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Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers - Alice Guy-Blache Vol. 1: The Gaumont Years
She is not exactly a household name (although her profile has improved recently, thanks to the efforts of labels like Kino Lorber and Flicker Alley, as well as a feature-length documentary about her work), but Alice Guy-Blache was the first woman to ever direct a narrative fiction film, if not the first person in history. She was working as Leon Gaumont's secretary at the camera and photography supply company bearing his name when they were both invited to the first-ever projection of a film, where the Lumiere brothers showed a documentary-style clip of workers leaving their factory. Guy-Blache convinced Gaumont she could make something more inventive, and the results, La Fee aux Choix (aka The Cabbage Fairy), became the first entry in a directing resume that would eventually span over 700 films.
As many of Guy-Blache's films were quite short, analysis of her work is a little less about each film and more about how they fit into her overall interests and passions. The thoughts and desires of women were, unsurprisingly, chief among them. Although the theme runs through the entire set, the first "section" listed on the booklet is devoted to these films, entitled "Babies, Cabbages, and Gender." The second element comes into play in three shorts where cabbage patches serving a stork-like purpose of baby delivery, including the aforementioned Cabbage Fairy, as well as Midwife to the Upper Class and Madame Has Her Cravings. Babies are plucked from behind cabbage-like scenery like plants and handed off to overjoyed mothers, including the "upper class" characters in Midwife, who decline to purchase a cheaper baby from a booth. The cabbage concept was taken from a series of then-popular postcards, and the films were largely used as marketing for Gaumont's camera equipment (in fact, keep an eye out throughout the entire run of films for the recurring appearance of Gaumont's logo within the shorts themselves).
Of the three shorts, Madame Has Her Cravings feels a bit more personal, offering a comic indulgence, in which a pregnant woman cheerfully steals candy from a child, food from a homeless man, and even drinks a glass of absinthe she grabs off a diner patron's table. Guy-Blache's love of the outrageous continues in "Comedies" -- pretty self-explanatory. In the four shorts in this section, Guy-Blache indulges her love of classic slapstick, two of which center around literally sticky situations: A Sticky Woman is a brief, single gag about a woman whose mouth is being employed to close envelopes, and what happens when a man unexpectedly plants a kiss on her, and The Glue is about a young boy causing a bunch of havoc with a bucket of glue (who'd have thought Home Alone was following in the tradition of Alice Guy-Blache?). The other two involve beds: The Drunken Mattress is about what happens when a heavily inebriated man accidentally gets himself sewn inside a mattress (a string of great visual gags that hold up even now), and The Rolling Bed does much the same for a man who ends up along for the ride on a bed with wheels.
There are also some documentary films included in the collection. The second section, Phonoscenes, consists of musical performances (by singers Felix Mayol, Polin, and Drenem) captured on film for posterity, which are mostly interesting from a historical perspective, as they are very straightforward, not in English, and not subtitled. One of the clips, Indiscreet Questions, is even in color. The section also kicks off with Alice Guy Films a Phonoscene, which is, of course, technically also documentary, but it's hard not to look at it and wonder if Guy-Blache can't also be credited with kicking off Hollywood's rich history of making movies about making movies -- the phonoscene in question is not included here, and while it was probably lost to time, there is a part of me that wouldn't be surprised if it were staged.
Perhaps most scathing of all the films on the disc is the 1906 film The Consequences of Feminism, which appears in the first section. In the film, men are left at home to do the chores and child-rearing, while women drink and party and try to steal each others' husbands. The short calls attention to the imbalance of power in the household by presenting a version where the dominant party is flipped -- if a viewer feels sympathy for the men who pop into the bar hoping the women might take their children for awhile, or appear with the laundry only to be attacked when it's done improperly, well, shouldn't they have sympathy for the women who occupied these roles in reality? The film is also just funny on its own merits: while the particular way in which men are presented as effeminate looks today like an offensive gay caricature, the delight the women have in being rowdy and disreputable is very entertaining.
Kino has prepared two volumes for filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache, with Volume 1 being "The Gaumont Years." The package is branded as part of their "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" series (which I wasn't aware would be a series when I reviewed their Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set last year!), and features a sepia-tone photo of Guy-Blache holding a bouquet of flowers, with the Gaumont logo prominently placed in the upper right-hand corner. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is a booklet featuring an essay by film historian Kim Tomadjoglou.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.33:1 1080p AVC and soundtracks in LPCM 2.0 stereo by Sotries D'Artistes, Patrick Laviosa, Tamar Muskal, Joanna Seaton, and Donald Sosin, these adhere to Kino's usual policy regarding silent films, which is that preserving the basic integrity of the original scanned film image is preferable to cleaning it up spotlessly. While it appears Kino has replaced at least some of the intertitles in order to make them look as nice as possible, the films exhibit varying amounts of damage and age-related wear, including lines, scratches, jitter, distortion, soft contrast, low detail, and sections that are partially destroyed, in a few cases. For the most part, the films in this collection are on the higher end of the quality spectrum, although A Sticky Woman seems to be from a lesser source material, and The Glue has a small section that is the most damaged of anything on the disc. Nonetheless, it is very likely that these presentations represent the best Guy-Blache's films have looked on video in decades, offering clarity well beyond older restorations or standard-definition copies of the films. The scores, which are recent recordings, are crisp and clear.
The packaging doesn't list any bonus features with this collection aside from the booklet and a video of restoration samples (3:23), which is a very good overview of Kino's process with some simple before-and-after comparisons (albeit, one that mostly focuses on the restorations done for the second volume of Guy-Blache's work). However, there are in fact two sections worth of bonus films, which were not directed by Alice Guy-Blache, but merely produced under her supervision during her years at Gaumont. I have no idea why they were split into two sections, and the disc and booklet provide no insight into this decision, with each section getting a separate menu. The extra content is nice, although it is very frustrating that Kino has opted not to include "Play All" options for the two sections, and even more frustrating that the disc does not even return you to the Bonus Films menu you selected it from, bumping you all the way back to the main menu after each short is played.
The films, which I will not review individually, are as follows. Bonus Films Part I: Bathing in a Stream, Serpentine dance by Mme. Walter, Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man, At the Hypnotist's, Illusionist Scene, At the Cafe, Wonderful Absinthe, At the Photographer's, Automated Hat- and Sausage-Maker, and Avenue de l'Opera. Bonus Films Part II: Dance of the Season: Winter, Turn-of-the-Century Surgery, Serpentine Dance by Lina Esbrard, How Monsieur Takes His Bath, What is a Flag?, The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ, On the Barricade, Race for the Sausage, The Bank Note, and The Standing Cock. The division seems to relate to the length and scope of the films, with the first section largely consisting of brief clips in the vein of The Cabbage-Patch Fairy, or something like Les Chiens Savants from Kino's Pioneers set, which is a brief clip of a woman and her dogs doing tricks, and the second section consisting of longer and more traditional films, such as The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ, which is a true Bible dramatization that runs over a half-hour in length.
The Alice Guy-Blache Collection Vol. 1: The Solax Years might not necessarily make for a "definitive" or usefully comprehensive section of her work, but her work is quite entertaining and this is a very strong batch of films, including one of her most pointed (The Consequences of Feminism), and some of her most funny. Although the way the supplements have been authored is extremely frustrating, and it's a shame the disc doesn't have any documentary bonuses on Guy-Blache other than the very nice booklet, this is still recommended for anyone who wants to enjoy the work of one of cinema's most important (and overlooked) filmmakers.
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