Lost Visionary - Excerpt

From Chapter One
The Lost Visionary

Who Directed the First Fiction Film?

Alice Guy Blaché
Alice Guy Blaché

The impetus for this book stems from one little-known fact: the first director of a story film in history was a woman, and to this day, even with significant persuasive evidence, historians either insist it isn't true, or else belittle the magnitude and the effect of her contribution. [1]

Alice Guy…The World's first woman director and possibly the first director of either sex to bring a story-film to the screen… Her first film…preceded Méliès' story films by a few months, according to several authoritative French historians, although others claim that the film wasn't made until 1900 or even later. [2]

The above comments from the introduction to Ally Acker's and Ephraim Katz sum up a decades-long controversy over who directed the first fiction film. The certainty that Guy was not given credit for directing the first fiction film by misogynistic male historians usually goes hand in hand with the original historical question, adding a further layer of murkiness to an already difficult problem.

Controversies of such longstanding usually indicate that conflicting historical and theoretical approaches are being used in a debate, that the differences between these approaches are blurred, whether deliberately or accidentally. In this chapter I will answer the question: did Alice Guy direct the first fiction film? However, the answer is not a simple yes or no. First of all, we need to understand what we mean when we say a film. Then we need to clarify what we mean by fiction film. Finally we need to sift carefully through archival evidence in order to settle questions of dates and production. It is only in this way that we can then say with confidence what Alice Guy did and did not do, why her work is important, regardless of whether she directed the first film or not, and why her story should be told.

The Birth of Cinema: Photography [3]

The history of the cinema can be read as part of the industrial drive to mechanization. This drive can be recognized in the relationship between the technological development of the cinematograph (as the first motion picture cameras were called) and the development of flying machines, particularly in France. In some cases the same inventors worked on both. In order to understand the social transformation that Alice Guy was witnessing from her secretarial desk it is useful for us to pause and take stock of the social and scientific milieu in which photography was being perfected and cinema was developing.

Looking back, we notice that often the people of ideas who concerned themselves with the development of photography and projection also concerned themselves with the development of aerodynamics. This combination of interest in spectatorship, projection of images, and flight characterized many men of science of the day, though most of the others described here were more successful at combining their interests in moving images and flight, such as Gaspard- Felix Tournachon. Born in Paris in 1820, in the 1830s he took on the nickname Nadar, under which he published stories, essays, and caricatures. He turned to photography in the 1850s and was one of the first to practice photography as an art and not only for scientific study. [4] In 1857 he made his first ascent in a hot air balloon and then began to go up in balloons with his photographic equipment to take pictures. (Taking pictures from hot air balloons and other flying devices was so common that Frederique Dillaye, in his famous manual of instructions for photographers, spent several pages describing the proper way to attach a camera to the basket of a hot air balloon and to a kite [5]). Nadar loved the hot-air balloon and its silent ride, but was soon frustrated by the difficulties he had navigating it. After studying the motion of kites, birds, projectiles, and his favorite example, a worker who soaked his sponge in water before tossing it up to his colleague on a scaffold, Nadar concluded that controlled aerial navigation required the flying body to be heavier than air. So, along with Baron Taylor and Jules Verne he formed the Société d'Encouragement pour la Locomotion Aérienne au Moyen d'Appareils Plus Lourds que L'Air (Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Machines Heavier than Air). The purpose of this society was to bring together men with the ideas and raise enough money to fund the construction of their flying machines, especially a helicopter. To raise the level of public awareness of flight and funds to build a helicopter, Nadar decided to build a gigantic balloon, the Géant. Completed in October 1863, it was forty-five meters in circumference and could carry over a dozen passengers in a two-tiered basket. Nadar made five ascensions in the big balloon between 1863 and 1867 and wrote two books about his experiences. [6]

Predictably, the Géant sucked up whatever profits Nadar's photography studio could churn out. The financial "encouragement" to build helicopters never materialized either. [7] Although he never gave up his dream of flight, Nadar had to focus on his photography again, and on January 7, 1887, we find him giving a demonstration of positive and negative photographic papers developed by George Eastman and W.H. Walker in 1884 to the Société française de photographie, a session at which Marey was present.

Such scientific demonstrations enable us to trace the links between photography and flight. A key such demonstration occurred in 1873 when Pierre-Jules Cesar Janssen demonstrated his photographic rifle, based on Plateau's phenakistiscope, to the Academy of Sciences. (Marey was also present at this demonstration). Janssen was an astronomer and part of a team that was travelling to Japan in 1874 to witness the passage of Venus across the face of the sun, an event that only occurs twice each century. He spent two years preparing a photographic device to register the event. The "rifle" registered images on a light sensitive wheel. His second version was able to register 48 images in 72 seconds and succeeded in taking the pictures he wanted of Venus crossing the face of the sun. These images enabled him to prove one of his theories, that the solar corona was in fact an attribute of the sun itself and not an effect of looking at the sun through the Earth's atmosphere. Janssen's rifle was used to photograph solar eclipses for many years. [8]

The Birth of Cinema: Motion Studies

In 1868, Étienne -Jules Marey [9], a celebrated physiologist in Paris, wrote: "[in the human body] movement is the most important act, to which end all bodily functions cooperate." [10] Marey dedicated his life to the study of human and animal locomotion and along with his associate, Georges Demenÿ, was one of the theoretical constructors of the modern concept of physical education. In 1876 an exposition of appareils chronographiques (chronographic devices: chrono for time, graphic for writing: capturing the movements in time with graphs) was held in London and Marey's devices made up a large exhibit.

His eventual move to the use of photography to study a flying body was partly inspired by Janssen. As Marta Braun has pointed out, what Marey was after, like Leonardo Da Vinci before him, "was above all to make the world visible; only thus, he believed, could it be measured, and only through measurement could it be truly known. Marey's world was the world of motion in all its forms, its conquest was his greatest achievement…. Marey was primarily interested in a visual description of human motion – the walk, the run, the jump, and so on – and the forces at work in their execution." [11]

The Birth of Cinema: Aerodynamics

If we consider the Webster's dictionary definition of aerodynamics as "the branch of dynamics that treats the motion of air and other gaseous fluids and the forces acting on bodies in motion relative to such fluids," [12] the areas of overlap with motion studies become apparent. Both sciences are interested in forces that are not immediately visible to the human eye, and both problems were addressed in the 19th century by the same people or by different people who met in the same venues, that is, these learned societies.

The aerodynamicists had their own societies as well. Here is a quote from a report of the aeronautical society in 1868:

With respect to the abstruse question of mechanical flight, it may be stated that we are still ignorant of the rudimentary principles which should form the basis and rules for construction. No one has yet ventured to give a correct experimental definition of the primary laws and amount of power consumed in the flight of birds; neither, on the other hand, has any tangible evidence been brought forward to show that mechanical flight is an impossibility for man . . .. We are equally ignorant of the force of the wind exerted on the surfaces of various sizes, forms, and degrees of inclination; these are generally assumed on the mathematical laws of the resolution of forces... [13]

What this quote makes clear is that although much theoretical work had been done – in fact, most of the mathematical theories needed for flight had already been developed – the would-be airplane builders still had no clear idea on how to accomplish their goal.

The idea that was popular in most aerodynamic circles was that concept of the ornithopter, or a flying device modeled on birds, although, as noted, some favored the idea of a rotating blade that would screw upwards, as in a helicopter. But great minds like Da Vinci before and Otto Lilienthal after favored ornithopters. And in order to build an ornithopter it was necessary to study the flight of birds.

Such studies has already been attempted, including graphic studies by Marey in 1869 and 1870 in which he produced line tracings from the flights of harnessed birds. His results were published in the journal La Nature, edited by photographer Gaston Tissandier, who had written a book on aerial locomotion himself. [14]

The Birth of Cinema: The Helicopter

In 1872, Alphonse Penaud, one of the unsung heroes of aerodynamics, cooperated with Marey to build a mechanical bird (Marey had previously built a mechanical insect). It is not clear how successful this model was, but apparently more work was needed, because in December of 1873 Penaud made a presentation to the Société française de navigation aérienne (French Society for Aerial Navigation) that both praised Marey's work to that point and offered suggestions on how it could be improved. Specifically, Penaud suggested that instead of recording the flight of birds graphically, they should be photographed. He then reminded Marey of the presentation Janssen had made of his photographic rifle just a few months earlier. Though Penaud claimed to know nothing about photography, he also foresaw that this device would need something like a Maltese Cross. [15] Other engineers present (Villeneuve and Armengaud) made suggestions which Marey would end up applying almost ten years later.

In the meantime, Penaud gave up on ornithopters and designed a helicopter, a design he patented in 1876. He spent four years trying to raise the money to build one without success, and in despair committed suicide in 1880 at the age of 30.

Penaud's influence on Marey was longlasting in two ways. Marey did end up building the photographic gun, a key step toward the development of the motion picture camera. But he had to wait a few years for Janssen to give him his rifle and the permission to improve upon it, and a few more years to overcome his own reluctance to abandon his graphic devices. Finally the sight of Muybridge's photographs of Leland Stanford's racehorse encouraged him to continue. He applied for a grant to further his studies of motion and in 1883 Marey was awarded money to erect a building on his Station Physiologique, his center for the study of locomotion. He relied greatly on his associate, Georges Demenÿ, to run the Station and continue the experiments during the six months he spent every year in Naples. Demenÿ ran the Station physiologique for Marey for over ten years. He began as Marey's worshipful acolyte and gradually emerged as a scientist and inventor in his own right.

When Marey witnessed Nadar's demonstration of the Eastman Kodak film, it had a great influence on his own work. Up until then he had used single large fixed plates where a series of images would all be imprinted; the overlap in these images made it difficult to decipher the motions he wished to study. But on October 29, 1888 he presented the chronophotographe sur bande mobile, a motion-picture camera which could register up to 20 images a second. Because the roll of paper was not perforated it wasn't possible to make the images equidistant, thus making it unreliable in the capture and projection of true motion picture images. Marey was not concerned about this because his interest was the study of locomotion and not motion picture projection. By 1890 celluloid, [16] commercialized by George Eastman, had become widely available. Marey patented his camera for use with celluloid on October 3, 1890.

Now Marey and Demenÿ began to produce motion pictures in earnest, always with the purpose of studying locomotion. Unlike Muybridge, Marey -ever sensitive to public opinion- avoided photographing women; most of his films feature nude male athletes going through various athletic moves such as jumping, leaping, using a baton, etc., and one film was made of ocean waves.

Until 1892 Marey studied his images of locomotion by cutting them out and then attaching them equidistantly inside a zoetrope. By May of 1892 he began to feel the need for real projection, and he began to work on a projecteur chronophotographique in earnest. By November of 1892 many of his colleagues considered the projector he developed to have resolved the problems of projecting movement. However, Marey's projector, like his camera, did not use a perforated-film system, which made it difficult to assure a steady movement. Emile Reynaud, the magician and showman, projected bands of animated drawings joined on perforated strips of leather at the Musée Grevin. Other inventors, like the Lumières, would resolve this problem by perforating the celluloid.

It is interesting to note the role played by "pre-cinematic" optical toys in the development of motion studies and cinematography. Plateau's phenakistiscope influenced Janssen's photographic rifle. The "projecting phenakistiscope" or zoetrope, inspired the design of Emile Reynauld's praxinoscope. Reynauld's Projections Lumineuses ran for over 1200 performances at the Musée Grevin in Paris from 1892 to 1900. Muybridge's series of images of the horse galloping were published in the form of zooetrope strips in popular magazines for readers to cut out and re-play at home. In other words, these pre- or proto- cinematic devices, played a role in the motion studies which led to flight as well as reconfiguring the spectator as a point of view within the field of the moving image.

Motion Pictures for Motion Studies

Demenÿ continued to work on the improvement of his master's inventions, and he was also eager to commercialize them.

In 1893 Demenÿ produced his own series of films entitled la Psychologie de la prestidigitation ("The Psychology of the Magic Act"). He invited the most famous magicians of his day to be filmed at the station: Méliès, Dickson, Arnould, and Raynaly. [17] Unfortunately, Méliès does not seemed to have agreed to be "chronophotographed," but the request might have influenced later developments in his career.

By 1889 Demenÿ had become much more self-assured. He no longer needed to consult with Marey when he wrote his papers and was eager to assert his own ideas. The relationship between the two men began to suffer. However, Marey recognized that Demenÿ was coming into his own and encouraged him to speak at conferences, publish papers under his own by-line, and work on his own inventions. Demenÿ was also named "Laboratory Chief" of the Station physiologique.

In 1891 the Musée Grévin, a wax museum which had been exhibiting Emile Reynaud's Theatre Optique since 1888, invited Marey to give a theatrical demonstration of some of his films with his newly developed projector. There is no record of Marey's reply, but his reluctance to commercialize his invention had been a source of strife between him and Demenÿ for some time. However, in July of 1891 Demenÿ gave a demonstration of his phonoscope at the Musée Grévin. [18]

The phonoscope was a projector designed to reproduce the living manner of a subject as s/he pronounced short phrases. (One film shows Demenÿ himself saying "Vive la France"). The images were taken with Marey's chronophotographe and then laboriously transferred to a glass disc, from which they could be observed through the phonoscope peephole or projected. Demenÿ also gave some thought to synchronizing his phonoscope images with a phonograph but apparently never actually did so. His original intention was to use the device to teach deaf-mutes how to speak, but he also hoped to commercialize it ("How many people would be happy if they could even for one moment revisit the living features of a lost loved one!"). Demenÿ exhibited the phonoscope alongside devices invented by Janssen and Marey at the Exposition Internationale on April 20, 1892, and received a great deal of press attention.

However, since the phonoscope could not stand on its own without a chronophotographe to record the images in the first place, Demenÿ could not market his phonoscope without Marey's cooperation. The relationship between the two men had eroded and Marey, upset at the attention Demenÿ was getting from the press and disappointed at the failure of his own (admittedly minimal) efforts to commercialize the chronophotographe, refused to cooperate. Demenÿ went ahead and founded La Société générale du phonoscope, portraits vivants et tableaux animés ("The General Phonoscope Company for Living Portraits and Animated Tableaux") [19] to exploit his invention in partnership with Ludwig Stollwerck, a German industrialist, and François Henry Lavanchy Clark, a Swiss businessman. Demenÿ tried to interest Marey in his company but Marey responded by firing him from his position at the Station physiologique.

Marey, cognizant that his chronophotographe was necessary for the success of the phonoscope, re-patented it in June of 1893. But Demenÿ got around the problem by patenting his own "camera chronophotographique," which was the camera of Marey's design with one improvement: by using an oval-shaped reel the film could be unwound in a more regular manner. This solution was not completely satisfactory, as the speed varied as the film unwound, but it solved the problem of dealing with Marey.

In 1894 Demenÿ patented an improvement to his mechanism, a cam that ensured a more even movement of the film through the motion picture camera. This device remained in use in motion picture cameras until 1910 and was used by the first cinematographic cameras developed by Gaumont with Demenÿ's cooperation in 1895. By approaching Gaumont and cooperating with him in the development of a motion-picture camera and projector, Demenÿ crossed over from developing devices to study movement to developing cameras to project movement.

Alice Guy recalled Demenÿ's first visit to Gaumont's office in her memoirs:

...we received the visit of a very amiable and young savant, Georges Demenÿ, nervous, well-bred. His knowledge seemed unlimited: music, special mathematics, mechanics and physics, anatomy, he was a professor of physical education at the School of Arts et Métiers.... [20]

...I first met GeorgesDemenÿ, then aide to Marey, when he came present a camera, the phonoscope. This camera was composed of a wooden box containing two discs, one in glass, bearing the images, and the other in cardboard, pierced with eyeholes and serving as a shutter.

Georges Demenÿ said, "I have made an instrument specially intended to give the illusion of the motions of speaking and of facial movement. I have named it the phonoscope ...recalling its parentage in the phonograph that causes one to hear the voice, and the other causing one to see it on the lips. The apparatus has the quality of being transparent to light, and of letting one see images in a time span so short that the flow is invisible to the eye." [21]


Gaumont purchased the rights to Demenÿ's patents for the phonoscope (patented in 1891) and the biographe (patented in 1893) after Demenÿ had tried to interest the Lumière brothers in them without success. Demenÿ's patent of October 10, 1893 became the basis for the Gaumont 60mm camera, also called a chronophotographe, which was perfected in the first few months of 1896. [22] According to Alice Guy's memoirs [23] it was during this period, sometime before May of 1896, that she wrote, produced and directed her first fiction film. She does not specify which camera she used, but it is most likely that she used the Demenÿ-Gaumont 60mm camera. [24]

Until 1906 or so most films produced were actuality films. In their "realistic" reproduction of life these actualities could be said to epitomize Marey and Demenÿ's drive to study motion. That paradigm remains with us today, in the form of the instant football replay and of surveillance cameras that pretend to tell us if a crime has been committed or not.

A few people, like Georges Hatot at the Lumière Company and Alice Guy at Gaumont, began to shift the paradigm away from motion studies and towards the opera that Edison had originally envisioned.

Fiction Film

A strong friendship existed between Léon Gaumont and Antoine and Louis Lumière, although they were also business competitors. Their two businesses had much in common. All three were scientists and industrialists, and they approached film production from the point-of-view of inventors and businessmen. In addition, they shared an almost life-long business relationship with Jules Carpentier, an engineer and an inventor in his own right.

Carpentier had gotten to know Gaumont at a series of lectures on astronomy and in 1881 hired the sixteen-year-old autodidact to work in his factory, where Gaumont remained for nine years. [25] It was typical of Gaumont that he maintained a close relationship with Carpentier for the rest of his life. He fought to promote Carpentier's photo-jumelle camera and continuously wrote to his former mentor for advice during his early years as head of the Comptoir de la Photographie. They were still friends in 1924 when Gaumont became an officer for the Légion d'Honneur.

Gaumont, Carpentier and Georges Demenÿ [26] as well as Alice Guy, [27] were among those invited to witness the demonstration of the Lumière cinématographe on March 22, 1895, for the Société d'Encouragement pour l'industrie nationale à Paris. (However, apparently Demenÿ was not able to attend. [28]) Carpentier, "seduced by the invention of the Lumière brothers...put his workshop at the disposal of the great inventors of Lyons." [29] The Lumières accepted Carpentier's offer to build cinématographes. Carpentier also designed a Défileur Carpentier-Lumière that allowed longer bands of film to pass through the camera. [30]

By the time of the March 22, 1895 screening, Gaumont and the Lumière brothers were already "two old friends." [31] The fact that Gaumont was working furiously on a competing motion-picture camera/projector did not interfere with this relationship at all. Gaumont even bought all of his raw film stock from Victor Planchon, who was developing better film stocks for the Lumières and whose factory was next to theirs in Lyons.

It was the equipment that held Léon Gaumont's attention at that March 22nd screening; but Alice Guy was fascinated by the medium itself. As she tells it,

But Gaumont, like Lumière, was especially interested in solving mechanical problems. It was one more camera to put at the disposition of his clients. The educational and entertainment values of motion pictures seemed not to have caught his attention. Nevertheless, there had been created, in the ruelle des Sonneries, a little laboratory for the development and printing of short "shots": parades, railroad stations, portraits of the laboratory personnel, which served as demonstration films but were both brief and repetitious. . . . I thought that one might do better than these demonstration films. Gathering my courage, I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform in them. If the future development of motion pictures had 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. [32]

In none of the correspondence I have read did Alice Guy claim to be the first director of a fiction film; whenever that claim was made on her behalf she was quick to point out that L'Arroseur Arrosé, the first fiction film made by the Lumière brothers, came first.

However, the account in her memoirs can be read as if she considered herself the first fiction film maker, and many scholars, especially feminist scholars, have interpreted what she said to mean that she was the first. The account in her memoirs is influenced by the fact that when she first saw a demonstration of the Lumière cinématographe only the Sortie d'usine (Workers Leaving the Factory), a nonfiction film, was shown. It is possible that as of March 22, 1895, L'Arroseur Arrosé, generally considered to be the first narrative film, had not yet been made.

Alice Guy's First Fiction Films

What Guy described as "demonstration films, but also brief and repetitious," were the earliest Gaumont actualités, or actuality films, films of notable events such as parades of the newly-invented automobiles or lifestyle scenes of people engaged in leisurely activities. Actualities were filmed by various workers from the laboratory, cameramen, and as we have seen, by Gaumont himself. Of the Gaumont films from this period that still exist, the three films in Barcelona (Spain), are among the oldest: Le Pêcheur dans le Torrent (Gaumont 1896 or 1897), Baignade dans le Torrent (Gaumont 1897) and [Retour des Champs] (1899-1900). Pêcheur is a gag scene in the tradition of Arroseur Arrosé: a man is fishing; two playful bathers push him into the rushing water. The entertainment lies in watching him struggle in the water. This could be described as a narrative film. It was probably made by a cameraman who had been assigned to film something like Baignade dans le torrent, which simply shows swimmers frolicking in the rushing water. Given the similarity of the settings, these two films could have been shot in the same location on the same day. The film labeled [Retour des Champs] is probably Le Laboureur. [33] Although the Arxiu de Catalunya credits these films to Guy, it is more likely that they were filmed by various workers from the laboratory, cameramen, or by Gaumont himself.

Among the oldest surviving films of Alice Guy's in existence are the fifteen films discovered in 1999 by a junk dealer who was clearing out an old house in Charentes Maritimes in France. In the bottom of a cupboard was a large collection of nitrate films, which he quickly sold to two film collectors. The collectors divided the films between them and immediately burnt about half of the films because of their advanced state of decomposition (decomposing nitrate is highly flammable and poses a fire hazard; however we can only dream of what we might have learnt from this footage). The collectors then found that they couldn't project the rest because the film had shrunk and needed to be preserved. So they took the films to Serge Bromberg at Red Lobster Archives in Paris. Mr. Bromberg was able to identify all of the films. Thirty of them were early Méliès films and thirty were Gaumont films. Bromberg attributed fifteen of these to Alice Guy. Ballet Libella (1897) is a beautiful hand colored film showing two women, one in a fairy costume, preparing to dance and then dancing. Danse du Papillon (1897) and Danse Fleur de Lotus (1897) are typical of the earliest Gaumont films, both serpentine dances and beautifully hand colored. Films at this stage were produced more for the purpose of selling the camera equipment; the films showed off what the camera could do and were sometimes included with the sale of the camera, in the same way that computers are bundled with software today.

Chez le Magnétiseur (1898), Scène d'escamotage (1898), and L'Utilité des Rayons X (1898) show that Guy was impressed by Méliès' trick films and was making her own as well. However Guy's "themes", such as cross-dressing, explored more thoroughly in chapter six, can already be seen here. Escamotage shows a magician change a woman into a monkey (a man in a monkey suit). Though this was probably part of a pre-existing act, it is interesting in relation to the themes of some of the other films: Magnétiseur shows a mesmerist hypnotising a woman, then using a magnetic force to remove her clothes and reveal the fact that the woman is actually a man. Rayons X also appears to be a pre-existing vaudeville routine. A man in drag and costumed as if he were pregnant enters a gate marked as the "entrance to Paris" where he is questioned by customs police. Though s/he appears innocent s/he is x-rayed to reveal a pregnant belly full of contraband; the man is stripped and all the contraband removed, using a stop-motion technique. La Petite Magicienne (1900) is a special example of this because it features a girl as the magician, whereas in the world of Méliès magicians were always male.

In her Memoirs, Guy listed the names of all the prominent people who used photography and whom she assisted when she started out as a secretary at Max Richard's photographic equipment and supply company. [34] Writers like Emile Zola, numerous statesmen, scientists studying the motion of the stars or the function of the body, and engineers like Eiffel, aeronauts like Andrèe, and aviators like Santos Dumont, all relied on Guy's assistance in using the Gaumont motion picture equipment for scientific purposes, This means that Guy, probably without realizing it, was in a front row seat to witness one of the greatest social transformations of recent memory: the drive to mechanization. Some of her earliest films are parodies of the scientific films that she helped the scientists produce. For example, in Chirurgie Fin de Siècle (1900) which shows a team of surgeons amputating a man's limb, but they are hoplessly inept, and take off the wrong limb, then take off an arm, then mix up the various limbs and the action ends with mayhem; like most of the other films in this group, this could have been a pre-existing vaudeville routine. The rest of the films, such as Guillaume Tell (1900) (probably performed by the clowns Plic and Pluc), and Faust et Mephistopheles (1903), showcase famous scenes from well known narratives, such as the moment where William Tell shoots an apple off his son's head (from Rossini's opera) or the seduction of Faust by the Devil as portrayed in Gounod's opera. Intervention Malencontreuse (1902) is a slapstick rendition of domestic strife. A couple enter fighting and the man begins to throw dishes. A concierge (man dressed as a woman) enters and begins to beat up the man with her broom; the woman gets into the fight as well. Les Chiens Savants (1902), is actually two films back to back; what is interesting is that the dog trainer is female and her assistant is a man in black face. Clearly the act was filmed without much alteration for the camera. This film and Les Malabars (1902), are a type of actuality film, as Guy has faithfully recorded two vaudeville acts, one a woman with her trained dogs, and the second a team of African acrobats going through their routine that were probably still touring France after having a run in the Paris Exposition. Although some of these films, such as Intervention, Magnétiseur, Rayons X, and Chirurgie, contain a narrative, if they were film versions of existing vaudeville acts they could also be considered a type of actuality. As with the Lumière films, the line between narrative and actuality, between fiction and non-fiction, could be very blurry, as it can still be today.

According to Guy, her first fiction film was shot on a make-shift stage set up on the concrete patio behind the Gaumont laboratories in Belleville. I was recently able to document the tentative identification of a version of this film by Jan Olsson and Tom Gunning. [35] The process of identification of this and other films shows how many people and how much effort it takes to properly identify an early film.

In July of 1996 Professor Jan Olsson of Stockholm University was doing research at the Cinémathèque Royale in Brussels and told Sabine Lenk, an archivist and expert in film preservation about a reel of early films recently preserved by the Swedish Film Institute that he thought might be Gaumont films. Lenk was able to confirm his assumption based on his description of the black sprocket holes, typical of Gaumont during its ELGÉ period (the first "brand" for the company was the phonetic sound for Léon Gaumont's initial, (E)L G(É)). She then asked him what was on this film, and he mentioned a lady pulling babies out of cabbages. Sabine remembered my search and put me in touch with Professor Olsson, who invited me to Stockholm to see what is known as the Sieurin French Film Collection. [36]

Alice Guy's First Film: The Cabbage Fairy

The Sieurin collection is a marvelous treasure: 17 (or more: some of these films appear to be two or more short films from a series joined together) Gaumont films from the very beginning of the company's activity. The films were purchased, along with a Gaumont camera/projector, by Emil Sieurin, a young Swedish engineer, at the turn of the century. One of Sieurin's first jobs was working for a mining/brick company in Höganäs, in the south of Sweden, where he made films on work and leisure subjects. Some of the films Sieurin made also survive in the Sieurin Swedish collection. The films I discuss here are from the Sieurin French collection. The French collection was deposited at the Teknisha museet (science museum) in the late twenties. From the late thirties the museum housed the embryonic national film archive. The archive was transferred to the Swedish Film Institute in the sixties, and the Sieurin collection was probably part of that transfer. [37]

The Sieurin French films are equally divided between actualités and narrative films. Some of the actualités show people at work and other every day activities; almost half of them are footage of the 1900 Exposition Internationale in Paris. Eight of the Sieurin films are narrative films; most of these are shot on a stage. In some of these films, such as the one I have identified as Chez le photographe, it is clear that this stage is a concrete patio.

I attribute all of the narrative films in the Sieurin collection to Alice Guy as director as well as producer for several reasons. For one, since we know she made La Fée aux choux, it seems likely that the other films from the same period, produced in a similar manner, are also hers. On this basis I attribute all of the films that are clearly shot on the concrete patio to her (Les Joueurs de cartes, Chez le photographe, L'Aveugle fin de siècle, Chez le maréchal ferrant, Chapellerie et charcuterie mécaniques, L'Hiver: danse de la Neige). The other narrative films that were shot on a location (which could have simply been around the corner of the laboratory building) contain plot elements or gags that Guy re-used again later in films that the Gaumont company has attributed to her or that appear in Solax films. For example, the plot of La Concierge is repeated almost exactly in Dick Whittington and His Cat (Solax 1913). The absentminded absinthe drinker in La Bonne absinthe reappears in Madame a des Envies and the fighting card players reappear in Les Fils du garde chasse (both Gaumont 1906). These plot elements were taken from Lumière comic films, and indirectly, from the vaudeville stage. I use this same reasoning for attributing Les Dernières cartouches and Surprise d'une maison au petit jour to Alice Guy, as their plot and stage business is echoed in La Fiancée du volontaire (Gaumont 1906). When Guy reuses elements from these early films years later, she repeats the visual approach to the gag (or piece of dramatic business) as well as the gag itself.

In addition, of course, Guy claimed (and I have found no evidence to the contrary in any of the Gaumont documentation) that she directed all of the narrative films made at Gaumont until 1905, the year the glass-roofed studio was completed and production was significantly increased.

According to Guy, the first film she made for Gaumont was La Fée aux choux. Until we positively identified this film (in August of 1996) we could only surmise what it was like based on Guy's account and her 1902 remake of the film, Sage Femme de première classe. The distinction between the two was so blurry that stills from Sage Femme have often been identified in books and in documentaries as stills from Fée aux choux. However, the two films are quite different. Sage Femme has three actors in it: Yvonne and Germaine Mugnier-Serand playing the fairy and the wife, and Guy herself playing the husband, wearing a kind of Pierrot outfit. There is a clearly defined plot: the husband convinces his wife to buy a baby from the fairy, the wife has a hard time choosing one, but after examining eight babies she finally does, and her husband pays for it. The story of Sage Femme is told in two shots, and a complete scene is played out in each shot. The first shot ends when the all three actors pass through the door in the garden wall, and the entire action of opening the door and passing through it is repeated in the next shot. Sage Femme is clearly a narrative film.

By contrast, this 35mm version of La Fée aux choux, made between in 1897 and 1900, falls purely into the realm of cinema of attractions. This film is 20m long (one minute) and takes place on a single set, a cabbage patch (the same painted and cut-out cabbages were used in Sage Femme). The fairy, played by Yvonne Mugnier-Serand, Guy's friend and later her secretary, comes forward. She wears a very low-cut, diaphanous white dress with flowers around the collar that further highlight her cleavage. She leans her ear toward the cabbages, then pulls out a baby, and sets it on the floor. She repeats this action with a second baby. A third baby turns out to be a doll, which she puts back behind its cabbage as if it weren't ready yet. Then she curtsies deeply. This movement, like most of her movements, further displays her erotic charms.

In order to make La Fée aux choux, (and the other films she shot on the concrete patio in Belleville), Guy went to the office on the Rue St- Roche (in the center of Paris) at eight a.m., did a long morning's work, then went to the Buttes Chaumont lab (on the outskirts of Paris) on the trolley. Here she spent four hours working on her film, returned to the office at four thirty in the afternoon and worked until ten or eleven at night. This film was so successful that it sold eighty copies and had to be remade at least twice, as the original prints disintegrated. [38]

So Who Made the First Fiction Film?

As we have seen, Alice Guy saw her first Lumière film on March 22, 1895. Méliès saw the first public Lumière screening at the Grand Café des Capucins on December 28, 1895, where L'Arroseur arrosé was screened. Immediately after the screening, Méliès offered Antoine Lumière (Lumière père) 10,000 FF for a cinématographe. M. Thomas, the head of the Musée Grévin, offered the Lumières 20,000 FF. M. Lallemand, director of the Folies Bergère, offered 50,000 FF. "M. Lumière replied with great good humor that the secret of this device is not for sale and that he planned to exploit it himself." [39] Not to be dissuaded, Méliès went to London in February of 1896 where he bought a Bioscope, a motion-picture camera developed by William Paul. In April he used this camera/projector to screen films produced by Paul and Edison Kinetoscope films at his Theatre Robert-Houdin. In May he returned to London and bought some Eastman unperforated celluloid film stock, which he cut into strips and had perforated by a mechanic named Lapipe. In May or June he shot his first 20m film.

So, if we take Alice Guy's word for it, she made her first fiction film before Méliès made his; but since L'Arroseur arrosé was made and publicly screened before either of them made their films the debate over whether Guy or Méliès was the first fiction film director is moot.

To be fair to historians, it must be noted that many of them did take Alice Guy's word for it (most notably, Anthony Slide, Victor Bachy, René Jeanne, and Charles Ford) and accepted that a) La Fée aux choux was her first film and b) she wrote, produced and directed it before May of 1896. Francis Lacassin at first also took Guy's word for it, but later reversed himself in Pour une contre-histoire du cinéma. [40] His argument is that it appears as no. 379 in the Gaumont catalogue (issued in 1901). Since film no. 397 is an actuality reel recording a mayor's meeting and banquet presided over by French President Loubet, which took place, according to contemporary press reports, on September 22, 1900, Lacassin argues La Fée aux choux must have been made the same year.

However, other early film historians, such as Aldo Bernadini, writing on Pathé, and Jean Mitry, have pointed out that the earliest film catalogues cannot be relied upon for establishing chronology. Victor Bachy points out that other Gaumont films from the same catalogue, such as Baignade de chevaux à la caserne, (no. 377), Promenade des animaux au jardin d'acclimatation (no. 378), and Baignade dans le grand bain (no. 380) all seem to be "escapees" from a series of Vues animées ("animated images") shot in 1896, or at the latest 1897. [41]

The fourth film on the Sieurin reel, which I have tentatively identified as #2042 Les Joueurs de cartes, [42] lends some credence to Bachy's argument. Although the Sieurin films are on 35mm, the only description that I have found in the Gaumont catalogues to match Les Joueurs de cartes is actually from a list of 15mm films (with their own separate numbering system; the 35mm films didn't get up to 2042 until 1908 or later). Assuming my identification is correct, Joueurs de cartes is an example of a Gaumont film from this period that originated in one format and was then re-printed or re-made in another, a process which was not acknowledged in the catalogues.

Lacassin also thought it unlikely that Gaumont would have started full-fledged production before he started mass-production of his own film projector in 1898. This projector was designed to screen films shot on the Lumière cinématographe, a 35mm camera, after he had given up on commercializing his own 60mm camera based on Demenÿ's patents.

In this, Lacassin might be correct: Gaumont might not have decided to invest seriously in film production before he had equipment to sell that would justify it. But it makes sense that as the Gaumont-Demenÿ 60mm camera was tinkered with and perfected films were made with it, and it was not immediately clear to anyone that the Gaumont-Demenÿ camera, with its larger negative and therefore higher image quality, would not win out over the Lumière camera in the marketplace or at least find a market share among the still photographers and scientists who already made up the bulk of the Gaumont clientele. The "biographe" used 60mm film that was non-perforated, and results weren't as reliable as the results obtained with perforated film. Therefore, in April of 1896, Gaumont unveiled another camera based on Demenÿ's design with a flapping cam designed by Léopold Decaux. [43] Note that the date of the unveiling of this camera coincides with the date that Guy gives for making her first version of La Fée aux choux. Further evidence that the camera was being used regularly comes from an unexpected source: on May 23, 1896, La France automobile, a newsletter for motorists, mentions that Gaumont filmed the departure of an automobile parade from the Porte-Maillot in Paris with a Demenÿ camera. [44] (This film still exists and was shown as part of the Gaumont exhibit at the Palais de Chaillot in the Spring of 1995). Mannoni notes that the Gaumont catalogue for the 58mm films lists around 150 films made. La Fée aux choux does not appear on this list, which Mannoni accepts as definitive proof that Guy did not make this film in 1896, [45] but, as we have seen, the catalogue listings are unreliable. Of the 150 made, about 30 remain: nine in the George Eastman House collection, which Paolo Cherchi Usai is currently preserving; more in the National Film and Television Archive in Bradford (Slade collection); at the Cinémathèque Française (Will Day collection), and in the Service des Archives du film de Bois d'Arcy (Vivié collection and others). [46] Only one of these films had been preserved in time for this study: La Biche au bois, ("The doe of the forest"), shot by Jacques Ducom in the summer of 1896 and screened for the public for the first time on November 14, 1896. [47]

Biche is a ballet from a popular féerie performed at the Chatelet, la Biche au bois ou le royaume des fées by the brothers Théodore and Hippolyte Cogniard. The film was made so that it could be inserted into further performances of the play. It was shot on a stage on the roof of the Chatelet and hand-colored; in other words, it has much in common with La Fèe aux choux. The contract between Léon Gaumont and Edmond Floury, the technical director of the Chatelet, still exists. [48] The existence of Biche lends credence to Guy's claims for her own film. With a demonstration film like La Fée aux choux it would have been easier for Gaumont to win such a contract with the Chatelet.

In addition to shooting Biche au bois, Jacques Ducom was an assistant projectionist for the historic Lumière screening on December 28, 1895. In his book Le cinéma scientifique et industriel, published in 1911, he recalls some early encounters between Demenÿ and Gaumont:

In 1893 we went often to visit M. Demenÿ, at the Villa Chaptal, 17, in Levallois-Perret. M. Demenÿ had a modest but well-equipped laboratory where we made music, as he was also a gifted musician. Demenÿ's invention was the talk of the scientific and photographic circles, and a stream of visitors went through the Villa Chaptal. Among them was M. Gaumont, his financial backers, and M. Lumière. They were searching for the best practical way to launch the new invention in France and how to make the best of it from an industrial point of view.

After numerous such encounters it was M. Gaumont who acquired the right to exploit M. Demenÿ's patents. The Lumières, father and sons, preferred to research their own projection system. The registration claw, which is proprietary to the Lumières, was developed by them around mid-1894. The first Lumière experiments were done on bands of photographic paper that was perforated at the same time the picture was taken. [49]

By May of 1897, it was clear that the 35mm cameras developed by the Lumières and Edison were more marketable than Gaumont's 60mm camera. In an issue of La Mise au Point, the Gaumont sale catalogue, dated that same month, four of the 60mm. films attributed to Guy are listed as 35mm films, which means they had been remade or reprinted [50]. La Fée aux choux first appears in the earliest available complete Gaumont film catalogue, published in July 1901. Of the 500 films listed it is the only one with any kind of qualifier: "Très Gros Succès" (A Great Success) in bold capital letters. This means that not only was the film commercially successful, but that it had been around for a while.


1. Acker, Ally, Reel Women:Pionners of the Cinema 1896 to the Present, New York: Continuum, 1991, p. xxiv.

2. Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Third Edition, Revised by Fred Klein and Ronald Dean Nolen, New Yok: Harper Perennial, 1998, p. 575.

3. A section of this chapter was previously published as a paper, "The Quest for Motion: Moving Pictures and Flight," in Visual Delights: Essays on the Popular and Porjected Image in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Simon Popple and Vanessa Toulmin, Trowbridge, U.K: Flicks Books, 2000, pp. 93-104.

4. Nadar, Revendication de la propriété exclusive du pseudonyme Nadar (Felix Tournachon-Nadar contre A. Tournachon jeune et Compagnie). 5 parts. Includes court documents. Paris, 1857, part 2, pages 0-p. Quoted in "A Portrait of Nadar" by Maria Morris Hambourg, Nadar, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1990, p.25.

5. Dillaye, Frédérique, La Théorie, la pratique et l'art en photographie, New York: Arno Press, 1979, reprint of the 1891 ed. Published by A la librairie illustrée, Paris, p. 189, 193.

6. Hambourg, Nadar, p. 118. The two books are Mémoires du Géant (1864) and Le Droit au vol (1865).

7. Ibid.: 29-30.

8. Mannoni, Laurent, Le grand art de la lumière et de l'ombre, Paris: Université Nathan, series archeologie du cinema, 1994, p. 282 (French).

9. The best source of information on Marey in English is Marta Braun's Picturing Time: The Work of Étienne -Jules Marey (1830-1904) Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 1994. Nothing comparable exists on Demenÿ or Reynaud.

10. Marey, Étienne -Jules Du mouvement dans les fonctions de la vie Paris, 1868, quoted in Laurent Mannoni, Le grand art de la lumière et de l'ombre -- archéologie du cinéma, p. 300.

11. Braun, Marta, Picturing Time: the Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. xvii.

12. From Webster's Third New International Dictionary, quoted in John D. Anderson Jr., A History of Aerodynamics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Aerospace Series 8, Michael J. Rycroft and Robert F. Stengel, gen. Eds., 1998, p.3.

13. Ibid, p. 6.

14. Braun, p. 37.

15. Mannoni, p. 307 (French), p. 329-331, (English).

16. Celluloid was first discovered by the Hyatt brothers in New Jersey in 1869, distributed in France the French Celluloid company from 1876 on and by Planchon's factory, which supplied the Lumières and Gaumont, from 1894 on.

17. The footage of Raynaly still exists and can be seen on the video Georges Demenÿ et les origines "sportives" du cinéma from Le Groupe de Recherche et d'essais cinématographiques (GREC) Réalisation: André Drevon Production: GREC 25 min/1995.

18. The Musée Grévin was a focus point for proto-cinematic and early cinematic exhibition. This aspect of its history has not been well examined. For example, Méliès performed his magic act there before 1888. (Georges Méliès, in a letter to Paul Gilson dated August 9, 1929. Reprinted in Georges Sadoul's Lumière et Méliès, Paris: Lherminier 1985, p. 227.

19. Loiperdinger, Martin and Roland Cosandey, "L'Introduction du Cinématographe en Allemagne: De la case Demenÿ a la Case Lumière: Stollwerck, Lavanchy-Clarke et al., 1892-1896" in Archives No. 51, November 1992, published by Institut Jean Vigo, Cinémathèque de Toulouse.

20. Blaché , Memoirs, p. 25.

21. Blaché , Memoirs, p. xiv.

22. For more background on this, see letter from Louis Lumière to the Ciné-Tribune dated June 30, 1920, which quotes, extensively from correspondence between Demenÿ and the Lumières in 1894. Published in Lumière, August and Louis, Correspondances 1890-1953 Librairie du Premier Siècle du Cinéma Series, Paris: Cahiers du Cinema, 1994, p. 221-228.

23. Blaché, Memoirs, p. 27-8.

24. See also the interview with Alice Guy in The New Jersey Star, August 8, 1914.

25. Venhard, Gilles, "De La Naissance à La Puissance: Les vertes années de la marguerite, 1896-1924," in Gaumont: 90 Ans du cinéma, edited by Phillippe de Hugues et Dominique Muller. Ramsay: La Cinémathèque Française p. 18.

26. Rittaud-Hutinet, Jacques Les Frères Lumière: L'Invention du Cinéma, Flammarion, 1995, p. 372.

27. Blaché , Memoirs, p. 25.

28. Chardère, Bernard, Lumières sur Lumière, Lyon: Institut Lumière Presses Universitaires de Lyon 1987. Chardère reprints a letter from Demenÿ to L. Lumière dated March 27, 1895, in which Demenÿ apologized for not having been able to attend the screening.

29. Dureau, Georges, obituary for Jules Carpentier in Ciné-Journal, 9 July 1921, reprinted in Lumière sur Lumière, by Bernard Chardère, Institute Lumière/Presses Universitaries de Lyon, 1987, p. 270.

30. Ibid.

31. Blaché , Memoirs, p. 26-27.

32. Blaché , Memoirs, p. 59-60.

33. "Deux attelages, de chacun quatre pairs de boeufs, trainent une charrue." 202 m. Collection "Elge", Liste de vues animees, N. 162, Mai 1900.

34. Blaché , Memoirs, p. 17-20.

35. If Guy was correct when she said she made La Fée aux choux in 1896, there must be three versions of the film. The version in the Sieurin film collection would then be the second one, made between 1897-1900. For my speculations on the first version, see below. If there was a first version, that version and the 35mm version were probably almost identical.

36. See articles by Sabine Lenk and Alison McMahan in "A La Recherche d'Objets Filmiques Non Identifiés: Autour de l'oeuvre d'Alice Guy-Blaché" Archives, 81: Août 1999 (entire double issue).

37. I am grateful to Professor Jan Olsson, Chair of Cinema Studies, Stockholm University, for providing me with this information and for enabling me to study the films themselves.

38. Alice Guy interviewed by The New Jersey Star, 1914.

39. Sadoul, Georges, Lumière-Méliès, Paris: Lherminier, 1985, p. 251.

40. Lacassin, Francis, Pour une contre-histoire du cinema, Lyon: Institut Lumière Series: Premier Siècle du Cinéma Actes Du Sud, Hubert Nyssen, éd., p. 30-31.

41. Bachy, Victor, Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968): La première femme cinéaste du monde, Perpignan: Institut Jean Vigo, 1994, p. 34-35.

42. The catalogue is Comptoir Générale de la Cinématographie chrono de poche pour prise et projection de vues de 15m/m. Description et Instruction L. Gaumont et Cie N. 508 (after 1900). This film also appears to be an imitation of the Lumière film Joueurs de cartes arrosés no. 115.

43. Mannoni, Laurent, "Une Féerie de 1896: La Biche au bois," Cinémathèque, No. 10, automne 1996, p. 117.

44. "Des milliers de personnes, à Paris, sur la route et à Meulan, ont vu circuler les voitures automobiles (autant de bouches qui vont rapporter la bonne impression produite). Des centaines les on photographiées au repos et en marche; parmi elles, citons surtout M. Clément Maurice, l'habile photographe du boulevard des Italiens, et M. Gaumont, le directeur du Comptoir photographique de la rue Saint-Roche, qui ont reproduit le dèpart du boulevard Maillot, celui-ci avec le appareil de Ménie (sic), celui-là avec le Cinématographe Lumière. Nous avons donc de bonnes et intéressantes projections animées en perspective. "(Thousands of spectators in Paris on the road towards Meulan watched the circulating automoblies (every spectator voiced his or her pleasure). Hundreds photographed the autos on the move and in repose, among them, Mr. Clément Maurice whose shop is on the Boulevard des Italiens, and Mr. Gaumont, the head of the Comptoir Photographique on St. Roche Street, who filmed the departure of the autos, the latter with the Demeny apparatus, the former with a Lumière Cinématographe. We look forward to excellent animated projections.)

L.D. "L'Excursion de Meulan" in La France Automobile: Organe de l'Automobilisme et des Industries qui s'y rattachent No. 17 Samedi 23 Mai 1896 p. 130. I am grateful to Anne Gautier for familiarizing me with this article and for first pointing out the resemblance between Pursuite sur les toits and Les Cambrioleurs. I am also grateful to Frank Kessler and Sabine Lenk for pointing out the error in my previous translation of this piece.

45. Mannoni, "Une Féerie de 1896" Cinémathèque, p. 122-123.

46. Mannoni, "Une Féerie de 1896" Cinémathèque, p. 123.

47. Mannoni, "Une Féerie de 1896" Cinémathèque, p. 119.

48. Mannoni, "Une Féerie de 1896" Cinémathèque, p. 118-119.

49. Chardère, Ibid. p. 142-145. Chardère thinks the 1894 date is more likely (1894 would also be more in keeping with Alice Guy's memoirs) and that when Ducom mentions M. Lumière he must mean Lumière père, Antoine, because Louis Lumière left documentation showing that he and his brother only had one meeting in person with Demenÿ, and that much later.

50. Bachy, p. 39.