Film History Essentials: Surprise d’une Maison au Petit Jour (1898)

(English: Surprise Attack on a House at Daybreak)

What it’s about:

A group of soldiers approach a house from behind the enemy sentry and kill him. As other soldiers begin to emerge from the house, they open fire. They retreat as the soldiers in the house take aim with a cannon. The defenders’ officer directs them to bring a wagon over for additional cover, and some soldiers take shelter behind it as they continue to return fire on the attackers.

Why it’s essential:

In March 1895, the Lumière brothers invited Léon Gaumont (see right) and his 21-year old secretary Alice Guy to their first-ever film screening, nine months before they debuted it for the public. At the time, Gaumont was an employee of a camera manufacturing company owned by Max Richards, but within a few months, he was running it. Max lost a court case brought by his brother Jules that forced him out of the business, and Gaumont lined up some partners, bought him out, and formed the new “L. Gaumont & Cie.” The president of the new board of directors was Gustav Eiffel, though his name was kept off the company as he had recently been convicted of misappropriation of funds in connection with his work for a French company that claimed to be building a canal across Panama (before it suddenly folded, with a great deal of money unaccounted for).

Alice Guy continued on in the same role, becoming responsible for much of the day-to-day administration of the business, and point of contact for its most important clients when Gaumont was absent. During this same period, Georges Demenÿ partnered with Gaumont to manufacture his motion picture cameras. After they failed to catch on, Demenÿ left the business in 1896, and Gaumont retained his patents and continued to develop them. Guy described what happened next:

Gaumont, like Lumière, was especially interested in solving mechanical problems. It was one more camera to put at the disposition of his clients. The educational and entertainment values of motion pictures seemed not to have caught his attention. Nevertheless, there had been created, in the ruelle des Sonnieres, a little laboratory for the development and printing of short “shots”: parades, railroad stations, portraits of the laboratory personnel, which served as demonstration films but were both brief and repetitious.

Daughter of an editor, I had read a good deal and retained quite a bit. I had done a little amateur theatricals and I thought that one might do better than these demonstration films. Gathering my courage, I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform in them. If the future development of motion pictures had been foreseen at this time, I should never have obtained his consent.

My youth, my inexperience, my sex, all conspired against me.

I did receive permission, however, on the express condition that this would not interfere with my secretarial duties. […] I ended by agreeing. I was already bitten by the demon of the cinema.

The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché, pp. 26-27

And that was how Alice Guy (see left) became the first woman film director. Surprise d’une Maison au Petit Jour is one of the films she is said to have directed. Some important caveats are necessary here. Although Guy worked as a director for nearly 25 years, around 90% of her films are now lost, and her significance went almost entirely unacknowledged by early film historians. Guy herself sought to correct the record during her lifetime. One such effort was the writing of her memoirs during the 1940s. However, the book was not published until 1976, several years after her death. It was first translated into English in 1986.

She was the subject of a short documentary in 1995, and a well-received biography in 2002. But it was not until 2018, with the release of the documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, that her accomplishments began to gain widespread attention outside of academia, which prompted further efforts to restore her surviving films and make them available. Meanwhile, the long gap between her career and much of the scholarship about it has resulted in a number of academic controversies, particularly surrounding whether many films that have been attributed to her are attributed correctly. It doesn’t help that her memoirs (which, after all, were composed half a century after she got her start in the film industry) contain a number of obvious lapses in her memory about specific events.

That said, some of those supposed “lapses” are contested as well. For instance, Guy claims to have directed her very first film, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage-Patch Fairy), in 1896, and notes that it was one of the first narrative fiction films, and that the Cinémathèque Française holds the negative. Guy’s The Cabbage-Patch Fairy is, in fact, widely available to watch online. The problem is, that film has been dated to no earlier than 1900. This suggests the extent to which some of the details in her recollection may be confused. However, there were at least two different versions of The Cabbage-Patch Fairy (possibly 1900 and 1902), and there is some evidence that there may have been a third, lost version from 1896.

La Fée aux Choux (ca. 1900)

There are several reasonable explanations for the discrepancy. It’s quite possible that Guy simply didn’t know which version of her film was held by the archive, or that she confused the 1900 and 1896 versions. In any case, some scholars claim that no films have been positively identified as having been directed by Guy prior to 1902. For any of the many films from the years 1896 to 1901 that are commonly attributed to her, there is someone pointing to an alternative attribution or piece of evidence indicating that work was made by someone else.

I do not have the resources or the expertise to assess this evidence, but it seems significant to me that, in claiming to expose some of this misattribution, film scholar Maurice Gianati has a lecture titled “Alice Guy a-t-elle existé?” (“Did Alice Guy exist?”). This smacks of a troubling lack of objectivity, and of the sort of attitude that saw her forgotten from film history to begin with. Both sides of this debate are forced to engage in a great deal of guesswork. A lot of the contention seems to come down to whether or not a given person accepts Guy’s recollections as presented in good faith, with inconsistencies that can be logically explained by the imperfections of human memory and other factors. It is important to note that the concept of “directorship” was an extraordinarily fluid one in early cinema, and there is a good chance that Guy had at least some involvement in most or all of these films.

We know this because (as if her other achievements weren’t enough), from 1897 to 1907, she was the first head of film production at Gaumont, the oldest still-existing film company in the world. It’s also worth pointing out that a number of the 19th-century films that she is said to have made are obviously inspired by, if not directly copied from, other films of the time. This was a standard procedure throughout this period. In fact, it was one of the (relatively) more honest practices of the time. Many distributors simply stole films, relabeled them, and exhibited them as their own.

During these years, there were four major film companies operating in France: Gaumont, Lumière, Georges Méliès’s Star Film, and Pathé (which also still exists today). All four of these companies produced films that were virtually identical to films produced by their competitors. This film is a case in point, as a film with the same title and scenario was released by Lumière later that same year. There were also filmmakers who basically worked as independent contractors, making films for various studios. At least one such team seems to have made a film for Lumière, and then made essentially the same film (using the same set) for Gaumont (although the Gaumont version is another film that is often attributed to Alice Guy).

All that to say, whether Surprise d’une Maison au Petit Jour was “directed” by Alice Guy or by the independent team of Gaston Breteau and Georges Hatot (as some suggest), she would have been involved with it at some level. Still, it’s true that, in whatever ways she was developing her knowledge and skills during these years, her greatest achievements in the nascent film industry still lay ahead of her by the turn of the century. With her 150th birthday just a few months away, those achievements are certainly worth revisiting.

Why you should see it:

Many of Gaumont’s (often derivative) early films still show a certain originality of composition, but even among these Surprise is striking, both for its positioning of the camera and the actors, and for the naturalism of its performances. This has none of the stagy artificiality of some Méliès reenactments, for example. There are well over a dozen actors on the screen, and they are choreographed in a way that makes it seem like there are more. All are in full uniforms, and wielding weapons that let out impressive bursts of smoke (as does the cannon!).

The choice of angle seems obvious at first, but after the first 12-15 seconds, the scene becomes confusing because some of the most important action seems to be happening outside of the frame. The attackers stand and fire a volley at the house, but then they disappear to the right. Some defenders seem to be giving chase, but then they reappear with a wagon that is apparently intended for cover (though some of them climb on top of it, which seems counterintuitive). Several of the soldiers aim off to the right, as though the attackers are some distance away, but then a few of the attackers, including the enemy officer, charge suddenly into the frame and are killed. The ambush does not seem to be going well.

Watching the main action taking place in the foreground of the shot, it’s not immediately obvious where all of the defending soldiers come from. Two emerge from the first doorway, and it seems like that is the main exit from the house, but watch closely. No one else comes out that door. A third soldier emerges from a crouch behind the stairs to fire the cannon. Most of the soldiers come pouring out of the doorway in the center of the frame, behind the cannon, but two more climb down from a sort of loft just to the right. Then one of the shutters falls off of the window next to the first doorway, and three more soldiers leap out there.

A few sources suggest this scene is meant to be set during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, (the most recent European war involving France at this time). Nothing about the scene necessitates that it be tied to any particular conflict, and it doesn’t appear to be a reenactment of a significant event. But the flag hanging above the house could be the French flag, though it’s difficult to tell. It certainly isn’t the Prussian flag. That suggests that this is a patriotic film, in which the sneaky, underhanded Prussians (or whomever) stage a cowardly attack, only to be repulsed by brave French troops. Whatever the case, those signifiers would no doubt have been clearer to a contemporary audience.


~ by Jared on March 25, 2023.

2 Responses to “Film History Essentials: Surprise d’une Maison au Petit Jour (1898)”

  1. […] with actor Gaston Breteau. In addition, some have credited them with several Gaumont films that are also credited to Alice Guy. Though the Lumière brothers are best known for their actualities, obviously their production […]


  2. […] there were a few women like Alice Guy who were pioneers in roles like directing, writing scenarios, etc., applying color was an area […]


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