Pioneering

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.

Welcome

06 17 meester van de sint joriskermis - olifantWhat has a nose four and a half feet long, a mouth three feet wide and weighs just over 200 tonnes? Sadly, it isn’t one of these, but it’s a good picture, so I thought I’d show it to you. No, it’s the Statue of Liberty. She sailed into New York harbour, from France, on this day in 1885. She was a gift from the people of France to the people of America.

Its designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, really wanted to build a statue of a giant woman that doubled as a lighthouse. It’s an odd sort of ambition, but he was thinking of the ‘Colossus of Rhodes’, a hundred foot high figure that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He had originally wanted it to be an Egyptian peasant woman, clad in loose robes and holding a torch aloft. She was to stand at the northern end of the newly built Suez Canal, at Port Said, Sketches and models were made, but it was never built.

06 17 bartholdiThen, Bartholdi and his friends, who had been avid supporters of the Unionists in the American Civil War, thought the statue would be a great thing to celebrate their victory and the abolition of slavery. The sculptor travelled the US in 1871, to try to locate a site for his statue and to find funding. Bedloe’s Island was an excellent choice, because all the ships coming into New York harbour sailed past it. Plus, it belonged to the United States Government. Unfortunately times were hard and there was no government funding forthcoming in either America or France. So, after years of struggle, the project was largely funded by private individuals.

At first, Bartholdi only had sufficient funds to build the arm holding the torch. It was taken to America and exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Celebrations in Philadelphia, to arouse interest and generate funds. People paid to climb up into the torch. The money raised from that was sufficient for the artist to build the head. He was so grateful that he almost gave the statue to Philadelphia instead of New York. The head was exhibited at Paris World’s Fair in 1878 and models of the statue were sold to help raise funds. It was also possible to buy a ticket to visit the workshop at Gaget, Gauthier and Co. where the statue was being constructed.

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Meanwhile, in America, a group of people were trying to raise enough money to build the plinth that the statue would stand on. Things were not going well. Some people thought a statue celebrating America should be built in America, by an American. Others thought that, if the French wanted to give a statue, they should jolly well give a plinth to go with it. Then, in 1882, it was discovered that the city of Boston was making a play for the statue. That was when New Yorkers decided that they really wanted it. The New York Times announced: “that great light-house statue will be smashed into… fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor.” Then, Joseph Pulitzer had a brilliant idea. He would publish, in his newspaper, the name of anyone who made a donation to the project, however small. That was how they raised just over $100,000 and also a massive rise in sales of his paper. There were more than 120,000 contributors, with most people giving less than a dollar. Over 200,000 turned out to welcome the statue on June 17th. Its parts were packed into crates to be reassembled on site.

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The framework inside the Statue of Liberty was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of tower fame). The outer skin is made of copper and is less that two and a half millimetres thick. It was originally a dull brown colour but within five years it had begun to turn green. By 1906 the whole statue was covered with verdigris. Many were concerned that it was evidence of 06 17 statue of libertycorrosion. But when it was investigated by the Army Corps of Engineers, they concluded that the patina protected the skin and also that it “softened the outlines of the Statue and made it beautiful.” Which was probably uncharacteristically sentimental of them.

Despite best efforts, engineers were unable to make the statue work as a lighthouse, much to the consternation of Bartholdi. It was not his only disappointment, if he had got his way, the entire 151 foot high statue would have been covered with gold leaf. Luckily there wasn’t enough money to do that, because I think it would have looked awful. Thomas Edison also had a rather disturbing idea. He wanted to build a giant phonograph and put it inside the statue so that it could talk. Fortunately, that didn’t happen either.

Towering

12 15 gustave eiffelToday is the birthday of Gustave Eiffel who was born in 1832 in the Côte-d’Or in France. It’s pretty obvious what Eiffel is famous for, but before his work on the Eiffel Tower, he was an engineer who was really great at designing bridges. If you needed a bridge across a deep river valley, he was your man. He knew all about the properties of his materials and how to build a structure that could stand heavy wind resistance. As well as building bridges in France and elsewhere in Europe, he also designed bridges as far away as Egypt, Peru and Vietnam. In 1879, he also designed a series of bridges in kit form that could be shipped out to areas with poor infrastructure that could be put together easily, without the need for highly trained engineers. In 1886, he designed the dome of the Astronomical Observatory in Nice which, at 73 ft (22.4m) wide, was then the largest dome in the world.

12 15 statue of libertyEiffel was good at building big, and he was good at building strong. In 1881, he was contacted by Auguste Batholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty. He needed some help with the internal structure of the statue. His chief engineer, who had suggested using a brick pier inside the statue, unfortunately died and, even more unfortunately, left no indication of how he thought that would work. Eiffel was selected because of his expertise with wind resistance. He designed a four legged pylon that had two spiral staircases inside so visitors would be able to climb up to the crown and a forty-foot long ladder to reach the torch. He designed it with a secondary skeleton so that it would be able to move slightly in the winds in New York Harbor and expand in the heat without cracking. The whole statue was put together at Eiffel’s works in Paris before it was dismantled and shipped to New York.

The original idea to build the famous tower did not come from Eiffel. The first plans were drawn up by two men called Koechlin and Nouguier. It was to be a centrepiece in the 1889 Exposition Universelle, a world fair which would commemorate the centenary of the storming of the Bastille. At first Eiffel was not that keen, but when some decorative arches, a glass pavilion and a cupola were suggested, he became more interested.

12 15 building the eiffel towerOnce the design was finalised and the site chosen, people started to complain about it. Some people thought it would be impossible to build a three hundred metre high tower. Others just thought it would be ugly. There was a significant amount of protest and a group was formed called the ‘Committee of the Three Hundred’. One member for each offensive metre of the proposed monstrosity. The basic problem was that it was just too big. They called it a ‘giant black smokestack’. They did not like the thought of the tower dwarfing all of the beautiful buildings of their city and said: “…all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream… we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.” But it was all a bit late by then.

12 15 1889 exhibitionWork was begun in 1887 and it took two years, two months and five days to construct. It was not quite open to the public in time for the opening of the World Fair on May 6th 1889. When it did finally open on May 15th, the lifts weren’t quite ready, but that did not deter 30,000 visitors who braved the 1,710 step climb to the top. The lifts were soon in operation and the tower was a huge success. Over the course of the exhibition there were 1,896,987 visitors.

The tower was never meant to be a permanent fixture, it was only meant to stand for twenty years. But then it proved to be an incredibly useful radio mast, so it stayed. It has survived being sold twice by a con artist for scrap metal in 1925 and Hitler’s order to tear it down in 1940. Not everyone loved it though. One of the main opponents to its construction, Guy de Maupassant, reputedly ate lunch in the restaurant there every day, because it was the only place in Paris from which the tower was not visible.