When it comes to the current state of women both in front of and behind American film it remains a story of momentous individual victories being offset by considerable collective losses. The good? Female-led films like Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Heat, Gravity, and Frozen kicked ass at the box office, 27-year-old producing all-star Megan Ellison helped finance 2 of the 9 Best Picture nominees (Her, American Hustle), and both Elizabeth Banks and Meg Ryan are lined up to make their directorial debuts. The bad? Only 2 of the top 100-grossing films of 2013 featured a female director (Frozen, Carrie), and the percentage of women working as executive producers/producers, directors, writers, editors, and cinematographers are now at lows not seen since 1998. Many women are simply shifting to working in independent film and/or television.
It is tempting to simply ignore all of the losses, writing it off as being more of the same for women in the American workplace where they’ve long since fought institutionalized sexism. Plus, how many notable females working behind the scenes in the history of Hollywood can you actually name? For example, once you get past Nora Ephron, Penny Marshall, Jane Campion, Julie Taymor, Sofia Coppola, and Kathryn Bigelow the list of notable female directors gets a lot shorter. Well, did you know that one of the first ever directors of narrative film was actually a woman?
Her name was Alice Guy Blache, and she was a pioneer of narrative film-making. She owned a film studio and made movies before women even had the right to vote. Sadly, she remains little known (there’s no Hugo on the way to prop her back up like Scorsese did with Georges Melies). Her’s is an impressive tale but also a sad one. She was:
Alice Guy Blache (1873 – 1968)
“There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art” – Alice Guy Blache
Background: By 1896, the 23-year-old Alice Guy was a secretary for a Parisian camera company that made moving picture cameras. She convinced her boss she could make films to demonstrate the new contraption. She was so good they made her the head of production for the Gaumont Film Company where she produced and directed films until 1906. In 1907, she married Herbert Blache, and they eventually set up a new film company, Solax Studios, first out of Flushing, New York and then in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was the pre-Hollywood home for the American film industry. Guy Blache continued producing, directing, writing, and sometimes starring in films until she had to sell Solax as part of filing for bankrupty in 1920. She returned to France in 1922, never again directed another film, and was largely forgotten for most of film history until she wrote her own memoir and the country of France awarded her the badge of the Legion of Honor in 1953.
Significance: For years, there has been some debate as to who made the first narrative film: the Lumiere brothers, Alice Guy, or Georges Melies. The answer appears to be that the Lumiere’s The Waterer Watered was the first after screening in 1895, Guy’s The Cabbage Fairy was the second after being produced in 1896, and Melies’ came up third, producing his first several months after Guy.
You can see Cabbage Fairy below, keeping in mind that this was 1896 we’re talking about. This type of thing blew people away back then the way really good CGI does now:
The Lumiere’s beat Guy for the title of the world’s first director, but she remains unquestionably the world’s first ever female director. Plus, although she did not manage to stick around long enough to survive into the sound era she still managed to enjoy a longer career in film than any other early pioneer, e.g., the Lumieries quit making movies around 1902.
Between 1896 and 1920, Guy is believed to have directed over 1,000 films, 22 of which were actually feature length films. Sadly only around 350 of her films have survived. She was an innovator in synchronized sound and early usage of color, and although Melies gets all the attention for his early special effects mastery (see A Trip to the Moon) Guy also used techniques like superimposition, double exposure, and running a film backwards to make it appears as if (for example) a character was walking on water. Beyond the technical side of film-making, Guy is known to have emphasized a naturalistic acting style for all of her performers, indicated by a large sign in her studio which read “BE NATURAL.”
It’s perhaps even more astounding that Guy was basically a studio executive for her entire career, flat out studio owner from 1910 to 1920. Women didn’t even get the right to vote in America until 1919, but there was Guy in charge of her own production department at Gaumont and then heading up her own studio. In fact, she was pregnant with her second child during the early days of Solax, yet she was still making between 1 and 3 films a week. She made Solax Studios the biggest pre-Hollywood film studio in America. They were so big that…
Unfortunately for Guy Blache, her douchenozzle husband left her and their two kids for Hollywood in 1918 around the time the East Coast film industry was dying. The migration to Hollywood lead to the entrenchment of a “males only” world of film production after the early years cinema had been far more progressive. Power was now isolated to a select few Hollywood studios, all run by monopolistic men. Someone like Louis B. Mayer had risen from distributing Alice Guy Blache’s Solax films in 1916 to being head of studio operations at MGM by 1924, even getting to add the last “M” to MGM. Guy Blache, on the other hand, couldn’t even successfully recover all of her American films upon returning to the United States in 1927 nor could she get the Gaumont Company to acknowledge her contributions in their official company history in 1930.
Films: Guy’s notable films include The Spring Fairy (1906), one of the first to be shot in color, and The Pit and the Pendulum (1913), quite possibly the first Edgar Allan Poe story adapted to film. She’s also the mother of the romantic comedy, having worked on one of the first ever romantic comedies, Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913), about a wedding-hungry woman who tricks her groom into marriage. Don’t think you’ve got her pegged after that seemingly gendered direction. She also directed a very early version of the ever-manly car chase scene in The Lure (1914) where a car chases a train. Her 1912 film A Fool And His Money is apparently the first ever film to feature an entirely African-American cast.
The Bergen County (New Jersey) Film Commission recently created a 5-minute retrospective on Alice Guy Blache. Don’t worry about their petitioning the Directors Guild of America to posthumously recognize Alice Guy Blanche. The DGA finally did that in 2011:
If you’ve got 30 minutes to kill, here is Alice Guy’s big-budget 1906 film Life of Christ featuring a then-huge cast of 300 extras: