Sometimes it seems that male chauvinism can most simply be explained as compensation for an undeniable female superiority in all things (save perhaps football). Thus we have Alice Guy Blanché (1873-1968), a cosmopolitan young woman who went to work for film pioneer Léon Gaumont in Paris at age 21, made her own first film in 1896 and proceeded to write scripts, direct and produce films over a 20-year career. After her start in France, she got married (adopting her husband’s surname) and moved to the U.S., where she founded her own film studio, Solax, in Fort Lee, N.J. in 1910.
Not only is she obscure, but she is also that good, the legendary equation, as is proven by the film retrospective now unspooling at the Whitney Museum of American Art. A five-year labor-of-love by curator-at-large Joan Simon, the show presents about 80 films in five hour-long programs that repeat throughout the day, from 11 am to 5 pm.
A selection of eight of her films, which run from a minute or two (films made before 1902) to 13 minutes (single-reel shorts), shows Guy Blaché to have had an almost serene story-telling ability, even in slapstick comedies and outlandish gender-switching satires. The brief La Concierge (1900) is essentially a vaudeville skit, performed naturalistically on the sidewalk. A stolid concierge, after being pranked by street urchins who ring her bell and run away, throws a bucket of wash water on a male caller who is unlucky enough to come by soon after.
The timeless gag is presented without any of the hyper-masculine herky-jerky favored by later male directors. Similarly, La Fee aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy, 1896/1900) is the simplest of Victorian-era folk tales, in which a healthy sprite dressed in white steps into a gated garden and pulls live (and bawling) newborns out from under oversized cardboard cabbages. That’s it, a perfect objet d’art.
Guy Blaché’s one-reelers are even more amazing, having an inventive wit that somehow comes across, 100 years after they were made, as fresh as a daisy. La Femme collante (The Sticky Woman, 1906) takes place in a busy post office, where an officious middle-class lady is mailing a score of postcards (a new craze at the time). To lick the stamps, she brings along her maid, who stands at attention in her hat and apron with her tongue outthrust.
This operation draws the attention of a sizeable galoot, who becomes increasingly excited at the salivary spectacle, until he loses control and pulls the maid to him in a shocking embrace. The kiss literally threatens to become forever, as the glue from the stamps locks their lips together. The method used to separate the pair provides still another joke, which I’ll leave for viewers of the movie.
The still more elaborate comedy, Les Résultats du féminisme (1906), presents an astonishing reversal of male and female roles in middle-class American society, with men primping and making new hats, ironing the laundry and taking babies out for perambulation, while the women relax at the saloon, smoking cigars, playing pool and otherwise ignoring their domestic responsibilities. As obvious as the joke is, it hasn’t been so well-turned in ages.
The single drama on the bill, Falling Leaves (1912), involves a young woman dying of consumption, likely to be gone "before the leaves fall from the trees," according to the doctor’s sad diagnosis. Her little sister, after praying to a statuette of Jesus in the corner of her bedroom, resolves to take practical steps as well. In the early morning, she sneaks into the garden with scissors and twine, on a mission to tie the falling leaves back onto the trees. The charming plot ends happily, as it should, though not without prompting a sentimental tear or two.
Historians calculate that Guy Blaché made or worked on over 1,000 films. When she died at age 95, she thought that only three remained, with the rest lost or destroyed. In the last several decades, more than 130 have been identified and some restored. This exhibition brings together films from the Gaumont Pathé Archives in Paris, the Library of Congress (which holds the largest number of her U.S.-made films), and archives in seven other countries.
"Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer," Nov. 6, 2009-Jan. 24, 2010, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.