Look closely. What do you see? It might help to squint a little. The footage is over 100 years old, after all. In the center of the frame is a woman in a light dress surrounded by flowers. By her feet are 6-8 of the biggest cabbages imaginable. Watch as she bends down and plucks out newborn babies: one, two, then a belated third. And then watch as the footage suddenly ends.
Though it may seem like some surrealist phantasm, these 60-odd seconds of footage constitute one of the single most important accomplishments in the history of film. It’s title is La Fée aux Choux, which translates in English as The Cabbage Fairy. Released in 1896, it was one of the first fiction films ever made. Though the Lumière Brothers can claim to have released the very first narrative film with 1895’s L’Arroseur Arrosé, it was La Fée aux Choux that gave the general public their first glimpse of a totally fictional onscreen world. This was not a documentary or an attempt to recreate “real life.” Here was a film where male babies are born from cabbages and are tended to by a beautiful fairy. In a flash the creative potential of the cinema as a dream factory was brilliantly realized. What a tragedy, then, that the film has largely been ignored by film scholars. And even worse, so has its director Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female filmmaker.
Alice Guy stumbled upon film while working as a secretary for photographer Léon Gaumont in 1894 and 1895. Her request to make her own films was met with an ultimatum: she could as long as it didn’t interfere with secretarial work. With the release of her first film La Fée aux Choux, she went from secretary to full-time director almost overnight. With the full financial support of Gaumont, Alice Guy released over 400 short films over the next eleven years.
Alice Guy proved herself to be a cinematic polymath, dabbling in almost every genre imaginable. She directed documentary films (Danse serpentine par Mme. Bob Walter , Miss Dundee et ses chiens savants ), melodramas (The Game Keeper’s Son ), and literary adaptations (Faust and Mephistopheles ). But she had a special knack for comedies. These films tended to be grouped into two categories. The first were basic slapstick. These usually restricted themselves to a single static shot wherein the actors would bumble about and create chaos, such as Les Cambrioleurs (1898) where a couple of incompetent burglars get caught red-handed. Compare this film with her later work Les Maçons (1905) where the slapstick not only becomes more complex in its composition (two policeman engage in shenanigans on two different horizontal planes) but more skilled. Consider one moment where a policeman on a ladder is knocked backwards to the ground. The policeman manages to flip the ladder around mid-fall so that he lands on top of it instead of underneath it before dismounting with an impressive somersault. It isn’t hard to see this as the progenitor of Buster Keaton, particularly his 1922 short Cops.
But it was her other brand of comedy that is more interesting to film historians. These were her special effect comedies. No doubt heavily influenced by the films of Georges Méliès, these comedies used trick photography and special effects to flummox her unfortunate subjects. Chirurgie fin de siècle (1900) used jump cuts to transition between a real actor and a dummy for an extended surgery sequence where the patient’s right arm and leg are amputated and replaced with glue. In La charité du prestidigitateur (1905) a magician summons a dinner, a waiter, new clothes, and a cigar out of thin air for a street beggar. He even restores the beggar’s youth before stealing it back again when the ex-beggar proves himself to be corrupt and cruel after his transformation. But her masterpiece of this genre of comedy is Comment monsieur prend son bain (1903), a ferociously ingenious film where a man tries to strip naked for a bath. Every time he removes an article of clothing, a new piece spontaneously appears on his body. Though her jump cuts were never as clean or seamless as those of Méliès, it was in this film that she gave the cinema’s greatest early illusionist a run for his money.
In 1907, Alice Guy married and relocated to the United States to form the Solax Company, the biggest pre-Hollywood American film studio. She continued to direct until 1922 when she returned to France and retired from filmmaking. She left behind an astonishing legacy of innovation: she had dabbled in hand-tinted color films as early as 1900 (Le départ d’Arlequin et de Pierrette); created one of the very first travelogues (Espagne ); experimented with cross-cutting editing years before D. W. Griffith popularized it (La Glu ); and mastered Gaumont’s “Chronophone” system, one of the first processes used to create sound films.
But if history has forgotten the godmother of cinema, let it remember her first and foremost for her 1906 film The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ. Clocking in at an intimidating 30+ minutes, it was an epic in an era before epics. Utilizing 300+ extras, lavish costumes, and multiple sets, the film was a technical achievement par excellence. Consider the segment entitled Climbing Golgotha where Jesus carries his cross up to his place of execution. Not only does it feature dozens of extras, not only does Alice Guy utilize an early camera pan to capture the action, and not only was it filmed on location, it was filmed in the daytime when a single cloud covering the sun could have distorted the lighting and ruined the whole shot. Only a genius would even attempt such madness. And genius Alice Guy-Blaché was. It’s about time we start remembering her as such.