I've spent much of my life viewing and researching the earliest films, so I certainly appreciate documentaries such as this one, "The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché," even though it's since been largely superseded by another, "Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché" (2018). It's especially appreciated given that its subject, then more so than now, has oft been neglected by other histories. As one of the earliest filmmakers and the first woman filmmaker in history, Alice Guy deserves the greater attention. In 1995, this documentary was of even more worth due to the dearth of publicly accessible material concerning Guy and her films. Since then, there's been a sampling of her Gaumont films available on home video and streaming, to go along with the availability of some of her American films elsewhere, and, finally, there's a good English-language book on her ("Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema" by Alison McMahan, who worked on both documentaries). It's not a lot, but it's still more recognition than some of her contemporaries have gotten (I'm still waiting for a Brighton collection or something with the existing films of the likes of G.A. Smith and James Williamson, but I digress). In general, early cinema has been receiving more attention from historians over the years. Consequently, although the attention it brings to a still oft neglected figure is appreciated, the errors of "The Lost Garden" have become more glaring.
As the daughter of Alice Guy says of her late mother here, she hated falsehoods. I believe we should extend this intolerance for belittling Guy's accomplishments and her primacy as a filmmaker to attempts to inflate her (or anyone's) role in film history. This is a difficult problem that anyone who has read older film histories has surely encountered numerous times--where, for example, Thomas Edison has been credited as practically the sole inventor of motion pictures and the Lumière brothers that of cinema, Edwin S. Porter that of modern continuity editing, or D.W. Griffith that of the close-up and just about everything else. None of which is true. Some claims made for Guy, including here, could be corrected by simply saying that she was "one of the first," instead of "the first;" anyone making movies before the 20th Century is bound to be among the first in many things. For instance, Guy surely wasn't the first to ever make a story or fiction film or a multi-shot one--she was, rather, among the first to do so.
Much uncertainty relating to Guy's beginnings in film remain--at least, that's the sense I get from reading McMahan's and others' books and essays. Guy claimed that her first film was "La Fée aux Choux" (The Cabbage-Patch Fairy), made in 1896. Over the years, Guy's 1902 two-scene film "Sage-femme de première classe" (Midwife to the Upper Class) has been confused to be this alleged work from 1896. This myth is perpetuated in "The Lost Garden," where they show the 1902 film while they talk about Guy's first film. An earlier single shot-scene version of this cabbage patch scenario is now available in the Gaumont home video series, where it's listed c.1900 (and since otherwise misdated all over the web). To be fair, however, even the "Be Natural" doc simplifies the matter of the c.1900 and 1902 versions being supposed remakes of a hypothetical lost 1896 film, but the entire matter remains cloudy as I've written about already in my reviews for those films.
Some of the other misleading information in "The Lost Garden" is less accounted for. In the section about Guy's move to the United States in 1907, they say that the peephole, single-viewer Kinetoscopes were "all the rage," when, in fact, that technology has been obsolete since 1896 when Edison was selling the Vitascope to project cinema. Early cinema was actually quite international, at least in cross-Atlantic relations; movie systems and the movies themselves from Europe were also available in the U.S. and vise versa. For years, the French studio Pathé dominated both markets (see Richard Abel's books for more on that) and, as reflected by Guy's move, Gaumont also had international concerns. Additionally, in the section on Guy's Solax Company, they say it "would become the largest studio in the United States." That's news to me. So is that filmmakers moved West to Hollywood because of "wartime energy restrictions." I thought it had more to do with the monopoly practices of the Edison Trust.
Perhaps if "The Lost Garden" had provided more for their historians to do besides playing dress up--pretending to be characters from Guy's films--and simply lauding more praise unto her, some of these errors may've been corrected. These experts include McMahan, whose book, as I've already suggested, is more accurate and is, today, the best English-language source on Guy, as well as Anthony Slide, Alan Williams and André Gaudreault, the latter of whom is one of the leaders in research on early cinema whose writing on the "cinema of attractions" is most helpful. He also provides about the only decent film analysis in the program in his mentioning of the merits of Guy's 1906 passion play for Gaumont.
I would've preferred a documentary featuring more insight into Guy's films, as well as one with more-reliable facts, rather than an overview of her life and times, but if "The Lost Garden" has brought more attention to Alice Guy and leads some to be more interested in her films and early cinema in general, then it's easily worthwhile. And, despite any misleads, much of it is an accurate summary of Guy's life and a good introduction to her and her films.
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