Move over, Kathryn Bigelow. Alice Guy Blaché is the director we should all be talking about.
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Female directors are thin on the ground these days. Beyond Kathryn Bigelow, how many can you name? But female directors have been a part of film history from the start. In fact, one of the first commercially successful directors in history was a woman.
Born in 1873, Alice Guy Blaché helped change the way the world thought not just about film, but about what made a story. In the age of Tina Fey and Lena Dunham, it might be easy to wave off her story as just a feel-good stop along the way, but if anything, her rise and fall as a writer, director and producer shows just how far women still have to go.
Blaché came from bourgeois roots, but when her father died, her family struggled, so she found work as a secretary for a camera company owned by Léon Gaumont, who became one of France’s most important movie producers. (Some things haven’t changed: the producer Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, got her start as Steven Spielberg’s secretary). It all started in the spring of 1895 when the Lumière brothers invited Gaumont to a screening of their film La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyons (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyons) – one of the first movies ever recorded. Gaumont brought Guy Blaché with him, and she was captivated instantly. She asked Gaumont to let her experiment with the company’s cameras and soon she was making shorts on her lunch breaks. In 1896, for example, she made La feé aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy) which lasts about a minute and shows a fairy in a low-cut dress scooping babies out of cabbages in a garden. It’s often credited as the very first fictional film.
“I’m a feminist scholar. I want her to be the first fiction filmmaker as much as anyone. But this is not true,” says Alison McMahan, a documentary filmmaker and author of Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema. The credit probably goes to the Lumière Brothers feature L’arroseur arrosé, showing a gardener getting soaked by a prankster. But even so, Guy Blaché championed an idea that seems obvious today: that filmmakers could use this new medium to tell long and complex stories.
“What’s really important about her is she brought narrative to film,” says McMahan. The earliest audiences didn’t know how to follow a film, since there was no standard vocabulary. Think of how we know today that a close-up shows strong emotion, or a black and white scene in a color movie means a flashback. “Early filmmakers got around this is by making films about stories people knew already – the life of Christ, Jack and the Beanstalk, things that people could follow. But Guy told her own stories.”
Soon after Guy married Herbert Blaché, a Gaumont sales rep, they moved to New York in 1907 to manage Gaumont’s studio there. A year later, she had given birth to a daughter and left Gaumont’s studio to start her own production house, Solax where she made all sorts of films: comedies like Alfie the Miner, about a fussy easterner who mans up out West; A Fool and His Money, one of the first features with an all-black cast; and the proto-action movie Dick Whittington and His Cat, which included a boat explosion filmed just off the Jersey Shore.
“She does all these things that women today find difficult, and she did it at a time when it was a hell of a lot harder,” says McMahan. “She couldn’t go to film school. She had to send her husband to business meetings since as a woman she couldn’t participate. She couldn’t do things like climb a tree to direct a big crowd shot, because she was wearing these long Victorian skirts.”
Blaché let nothing hold her back. She was directing up to three films per week while pregnant with her second child, and in 1912 she built a $100,000 film studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. As president of Solax, she served as a writer, producer or director on over 700 films.
After World War I, however, her fortunes turned tragic. By 1922, they were divorced, Solax was bankrupt, and she never found work in the film industry again. Long before her death in 1968, she’d been largely forgotten. Only three of her 1,000 films were known to have survived, though McMahan and others have verified 132 more, finding them all over the country, from a San Diego flea market to a barn in New Hampshire.
And while it’s been nearly 100 years since she was behind a camera, maybe Guy Blaché’s time in film isn’t over quite yet. The untold true story of a bold female director sounds like good Oscar bait.
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