05/08/2017

Every Year In Film #18 - At The Hypnotist's

Thoughts On: At The Hypnotist's (Chez Le Magnétiseur, 1897)


As you may have grown accustomed to, we won't just be talking about a simple short, rather, exploring the career of Alice Guy-Blaché.

  

Alice Guy-Blaché, or Alice Guy (and this is what we will primarily refer to her as for the sake of brevity), is an incredibly important filmmaker from the era in which filmmakers made the transition from movies as an attraction to film as an art. In fact, Guy, unlike almost every other filmmaker of her era, survived in the film industry past the World War period and until the early 1920s - which is astounding in itself. However, equally astounding is the fact that Guy has been struck from historical records for decades upon decades. It was only until her memoirs were published in English in the 80s, which was after her death, that film historians began to recognise her. From this point her legacy was discovered and built upon, which has resulted in a few documentaries (one of the most insightful being one made with her granddaughter in 1995) as well as plays, books and various other forms of recognition in media formats. However, it was't until as recently as 2011 that Guy was recognised by the Directors Guild Of America. This has left such a dumbfounding hole in film history considering how important and influential Guy was - not to mention that she was the first female filmmaker in the world around the 1900s - and for around a decade remained as such; she was even one of the most successful women in America at one point, famously so at the time, and was said to be the only female to be earning over $25,000.

There are a plethora of reasons as to why Guy's legacy was lost for so long. There is of course the argument for sexism, which can be seen to be the reason why, around the 1920s when cinema became a far more serious and lucrative endeavour, especially in America with the founding of Hollywood and the major studios, the majority of female filmmakers evaporated. Added to this, however, Guy developed in an era in which credits were not a concept - and wouldn't find their way to a screen until 1912. So, when she would later try to find her movies and validate the long lists of films that she constructed from memory in her old age, she was pretty much lost and seemingly discovered her legacy to be in the same state. Moreover, in the early half of the silent era, the director wasn't considered of much importance at all, more a manager of sorts - the idea of a great director or an auteur wasn't fully established like we know it today until the 1950s and 60s. It was instead the studios and the moguls that were the initial stars, later it became the actors and, within the industry, camera men were considered the main stars - and for good reason; operators would be dealt with some of the most dangerous, yet critical, tasks that, no matter how good the acting, writing and set design were, acted as the facade and backbone of a production - so much so that the biggest American actresses would only trust certain, sometimes only one, camera operator to shoot them. In this environment, Guy would be quickly lost and entirely forgotten like a plethora of directors were - though, almost no others were as significant as her.

Before we dive into Guy's career and films, we, much like we had to with Muybridge, Edison and the Lumières, have to establish some degree of scepticism. As all of the mentioned figures are, and as will be almost every major filmmaker that we ever cover, Alice Guy-Blaché is a romanticised figure. This is understandable because she was the first female filmmaker, one who was quashed by history, and so would be the source of much inspiration and intrigue in our modern age. Nonetheless, whilst she was amongst one of the four most important filmmakers of the late 1890s (those filmmakers being the Lumières, those working under Edison as well as Georges Méliès), there are elements of her known legacy that are blown out of proportion a little. We must, however, put a disclaimer above this disclaimer. Guy was apart of the production, as a writer, a director, a producer or a combination of all three, of over 700 films (some speculate over 1000) with most being shorts, but around 22 being features. This is an immense number, but, only around 350 of her films survive to this day - and only a portion of these, about 100, are readily available to watch. These are understandable odds considering that it is speculated that somewhere between 75% and 90% of all films made before 1930 are lost, but there is nonetheless a problem we face when analysing the careers of early filmmakers. Whilst legends, legacies and the history books are great forms of insight, they can be misleading, and so it is most preferable to let a filmmaker's career speak for itself through the films they have made. We cannot do this with Guy-Blaché, nor can we do this with any filmmaker of her era, so we have to be somewhat forgiving and conscious of our own lack of evidence when we assess their filmographies - and this is something I encourage you to remember as we assess Guy's films. There is only one respite on this front; optimistic film historians assume that the most popular and significant films would have been preserved by proxy of their demand and their legacy, so maybe we can rest on that idea just a little.

With that said, let's start with Guy's first film: La Fée Aux Choux, or, The Cabbage Fairy. Working as the secretary to Léon Gaumont, Guy is said to have made this in her lunch break as an aside to her actual secretarial work that Gaumont said she had to sustain if he were to allow her to make a film. Gaumont, in case you think you've heard the name, but aren't sure where, is a French film production company that is still functioning to this day and are attached to films such as The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, The Intouchables, JCVD and, a personal favourite of mine, Robin Hood: Men In Tights. Guy was hired to work under Léon Gaumont through connections and her previous work as a secretary, though, Guy was quite young at this point (19) and so she was going to be denied the job if not for her assertion that she would not be young forever. At that time, 1894, the film company she was hired into was not called Gaumont. The name would be changed when Gaumont, Gustave Eiffel (the famous engineer of the Eiffel Tower), Joseph Vallot and Alfred Besnier owned the company. Gaumont himself was not the president, instead Eiffel was; Gaumont was the manager. However, because of his financial and political scandal concerning the Panama Canal in 1887, Eiffel's name was not in good stead in France, so the company was named Gaumont.

After working under Gaumont for almost 3 years, Guy had become very familiar with the business, clients and technical details of her industry - and this is what brings us to 1896 when she decides to make a film herself. She was motivated to do this because she felt that moving pictures, as they existed in the form of the Lumière street scenes and Edison kinetoscope shorts, weren't very interesting. She thought this to herself whilst attending one of the very first showings of the Lumières' films which they projected with intentions to impress Gaumont. Guy then wanted to put stories into moving pictures so that she could bring what she liked best to the new form of entertainment: tear-jerkers, melodramas and emotional stories. This is something we see flourishing from her first film, but was also an idea that took quite some time to be fully realised. To discuss this further, let's take a quick look at Guy's first film:


There is a lot that could be said about this short. Not only do we see Guy's interest with narratives accentuated, but it becomes very clear that she has a differing sensibility, a female sensibility, imbued into her narratives. There is then not only a depiction of a female, but of a feminine topic; childbirth as presented in the form of a fairy tale - which she'd return to with the very similar Midwife to the Upper Classes from 1902. But, before delving too deeply into this, we have to see this film in context of Guy's wider filmography. Whilst a female sensibility is very apparent in quite a few of her films with the depiction of female protagonists and comedic conflicts that women could come into contact with, it is not universally evident. What's more, there isn't a consistent focus on narrative throughout Guy's filmography. We can discuss this further with our subject for today, At The Hypnotist's:


The narrative aspect of this film is not strong at all, in fact, this is a simple comedic trick film evidently inspired by Méliès that sees people, a hypnotised patient included, exchange clothes. Now, there is a lot of contention between the three main French filmmakers of this era, Méliès, Guy and the Lumières. Many claim that one was more important than the other - which is difficult to define, though it is understandable that we'd all have our personal favourites - and this funnels into the all important label of "first". In such, different people claim that one of these three filmmakers made the first narrative film. Without wanting to dive too deep into this topic, the Lumières' L'Arroseur Arrosé was the first, Guy's The Cabbage Fairy came out the next year and Méliès' A Terrible Night a few months after that. However, with that established, many say that Guy significantly developed narrative in the cinema. Having seen all of her available films around the turn of the 20th century, I cannot see this to be completely and singularly true - her development of narrative cinema really seemed to flourish around 1906. Guy, for the first 7/8 years of her career, then made many dance films like Danse Serpentine (which we've covered before) as well as trick films and a few staged street scenes. Many of these were inspired by the likes of the Lumières, Edison even in respect to the dance scenes, and Méliès. But, Guy also made some pretty impressive narrative films such as The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man in 1898 and Midwife to the Upper Classes in 1902. In fact, The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man holds some incredible narrative sensibilities that not only contain comedy and trickery, but morality also. See this here:


However, from her available films of this period there is nothing that stands out as more than a basic comedy or trick film that were being made to similar or higher standards by figures such as Méliès - consider his films A Nightmare, A Terrible Night and The Haunted Castle, all of which came out in his first year of work, 1896. None of these films have a mature narrative subtext like The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man, but are technically and narratively more complex than the majority of her other films. And when we come to Guy's next particularly interesting film, Midwife to the Upper Classes, it is already 1902.


In this year, Méliès would make his famous A Trip To The Moon and around this period there are British filmmakers that are introducing very impressive cinematic language and ways of thinking about the form that Guy never really expresses. Added to this, in 1903, we of course get The Great Train Robbery whilst Méliès seemingly hits the height of his technical capabilities. As a result, Guy's The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man seems to be much akin to Méliès' 1889 serial film, The Dreyfus Affair. Both are very impressive, but equally so are stand-outs, or anomalies, from the bulk of their filmography around the 1900s. So, when are confronted with the idea that Guy advanced narrative films, it is very clear that she had an interest and a sensibility regarding them that no one else in the late 1890s demonstrated, but, that she independently worked alongside--not necessarily in a different strata to--other filmmakers like Méliès, later Porter, in the general development of film form. As a result, she was one of a few select players in the evolution of narrative cinema in my view - and I think this becomes clear when you watch her films, the Lumières' films and Méliès' side-by-side.

It was during this period of development, 1896-1906, and after Guy's first film was a success selling around 80 prints, that she was made the head of production by Gaumont whilst she produced more dance films, travel and street scenes as well as a few narratives. One of her best films that would compete with the likes of the Lumières' would then come in 1905 and would combine her use of street scenes and dance. This film was Spain:


It is in this year that Guy's films then began to get a little more complex as well as longer. But, in 1906, the following year, Guy demonstrates an explosion of sophistication. We see this with her narrative films such as An Obstacle Course, A Story Well Spun, The Drunken Mattress, The Hierarchies Of Love and The Consequences Of Feminism. Guy lacks notions of cuts on continuity and complex editing in general in all of these films, but An Obstacle Course, A Story Well Spun and The Drunken Mattress all see the basic comedies of the first 5 years of her career gain greater scope. Added to this, with The Hierarchies Of Love and The Consequences Of Feminism, Guy constructs social commentaries that are as equally pithy and impressive as that in The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man is. But, above all of these films made in 1906 is certainly The Birth, The Life, And The Death Of Christ.


This was Guy's first big-budget film that utilised hundreds of extras and dozens of sets - and it had a run-time of approximately 33 minutes. With this film, Guy shows no attempt to create something like The Great Train Robbery, which is technically more complex, instead, creates a tableau of scenes depicting what the title suggests. There are a few special effects shots throughout, but what makes this film so significant is, in an around about way, its run-time. Early long films in themselves aren't impressive - even though they show an advancement towards modern conceptions of the feature film. What makes longer narrative films impressive is the implication that they have a story that is worth filling a longer period of time. It is certainly unfair to judge the pacing of these narratives with the knowledge of films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, but something like The Birth, The Life, And The Death Of Christ certainly fills its run-time competently. However, whilst it manages to successfully build a larger narrative, this film is not, as said, as complex as The Great Train Robbery.


The Great Train Robbery was a significant film because it did more than remind audiences of an old legend they had once heard; it brought that legend to life more than it simply implied or visually aided its telling. Guy's film, whilst its mise en scène is particularly striking, is little more than an amalgamation of re-enactments - a very common practice in this era that involved the adaptations of scenes from books and plays such as Faust, Rip Van Winkle or Shakespeare's King John. So, again, Guy certainly did something significant in 1906, but this feat was a step - less a jump or a leap - in the evolution of narrative cinema.

Aside from this, in 1905, Guy joins a highly impressive and complex technical endeavour: sound in film. It's here that those that say they know a lot about film are separated from those whose study into film history is a little more deep; the first sound film did not come out in 1927. Whilst the Jazz Man is a far more sophisticated representative of talking pictures, and is what set the standard for decades to come, there was a technical race to get to this point--it didn't just appear out of nowhere. And this is a paradigm we should all be very familiar with by this point in the Every Year series. However, that aside, as we discussed quite a while ago, there was once a meeting between Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Edison and William K.L Dickson in 1888 where they discussed the possibility of a collaboration on combining Muybridge's zoopraxiscope with Edison's phonograph. This never happened, at least, not with Muybridge involved. Dickson, as tasked by Edison, later would develop some of the first 'sync-sound' pictures. This would be done with a use of the kinetoscope and phonograph combined into one invention; a kinetophone that used headphones.


However, whilst these attractions served their purpose for some time and in varying forms over the years, there was always problems. Gaumont was one of the leading figures interested in this form of cinema and had Guy produce hundreds of music videos. Armand Dranem Performs The True Jiu-Jitsu, which is probably my favourite, is an example:


This was filmed with a Chronophone and it would synchronise the moving pictures caught with a Cinématographe with a phonograph recording. I will save all the details of this for a later post in which we delve into sound-on-disc, sound-on-film and the various stages in between. But, suffice to say, these phonoscenes, or music videos, were quite popular and commercially viable from around 1902 onwards, and as said, Guy made 100s of them. These would often be shown at the Gaumont Palace - which was regarded as the best cinema house in the world during its time.

A quick tangent I must venture on, since we have mentioned them, concerns cinemas. For quite a few years in the 1890s, films would simply play in store fronts, cafés and various unofficial areas, projected onto sheets and walls. This was particularly the case in Europe as in America Edison Kinetoscope parlours would have still been pretty relevant. In May of 1897, at a Charity Bazaar film screening in Paris, a fire was ignited from the ether that was used to fuel the projector lamp. This fire spread very quickly, soon engulfing the entire area, resulting in the deaths of 126 people. It was this tragic event that, in part (monetary gains would be a hugely significant reason - especially with vertical integration), inspired official cinema spaces where accidents like this could be controlled for, and this eventually led to Gaumont building his cinema Palace. So, when you next sit in your nearest digital IMAX theatre and wonder why those luminous green emergency exit signs next to the screens aren't turned off, think of 1897, flammable film stock, ether, fire and the cautionary beginnings of safety in movie theatres.

With that said, let's get back on track with Alice Guy-Blaché. By 1910, Guy had made significant strides in sound and narrative cinema from her beginnings in 1896. She had also met her husband, Herbert Blaché, who managed operations in America concerning the technical set-up and distribution of Gaumont's films. But, it was in 1910 that the two left Gaumont to move to America and is also when Guy made one of the greatest moves of her career; she set up and established her own film production company, Solax Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was at this time that Hollywood didn't really exist; the first studio would be established in 1911 and it'd take a few years for the industry to grow - as motivated quite a bit by Edison's company. This meant that the East Coast was still the centre of film production in America. Guy worked in this competitive area as the artistic director, writer, producer and director of various films. A couple of significant films were initially made here would be A Fool And His Money and Falling Leaves. A Fool And His Money is considered significant as it is the first known film ever made with an all-African-American cast. Whilst this is a significant move on Guy's behalf, who directed the film, she had made many films with black face - which was a norm at the times - so there is something of a counter-balancing required. However, moving onto Falling Leaves, we come to Guy's most touching film, one that seemingly represented much of what she started making films for, and is the best film of hers that I've seen. So, not only is this a narrative film, but it is an emotionally driven tear-jerker of sorts - and a film we've covered before.

In the two years of making these films, Guy's studio amassed much success, allowing renovations and much media attention which glorified Guy as the most successful woman in America and an influential, important filmmaker. However, Guy herself wasn't always too happy with publications on herself as they were sometimes incorrect or contained made up details - something she aimed to fixed in her later years. Nonetheless, in the height of her success, Guy produced a plethora of films throughout the nineteen-teens, most of which were constructed under a banner in the studio that famously read "Be Natural". And this idea of "Be Natural" impacted the manner in which film acting evolved over the years in her studio - as acting was of course initially seen as a much lower form of art than theatrical acting and took many years to become what we know it to be today.

But, as is the story with almost all great figures, there is a decline from success. Guy's fall from success was an amalgamation of the rise of Hollywood as the 1920s approached and her collapsing marriage. Coming under financial pressure and having split with her husband, who eventually stopped working with her after leaving with a young actress to work in Hollywood, Guy would divorce Herbert in 1922, make her last film, declare bankruptcy and have to sell her studio - right down to the furniture - before moving back to France. She would work on scripts and her memoirs the rest of her life, never remarrying, but would never be able to publish or sell what she wrote. At a later date, she would try searching for her films as to reclaim creative control, but would quickly discover that she was struck from all records and almost completely forgotten, many of her films nowhere to be found. Much later, after having a stroke, her health declined and she would die in 1968 at the age of 94. Her daughter and granddaughter have since been key in the resurrection of her legacy by getting her memoirs published as an autobiography in France in 1976, later in English during 1986. Since then, Guy has been reintroduced into history books and some of her films have been discovered and preserved. Whilst her legacy has developed over the decades, Guy is not often mentioned in the same sentence as the Lumières, Edison or Méliès. With time and the spreading of her story, film history may be rectified.

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