Just Like in the Movies: Celluloid’s Mitochondrial Eve – The Lost Woman Who Gave Movies the First Screen Story

Micah S. Harris

Who was Alice Guy-Blaché?  Quite simply the mother of movies that tell stories.   This visionary French woman, while still young and working as a secretary, was the first to realize the narrative potential of film. That you have, quite possibly, never heard of her is THE gross injustice in the history of cinema.

Alice Guy-Blaché

Alice Guy-Blaché belongs in the same pantheon of film pioneers such as the Lumières, Griffith, W.K.L. Dickson, Edison, Méliès, and Edwin S. Porter. So, step aside like gentlemen, boys, and let’s give Alice Guy-Blaché her proper, prominent place in movie history.

Alice was a woman of several cinematic firsts, but chief among them is that she is the first person who ever sat down to create a story with the intent that it would be told by projected images on a screen. More, she was the first to take movie storytelling as a “calling,”—and the first to tackle film with the specific agenda of pursuing and exploring its narrative possibilities.

More, she was the first screenwriter to take the reins of her own story material from behind the camera.  You see, Alice also invented modern movie directing, making her the first auteur, almost forty years before Preston Sturges pioneered the role of “writer/director” in Hollywood, and roughly a half-century before her native France’s “New Wave.”

In short, Alice’s DNA is all over modern movie storytelling. But, why, then, you rightly may wonder, have I (probably) never heard of her? Who was cinema storytelling’s Mitochondrial Eve?

Fortunately, she can indeed be found, though she has been the victim of recurrent, aggressive efforts to see that she vanish into the mists of antiquity. Not only have her films been credited in the history books to other people—who never directed a film a day in their lives—but while she was still making them, a colleague tried to have her pushed aside once she all but single-handedly had gotten her employees’ film business up and running and profitable. To say nothing of the head of the studio’s workshop, who went out on a cold winter’s night, took an axe to the standing sets of her film (then in production), and made firewood out of them.

Alice Guy-Blaché on the set of “The Life of Christ”

Alice did not begin by wishing to make movies. She simply wanted a job. While barely more than a girl, she found herself the sole caretaker of her elderly mother, after her father’s death and her sisters’ marriages. A friend suggested to her mother that the eighteen-year old might be able to support them if she learned the marketable new skill of shorthand typewriting (the late nineteenth century equivalent of a woman armed with Macintosh Apple savvy in the ‘80s).

Seeking work as a secretary, one of the businesses she called upon was the Gaumont Brothers’ company.  They were pioneers in early movie technology. Paramount on their agenda was to discover a way to shift the accessibility of moving images through a solitary peephole to that of projecting them on a screen for group enjoyment.

Initially hesitant to hire her because of her age, her prospective employer became charmed by Alice’s combination of girlishness and wit during their job interview (when he mentioned his concern about handing over such important duties to someone so young, the quick Alice replied “I will get over that” to which he laughed and responded “Yes, alas, you will”).  Alice left with the job.

The Gaumonts’ company were beaten in their race to project movies by the rival Lumière Brothers. Alice and her employers were among the viewers at the historic March 22, 1895 first showing of a movie on a screen for an audience (she remembered seeing the Lumières hanging up the sheet that was used).

Alice recalls only seeing one of their series of films that day, that of the workers exiting the factory. Apparently, this was the only short shown on that historic date, the rest of the films, including “The Sprinkler Sprinkled”—the first movie with a plot—were apparently not yet part of the Lumières itinerary. If this is the case, there is no evolutionary link between their creation of screen narrative and the first story conceived for the screen.

In fact, the Lumières’ “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” immediately became, shall we say, genetically isolated at the genesis of film storytelling—an Adam with no Eve. Many months after Alice saw the Lumières’ work in a truncated presentation, Georges Méliès got full exposure at their first public showing in December of the same year. What impressed Méliès, though, was the theatrical magic potential of the movies, not that the Lumières’ had unveiled a new medium for storytelling.

As Charles Darwin might phrase it, Méliès own movie narratives that followed appeared “incidentally,” primarily as a mechanism to showcase his special effects and not “the point” of the thing. If he advanced the scope of movie storytelling along the way…well, that was nice, too.  And, despite their continuing charm, pioneering film techniques, and iconic imagery, Méliès’ staginess made them an evolutionary dead end in how to tell a story on the big screen.

Fortunately, Alice Guy-Blaché conceived…but not, as so often has been the case, because she found the new boy on the block fascinating. He (“the new boy” being the Lumière brothers “Workers Exiting the Lumière Factory” film in this analogy) only had the advantage of being the only boy on the block.

Still from “The Fairy of the Cabbages”

Which is enough to get a girl’s attention, but that will only get you so far. Not to say Alice wasn’t impressed by this attention-grabbing male specimen…she was impressed with how utterly lacking in imagination it was in its use of this exciting new medium. She feared film would be regulated to merely documenting factual, mundane occurrences. Alice alone saw the potential for putting entertaining stories on film.

I would venture that Alice first grasped the storytelling possibilities of film because this particular woman 1) long had a love of literature (her father had run a bookshop in Chile) and a background in amateur theater, and 2) she brought in a perception outside the common, myopic, left brain orientation of those men laboring in the emerging medium.  There were no males interested in making stories with the movies at their very beginning because their concerns were all technical.

Thus, the narrative possibilities went right by the Lumière Brothers, Alice’s employees the Gaumont Brothers, Thomas Edison, and, to some extent, even George Méliès—who was more concerned about special effects than stories, and certainly more so than the  characters. Alice Guy-Blaché first brought the right side of the brain to movie making.

Alice approached her employers with this idea. They gave her permission to use their equipment to shoot her film…as long as it did not interfere with her secretarial duties. And by Spring of the next year, she was at work on the “The Fairy of the Cabbages,” the longest running movie made at this time (around an entire minute).

Alice Guy-Blaché created the genre of movie storytelling on her lunch hour. Though, more accurately, it was a series of lunch hours which she took to film the short story she conceived around the answer to that age-old question, “where do babies come from?” The answer, of course, being the cabbage patch.

The film is lost (though she remade it twice and at least parts of those versions are available for viewing). To judge from the revisions, the story’s exposition is established by showing a young couple longingly watching a mother with her baby. Presumably, they are unable to conceive. A fairy appears in a nearby cabbage patch. This is a fairy on a mission, one of those of the “intervention-on-behalf-of miserable-humans” variety favored by fairies everywhere. Through a magic dance, she conjures a baby beneath a cabbage, where, for some reason, the wistful mother will be certain to come across it.

Perhaps because she habitually sits among the cabbages and peas? Alas, this bit of plot resolution is lost with the rest of the original version.

Now, this is fairy tale material to be sure, but, I would argue that with only the second movie to be made with a narrative, Alice brought the first psychological realism to a movie character. It wasn’t King Lear, and it was pretty basic psychology (she did only have a minute, after all), but one might argue that her “Fairy of the Cabbages” did for the movies, even in a small way, what Samuel Richardson’s Pamela did for the novel back in 1740.

Interestingly, what Alice Guy-Blaché offers here, in the second narrative tale ever put to film, is in some ways the inverse of the first.

The Lumières’ fictional tale is stereotypically masculine in its subject matter : a story of physical pain, a testosterone-fueled aggressive one, whose slapstick and conflict resolution do, in fact, give us cinema’s first chase scene.

Alice’s story, by contrast, is preoccupied with child bearing and birth, a concern for women in a way that is outside the ken of men. Because the young woman cannot conceive, the pain here is primarily emotional and psychological, that is to say internal conflict, and the story is about relationships—particularly family ones.

So, here we have the first two movies to ever tell a story, one by men, one by a woman. And, in accord with the sex of either’s creator, the Lumière’s movie is exactly the kind of story at the theater many men still tend to enjoy as men and Alice Guy-Blaché’s movie exactly the kind many women enjoy almost 125 years later. Alice’s film also features a dance number as part of the plot resolution, foreshadowing its use in turning the course of countless romantic conflicts in the sundry cinematic musical romances to come.

Alice Guy-Blaché’s “Fairy of the Cabbages” is all very “girly” and it is extremely unlikely that the thought would have ever entered the Lumière brothers’ heads to make anything like it. As unlikely as Alice would have, left on her own in her initial outing, come up with the first “action movie” as they did.

To say the subject matter of “The Fairy of the Cabbages” was stereotypically feminine is not to say that Alice Guy-Blaché was. Her contribution to the developing movie industry was not a pretty face and figure to be filmed. She was, as I said, an auteur, working behind the camera.  She was also a businesswoman, and, to this day, the only woman to have owned her own movie studio.

And when she began, the right for women to vote in France was still fifty years away. The turn of the twentieth-century was very much a man’s world—but she thrived on a particular turf: the fledgling movie industry.  She understood the technical aspects of filmmaking—cinematography, mise en scene and special effects processes—and explored the scope and range and possibilities they presented in conveying a narrative in ways a book or the stage could not.

As can still be seen in her 36 minute, 1906 epic The Life of Christ, Alice evolved past her contemporary George Méliès. There is much of Méliès’ type of presentation here, to be sure. But Christ’s walking on the water scene, done with a location filmed ocean, is an uniquely quiet kind of cinematic spectacle.

Alice figured out how to execute the scene technically, and it is distinctly her cinematic vision. It conveys the Son of God’s power over nature with serenity.  No one ever accused Méliès of “quiet” or “serenity.” The scene of Joseph and Mary among the pyramids and Sphinx during their flight to Egypt remains jaw-dropping imagery (foreshadowing some of director Ken Rusell’s retro-visual sense eighty years later).

Méliès’ evolutionary line of movie storytelling rather Neanderthaled-out. And, as I said earlier, the Lumière Brothers’ premiere narrative film appears genetically isolated from everyone else. Alice evolved.

But all of the above’s contemporary, Britain’s James Williamson, represented the appearance of the Cro-Magnon line of movie storytelling, with his short films Fire! (1901) and Stop Thief (also 1901). That is to say, movie stories first told in an early, if rudimentary so, modern style.

Still from “The Life of Christ”

If the mother of cinematic storytelling, with no evolutionary link to the Lumière brothers’ “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” was an act of special creation, well…the new movie industry still needed its mitochondrial Adam for its Eve.

That Adam would be the complementary visionary to Alice, the American Edwin S. Porter, the immediate descendent in the James Williamson evolutionary line. Porter carried Williamson’s species of moving storytelling forward while Williamson himself devolved back to Méliès’ methods with “The Little Match Girl.”

Porter’s The Great Train Robbery in 1903 was immediately perceived as something excitingly new because of its still-recognizably modern cinematic techniques employed in telling the story. Porter brought something as necessary to the movie genome as needed as Alice’s introduction of visual narrative storytelling, if visual narrative storytelling was going to survive.

But first, there had to be movie stories to tell. It does take two, after all, and a movie maternity test reveals the forgotten Alice Guy-Blaché’s DNA is inextricably combined with Porter’s in every frame of every story created specifically for the big screen today.