Alice Guy-Blaché? Who? Only the world’s first female filmmaker, but more importantly than her gender, the first film director at all to realise film could be a medium for narrative fiction rather than just recording real life events as was largely the case at the time (trains pulling into stations, people walking about, those sort of things). Oh and she was also a pioneer in using sound, colour and visual effects in film, and led the world in casting non-white actors. That’s who.
Alice Guy-Blaché was born in France in 1873 and began her working life as a secretary. Still Alice Guy (she married Herbet Blaché in 1907) she went to work for a camera company which was subsequently bought by a consortium including as it happened Gustave Eiffel (he of the tower you’ll be familiar with) and Leon Gaumont who the company was re-named after and who actually ran things day-to-day.
Because of the company’s business it was right at the heart of the burgeoning film business in France and Alice and Leon Gaumont were both present at the 1895 screening of the Lumière brothers’ ‘Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory’, the first ever demonstration of film projection anywhere in the world.
While unquestionably a stunning technical achievement, Alice understood right away that while groundbreaking, the subject matter would really need to be improved if this new film thing was really going to cut it. Marvelling at people going to and from work on a screen is only going to go so far. She realised right away that film should be a medium for storytelling.
Alice asked her boss, Gaumont, for his approval for her to make a film on company time and using company resources and he agreed and the next year La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) was released.
Coming in at a whopping 60 seconds long, the story is based on an old fairy tale of how baby boys are born in cabbages, girls in roses. Like most films of the era it has now been lost, but it’s impact is most definitely not. For the next 10 years Guy was head of production for Gaumont, carefully developing and honing her narrative film making skills, experimenting with sound and various pioneering visual effects techniques.
In the process she helped build Gaumont into one of the most important French film companies. You wouldn’t realise it from his name but her husband Herbert Blaché was actually a British born American, also very active in the burgeoning film business. The two migrated to New York where Herbert was put in charge of running Guamont’s US operations. In 1910 they set up their own studio, Solax, first in New York and then in New Jersey, rapidly becoming one of the biggest film studios in the US before the business shifted over to the West Coast. The studio had a large inspirational sign by its entrance that said ‘Be Natural’.
Life didn’t proceed entirely smoothly for Guy-Blaché - she and Herbert divorced and she was declared bankrupt in 1921 and forced to sell all her property including film assets. She never directed again but returned to France and lived to the grand old age of 94, dying in 1968, a few years after she returned to the US to live with her daughter.
In all she directed over 1,000 films, around 150 of which survive (most films of the silent era have sadly been lost as no one spent much time thinking about their preservation) and was awarded France’s greatest civilian award, The Légion d’honneur in 1953 and was honoured by the Cinématheque Française four years later. By introducing narrative structure to movies, it’s no exaggeration to say that her influence on film making was huge and ever lasting.
There’s new film currently out about her life, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a documentary directed by Pamela B. Green and narrated by Jodie Foster. I haven’t seen it yet, but the reviews are largely positive, except for this review in Variety where the reviewer found the film rather frustrating for basing its story around the concept that no one has ever heard of Alice Guy-Blaché, and that is largely because of her gender.
Neither of which is true, but it is the case that she definitely isn’t as well known she should be given her incredible achievements and story and the film will definitely help correct that . And if you haven’t previously heard of Alice Guy-Blaché, you have now, and please spread the word. As well as doing your bit to make sure she is suitably remembered, you’ll be able to show off to your friends that you already knew who she was when they find out from the film.