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To tackle most filmmakers’ filmographies is to commit to multiple discs worth of films. Whether or not Alice Guy’s filmography is a less daunting project to take on in a short span, most of her available films are at least neatly confined to a single disc released by KINO International as part of the Gaumont Treasures set. Literally the first lady of cinema, Guy directed around 350 films between 1896 and 1920 and the Gaumont set captures nearly four hours between over 60 short films from the first half of her career.
Coming on the scene as she did at the dawn of filmmaking, Guy’s early work is not greatly distinguished from her contemporaries in the sense that these early films, generally under 2-3 minutes, are trifles that mostly seem to say “look, we can capture moving pictures!”. One of her earliest films, The Fisherman at the Stream, is the most you can ask from a film taking only 30 seconds, showing a couple of boys playing a prank on an older man who is fishing. These films are fine for what they are, but there is a length below which a film simply can’t do anything of much value.
They are at least mostly fictionalized events that suggest things on some level. This isn’t just footage of a train coming in or workers leaving a factory, it requires at least some level of intention, generally aiming for a single comedic note such as in The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man when a panhandler harassed by a policeman finds a way to play a trick on a more proper gentleman who falls asleep on the bench where the panhandler usually sits. At The Hypnotist’s has people’s clothes seem to magically jump around onto the wrong bodies. These are the type of gags, that bound together, would not be out of place in a Chaplin short or Marx Brothers film. Even though Chaplin’s shorts often feel a bit lacking in purpose, they do offer the length to at least draw out a basic sense of story or character beyond the gag.
By 1905, perhaps due to technological improvements, Guy’s films started stretching a little longer, often 4-5 minutes, and even this difference allowed for a jump in quality. The Statue is very much the same kind of gag based humor, but the slightly longer runtime allows it to develop variations on the joke of clowns being caught off guard by a living statue. Her first film to really deliver solidly on a deeper thematic level is The Magician’s Alms, where the magician uses his magic to transform a poor beggar into a proper gentleman, but then tests the generosity of this new member of the haves. Cute gags are nice, but being able to work effectively on deeper intellectual levels is the sign of a truly gifted filmmaker. Still, likely due to the demands of the time, her output is much more quantity (how many colorized films of people dancing does one need?) than quality. If what you are looking is for more in the way of technical innovation, Polin Performs “The Anatomy of a Draftee” is among a series of “talkies” Guy filmed in 1905 with synchronized sound, as we watch a man sing.
In 1906, Guy made a big step in creating a 30 minute adaptation of the gospel of Christ, though given the scope of the story, this remains a pretty fast paced telling that captures most of the notable moments, especially of the passion week, but for a story done as much as this, it doesn’t hold up beyond its technical feats relative to the time. It did mark a break from the super-short format. A few other highlights in the final years before she would form her own studio in America are The Consequences of Feminism, which uses role reversal to illustrate gender concerns and The Four-Year-Old Hero, which has a young girl being generally awesome and saving the day. Standing out among the vast majority of films that have been sharply comic is On The Barricade, a drama set in the revolutionary France of Les Miserables involving a boy caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After a decade with Gaumont that saw her playing a key role in running the studio’s production, Guy would marry, emigrate to the US and set up her own shop. A few of these films have survived as well. Among the best of these is 1913’s Matrimony’s Speed Limit, in which a man hits financial hardship and calls off his engagement, unwilling to accept his fiancee’s money, so she tricks him into taking it. This is a cute play on gender norms. Notable among her latter work is 1916’s The Ocean Waif (another KINO release). Though she made a good number of feature films between 1913 and 1920, this 40 minute feature (the minimum qualifying length) is the only that seems to survive for general consumption. It is a fair enough romantic comedy about a poor orphan girl and a famous novelist crossing paths. Like much of Guy’s contribution, there are some technical and narrative elements that are innovative and set the tone for some of the silent film to follow, but the film itself tends toward unexceptional competence.
For those who take an interest in Guy, or in early cinema, The Lost Garden is an essential biographical documentary exploring her life. It does a great job of contextualizing her work as well as exploring the way being a woman in a man’s world worked against her both at the time, and in the history books. Though these film releases begin to bring Guy back to the minds of cinephiles, she remains underappreciatated.