07 01 alice guy blacheToday is the birthday of Alice Guy-Blaché, who was born in France in 1873. You may not have heard of Alice, but she was a pioneer of French cinema. The first female director and writer of narrative fiction films.

Alice’s family lived in Chile, where her father owned a publishing company and a chain of book stores. She had four older siblings who were all born in Chile, but they all travelled to France for the birth of their fifth child, Alice Ida Antoinette Guy. She said it was her mother’s last attempt to make sure one of her children was French. After she was born, the rest of the family took off back to Chile, leaving Alice in the care of her grandparents until she was three or four. Then, she too went to live in Chile, where she learned Spanish. At six, she was sent to school in France. Her father’s business collapsed and he died in 1893, leaving Alice to support herself and her mother.

She trained as a stenographer and typist, which was then, still quite a new profession. In 1894, she was hired by Léon Gaumont as a secretary for a company working with still photography. The following year, they went bust and Gaumont bought up the equipment and started a new company along with an astronomer called Joseph Vallot and Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame. Gaumont was fascinated by photography and great at building precision instruments. He was very interested in building a device that could both film and project moving images. In March of 1895, he was invited to the Lumière brothers to the screening of their first film: ‘Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory‘. Alice was invited along because she happened to be in the office at the time. Gaumont was disappointed to be beaten, but also began to make his own films. Like the Lumières, his films were everyday scenes: people in the street, trains coming into stations. But Alice saw a different possibility.

Alice’s father had been a book seller, she loved books, she loved stories. She didn’t see why a film shouldn’t tell a story too. Alice asked Gaumont for permission to make her own film. He told her yes, as long as she didn’t let her secretarial work drop. Her first film, ‘La Fée aux Choux’, about a woman who grows children in a cabbage patch, was made in 1896. It is a possible contender with the work of Georges Méliès for the first ever narrative film. From then on Alice was made head of production. She not only wrote and directed her own film but also oversaw those filmed by others. Between 1896 and 1906 she was probably the world’s only female film director. She also made travel films and dance films, like this one, which were popular in music halls. Alice used a device invented by Gaumont called ‘Chronophone’, which recorded sound onto a disc along with the film. She used it to produce what might be described as the first music videos.

In 1907, Alice married Herbert Blaché who despite his name, was English. She said she wasn’t quite sure, at first, if she wanted to marry an Englishman, because “they are not noted for their joie de vivre”. Shortly after that, they moved to New York where Herbert was to look after Gaumont’s operations in the United States. In 1908, she gave birth to their first daughter and gave up work for a time. She soon missed it though and, in 1910, she set up her own film company, ‘Solax’ with her husband as production manager and cinematographer and herself as artistic director. Despite being, at this time, pregnant with her second child, she was producing between one and three films a week. Her films were very popular and people were delighted to learn that the company was run by a woman. In 1912, she was the only woman to earn $25,000 a year and they built a new studio in New Jersey which was the largest in the US. This was way before people were making films in Hollywood. She said that, at that time, Hollywood was a small town where they had signs on the doors that said ‘no dogs and no actors’.

Alice was an innovative film maker. She made film versions of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. People were impressed by her sets, her costumes, her lighting. She used special effects like double exposures, masking and running the film backwards. She always strove to create more spectacular scenes. If a boat needed to be blown up on screen, she didn’t make a little model, she blew up a real boat. But most of all she encouraged her actors to ‘be natural’. Alice directed melodramas comedies, love stories and westerns, but the film I really want to tell you about today was called ‘A Fool and his Money’. It is about a poor man who falls in love with a rich woman but has a rival who is much better off than him, it’s a universal story. But then, he finds a lot of money. He buys himself fancy clothes, spends ostentatiously and throws a huge party where he plans to ask her to marry him. But at the party, his rival cheats him out of all his money in a poker game and he is poor again. What’s particularly interesting about this film is that is features an entirely African American cast. The film was thought lost, but a copy has been recently rediscovered. You can watch a little video about it here.

In 1918, her husband left her and ran away to Hollywood with an actress. Alice directed her last film in 1920 and, in 1922, she was forced to sell her studio and move back to France with her children. After that she struggled to provide for them by writing children’s stories and articles for magazines. She never made another film. Alice Guy Blaché wrote, directed and produced around 700 films in her 26 years in the film industry. Her career was longer than that of any other film pioneer, yet most of her work has been lost and her legacy has, until quite recently, been largely forgotten by the industry. She wrote her biography in the 1940s, but it was not published until after her death and not published in English until 1986. If you want to learn more about Alice, there’s a lovely documentary here. There is film footage of Alice herself and it is partially narrated by her granddaughter.

There’s No Future in It

03 19 workers leaving the factoryOn this day in 1895 the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis made their first film. ‘La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon’ is a forty-six second film showing workers leaving a factory in Lyons which belonged to their father Charles-Antoine. The Lumières were manufacturers of photographic equipment. Louis had invented a new way of producing photographic plates which was particularly popular and their factory turned out about fifteen million plates a year. This made Antoine a successful business man and, in 1894, he was invited to a demonstration of Edison’s new Peephole Kinetoscope in Paris. He was impressed but he thought it was horrendously expensive. He also felt his sons could do better. There were two basic problems with Edison’s machine. Firstly, it was absolutely enormous and could only be used in a studio. Secondly, it could only be viewed by one person at a time.

03 19 lumiere brothersThe Lumière brothers’ film is often referred to as the first ever moving picture, but this is not really true. Louis le Prince, whose work and subsequent mysterious disappearance I mentioned back in October, had filmed his ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’ some seven years earlier. I’ve no idea if the brothers were aware of le Prince’s work, but they certainly built upon the work of other earlier experimenters and their contribution is worth celebrating today too. Within months, they had come up with a machine that could capture images on film, develop them and also project the results. The camera was, compared to Edison’s, lightweight and portable, so they could film anywhere. The addition of a projector meant that they could show their films to a large audience. They called it the ‘cinématograph’.

The name cinématograph, they had from another French inventor, Léon Guillaume Bouly, who had also invented a camera that shot, developed and projected film in 1892. It’s hard to say how successful Bouly’s camera was, but by 1894 he was no longer able to keep up the patent and the Lumières bought it. They made one significant improvement. They added perforations to the edges of the film which allowed it to move through the camera much more steadily.

Auguste and Louis had the idea of adding perforations from Charles-Émile Reynaud who had made the first animated projected films. In 1877, Reynaud had improved on the zoetrope by adding a circle of mirrors in the centre of the machine. This meant you could view the moving images in the mirrors rather than squinting through a tiny slot in the side. He called it a ‘praxinoscope’. Two years later, he added a glass viewing screen through which you could see the reflection of a background scene. When the moving images were spun into life, they were superimposed against the background. By 1880, he 03 19 reynaudhad been able to use lamps to project both background and images onto a screen by using glass plates for his hand-drawn images. In 1888, he patented his ‘Théâtre Optique’ which was on a much grander scale. He abandoned the circular design in favour of using a much longer strip of film which was wound onto a spool. Glass was obviously not suitable, so he painted each image onto squares of gelatin. He fastened them all together with leather strips and added a metal strip with holes between each image. These holes engaged with pins in a revolving wheel and made sure that each image was lined up correctly. Reynaud back projected his images onto a translucent screen and was able to move his film strip backwards and forwards by hand. Although his Théâtre Optique was very popular to begin with, he was quickly overtaken by the Lumières’ Cinématographe. Sadly, little survives of his work because, in a fit of depression, he smashed up his machinery and threw all but two of his picture bands into the Seine.

The Lumière brothers films were an immediate and huge success. They had more cameras built and sent them all over the world, to film and to screen what they saw. Most of their films, like Workers Leaving the Factory, were documentary in nature, but they also produced the first comedy film. ‘L’Arroseur arrosé’, the sprinkler sprinkled, shows a gardener watering his garden with a hose. A boy steps on the hose. Gardener looks down hose, boy steps off, gardener gets sprayed in the face. It’s a classic really and probably the first film that might have had some sort of script. You can see it here. Despite this, they really saw no future in narrative film. They thought it was frivolous nonsense and refused to sell a camera to Georges Méliès when he wanted one.

In fact, they thought the whole thing would be a bit of a flash in the pan and quickly moved on to other things. In 1903 they patented ‘Autochrome Lumière’, a way of producing colour photographs. The images were on glass plates and could be projected, but it seems they never thought of making colour film. Autochrome photography was still popular up until the 1950s, even though other colour processes had been developed. Film, however, has lasted rather longer.

The Penny Drops

12 22 john nevil maskelyneA couple of weeks ago I talked about Georges Méliès and how he became interested in stage magic. I mentioned that he was fascinated by the performances of John Nevil Maskelyne at the Egyptian Hall in London. Today it is the birthday of John Nevil Maskelyne and he is definitely worth a mention today.

Maskelyne was born in Cheltenham in 1839 and like Houdin, who I also recently wrote about, he trained to be a watchmaker which made him interested in all sorts of mechanical things. He and his friend George Cooke, a tailor’s apprentice, were amateur magicians. So when the famous Davenport Brothers rolled into town in 1865 with their spirit cabinet the two where pretty keen to see the show.

12 22 davenport brothers What the Davenport Brothers did was have themselves tied to chairs, their wrists were also bound and their hands filled with flour. On a table between them was a glass of water, some musical instruments and a board, a hammer and some nails. With all these thing they were put inside a cabinet and all the lights in the theatre were put out. After less that a minute, the audience would hear the sound of hammering and then the musical instruments being played. When the lights went up again, the two men were sitting tied to their chairs, but their coats were on inside out. The water had gone and the nails had been hammered into the board. Everyone was supposed to believe that this had been done by spirits, but Maskelyne thought otherwise. One of the blackout curtains in the theatre had slipped and he somehow managed to observe the brothers slip their ropes, put the flour carefully in their pockets and take off their coats. They then hammered the nails, played the instruments, drank the water and put their coats back on inside out. They retrieved the flour from their pockets and replaced their hands in the ropes.

Maskelyne and Cooke thought they could probably do that too. They made an announcement that they would perform the same feat and no spirits would be involved whatsoever. After building themselves a similar cabinet, together they revealed the trickery of the Davenport Brothers to a Cheltenham audience. That was when they realised that they could make their living as professional magicians. Maskelyne was the magician and Cooke the assistant. It wasn’t easy. They spent eight years touring the country and eventually got enough money together to hire a hall in London for three months. Maskelyne’s intention was that they would go on tour afterwards as ‘Maskelyne – The Great London Magician’. They made so much money in London that they decided to stay and took over a beautiful building in Piccadilly called the Egyptian Hall, which was originally a museum. 12 22 egyptian hallAs a result became known as ‘England’s Home of Mystery.’ This is where Méliès saw Maskelyne’s show. They were there from 1873 until 1904.

Maskelyne was fond of exposing frauds and wrote a book called ‘Sharps and Flats’ which explains in detail all the tricks that crooked gamblers used. It is still a classic text on the subject today. He wrote several other books on magic and, as a member of the Magic Circle, he was intent on dispelling all notions of supernatural powers. He also developed tricks of his own. The most famous is the levitation trick which was later developed by Houdin and has been much imitated since. Included in his performances were a couple of plays based around magic. They have great names, one is called ‘The Mystic Freaks of Gyges’.

He didn’t let his watch-making skills go to waste. He built several automata. These included a girl called Zoe who could draw portraits and one called ‘Psycho’ who could play whist and smoke whilst he was doing it. But Maskelyne is also remembered for another, less magical invention. He was the originator of the special door lock on toilets that required a person to put in a penny to open it. This is the origin of the euphemism ‘spend a penny’ for going to the toilet.

Magic of Cinema

12 08 george meliesToday is the birthday of Georges Méliès who was born in 1861 in Paris. He was an illusionist and film maker and, as I mentioned yesterday, he bought the theatre that once belonged to the illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. He was always interested in art and was often in trouble at school for drawing in his notebooks and textbooks. He made a puppet theatre when he was ten and, by the time he was in his teens, he was making some quite complicated marionettes. He first discovered his passion for stage magic whilst working in London. There he visited the Egyptian Hall which was run by the illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne.

When he returned to Paris in 1885, he continued his interest and began to take lessons from a magician whilst working in his father’s factory. When his father retired, three years later, Méliès sold his share in the family business and bought the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. It was a beautiful theatre and came equipped with lighting, levers, trapdoors and several automata. But most of the tricks and illusions they provided were out of date. Méliès set about inventing new ones. In the next nine years he came up with more that thirty. He introduced comedy into his performances. One of his best was the ‘Recalcitrant Decapitated Man’ in which a professor’s head would be cut off whilst he was making a speech. The head would continue talking until it was returned to his body. As well as inventing the tricks, Méliès was also writer, director and costume designer. He also staged pantomimes, automaton performances and magic lantern shows.

Then, in 1895, he attended a demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph. He immediately fell in love with the new medium. He really wanted to buy a camera, but the Lumière brothers weren’t selling. So he bought himself a projector from London and managed to adapt it so it could also be used as a film camera. The film also had to come from London and, as there were no film processing laboratories, he learned how to develop and print the films himself. He began making his first short films in 1896. There is one about a man who is attacked by a giant bedbug called ‘A Terrible Night.’ It’s only about a minute long, but already you can see his flair for props. Around this time, the Lumière brothers had decided to concentrate their work on serious documentary films. This left Méliès free to corner the market in something a bit more fanciful, which was what he was really interested in.

12 08 melies' studioMéliès began to experiment with, and sometimes invent, special effects that could only be created on film. He said in his memoirs, that it began when his camera jammed whilst shooting a street scene. He found his film showed a bus that suddenly turned into a hearse and a woman who turned into a man. He had discovered the ‘stop trick’. It wasn’t long before he built himself a film studio, just outside Paris in Montreuil. His stage was in a building made entirely of glass to maximise the light and it was made in the same dimensions as his theatre. He also had a shed for dressing rooms and a separate hanger for making scenery. His scenery is beautifully theatrical, we love it.

12 08 le diable au couventHis new interest in film didn’t mean he gave up his work at the theatre. Méliès was a busy man. He would be at his film studio at 7.00 am, spent ten hours building sets and props, finish at 5.00 pm, get changed, go to his theatre in Paris for 6.00 pm for meetings, have a bit of dinner and be back at the theatre in time for the show at 8.00. He would spend Fridays and Saturdays filming and on Sundays and holidays there would be film screenings at his theatre that went on until 11.30 pm.

He made seventy-eight films in 1896, the following year he made fifty-two. By then he had pretty much all the genres covered. He had made documentaries, historical films, dramas, magic tricks, fairy tales and even a few advertisements. He also made a couple of more risqué films. The only one that survives is ‘After the Ball’ in which a woman gets undressed, steps into a tub and is bathed by her maid.

In 1898, he made fewer films, but they were more elaborate. He had discovered the tricks of running the film through the camera backwards, and running unexposed film through several times to create multiple exposures, such as in ‘The Four Troublesome Heads’. In 1899, he made a version of Cinderella, which was his first film with multiple scenes. It was hugely popular all over Europe and also in the United States. Thomas Edison, who is pretty much the villain of this blog, did not enjoy the foreign competition and tried to ban them. But then he figured out how to just make pirate copies instead.

12 08 one man bandIn 1900, he made ‘The One-Man Band’ in which he plays seven different versions of himself at the same time and in 1901 he made a film about the wife-murdering Bluebeard, which is well worth a watch, not only for the brilliant scenery and props, but also the way the evil Bluebeard is impaled on a sword and forced to watch his dead wives resurrected. In 1902, he made ‘A Trip to the Moon’, which we have discussed elsewhere. Georges Méliès directed over 500 films between 1896 and 1913 so it would be impossible to discuss them all, but his 1905 film, ‘Le Diable Noir‘ is one of my favourites.

But his way with cinema gradually fell out of fashion and he also lost a lot of money and creative control of his work, this was partly due to Edison and other larger film companies. Then the First World War happened and his film studio was taken over for an army hospital and the French military confiscated 400 of his films and melted them down for the silver they contained and also the celluloid, which was used to make boot heels. In 1923 his theatre was torn down and his film company taken over by Pathé. He burned all his remaining films. By the mid 1920s, he was scratching a living selling sweets on the station at Montparnasse. But several journalists had begun to research his work and in 1929 there was a gala retrospective of his work. Méliès said in was one of the most brilliant moments of his life. In 1932, the Cinema Society found him a place at the film industry retirement home in Orly. Although he never made another film, he continued to draw, write and advise younger film directors until the end of his life.


09 01 trip to the moon 1Today I am celebrating the 1902 release of the world’s first science fiction film, Le Voyages dans le Lune (A Trip to the Moon) made by Georges Méliès. In the early days of cinema most films were documentaries showing scenes from everyday life. Méliès had strong connections with the theatre which made him interested in making films with a fictional narrative.
The plot revolves around a group of astronomers who plan to travel to the moon. They build a bullet shaped capsule and a huge cannon to fire it from. Their landing on the moon is actually shown twice in the film. In the first landing, which is the film’s iconic scene, the Man in the Moon watches them approach and is hit in the eye by their capsule. In the second they land more believably in an imagined lunar landscape. They climb out of their capsule, watch the earth rise then get out blankets and go to sleep. As they sleep, we see in the sky above them, a comet pass by, stars come out, each with a human face, the god Saturn leaning out of a window in his planet and the goddess Phoebe sitting on a crescent moon. She sprinkles snow on them to wake them up. The Astronomers encounter moon dwelling creatures called Selenites who, they discover, disappear in a cloud of smoke when they are thrown to the ground. They kill the moon dwellers king by pulling him from his throne and are chased back to their capsule and return to earth by simply pulling their craft over the edge of a cliff. The capsule plummets through space dragging an angry Selenite behind it and lands in the sea. The film ends with a celebratory parade and a statue dedicated to the chief astronomer.

Although the film is short by today’s standards, for 1902 it was an unusually long and lavish production. It took a whole three months to make and most of the ten thousand franc budget went on costumes and mechanical scenery. The astronomers have particularly fine wizard robes in the opening scene and the moon dwellers have quite elaborate insect like costumes. Méliès also uses every camera trick he has in this film. By splicing the film he is able to make telescopes turn into stools and an umbrella into a mushroom. He uses the same technique to make the Selenites disappear in a puff of smoke. For the scene in which the capsule approaches the moon, rather than move the camera towards his subject he sits his actor in a chair and pulls him towards the lens. There is also a double exposure during the return landing in which film of the falling capsule is set against a film of the ocean which was shot on location.

Filmed before there was such a thing as a movie star, there are no opening or closing credits. Méliès himself takes the rôle of lead astronomer, the rest of the cast apart from one of the cameramen, are theatrical people. The Selenites are played by the acrobats of the Folies Bergère. Each scene is shot by a single camera which gives the whole thing a very theatrical feel. Méliès has no problem with showing the same scene twice in different ways. In his work there is no such thing as continuity editing and the cinematic vocabulary we would recognise was yet to be built up.

09 01 trip to the moon 2At first Méliès had difficulty distributing his film. It’s long running time made it expensive and people were unwilling to pay. According to his memoirs he first got it screened by offering it for free to a fairground exhibitor. It was so popular with fairgoers that he bought the film immediately. It was pronounced a success and ran continuously in Paris for several months. A Trip to the Moon was one of the most popular films of the first few years of the twentieth century. It appeared not only in black and white but also a hand coloured version which was achieved by painstakingly painting each frame of the film. Work which was carried out by Elisabeth Thuillier’s colouring lab in Paris.

Méliès was keen to distribute in America, where the film also became hugely popular. Sadly he didn’t receive many of the royalties due to him as his film was copied by American distributors such as Edison who did not pay him or even credit him as it’s creator. He is now widely credited as being the first person to recognise the potential of narrative film. In his words: these fantastic and artistic films reproduce stage scenes and create a new genre entirely different from the ordinary cinematographic views of real people and real streets. His work would later influence the work of Edwin S Ported and D W Griffiths who said of him: I owe him everything.