in the early history of film, a partial filmography of Guy, and a bibliography.  It’s both a scholarly work while also easy to read, visually compelling, and full of drama and intrigue.
A must for film aficionados and students of the history of science and the arts, Alice Guy: First Lady of Film is now available here at Amazon.  Don’t miss it.

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