Alice Guy Blache pioneer female filmmaker acmi exhibition.jpg
Alice Guy-Blaché on the set of The Life of Christ, in Fontainebleau, France, 1906. Image: Collection Société Française de Photographie
Stories & Ideas

Sat 21 Nov 2020

Alice Guy-Blaché: female filmmaking pioneer

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Caitlin Cronin

Creator and producer of the ACMI Women & Non-Binary Gamers Club

Alice Guy-Blaché was one of the first people to make a narrative film, but she's nowhere near as well known as other pioneers like Georges Méliès and Edwin S Porter.

Alice Guy-Blaché was a trailblazing French director, producer, screenwriter, and the co-founder and artistic director of her own film studio, Solax. Between 1896 and 1906 she was one of the only female directors in the world and is responsible for helping create over a thousand films as either director, producer or writer. Sadly, she often goes unrecognised for her contribution to the industry and only 140 of her films remain today, many in fragments.

From varnish to filmmaker

Guy-Blaché began her career as a secretary at a varnish company, a role she playfully referred to as “certainly grinding and polishing”, but in 1894 was offered a letter of recommendation for a position at Comptoir General de Photographie, a company owned by Félix-Max Richard that produced cameras. When legal troubles forced F.M Richard to retire, his business associate Leon Gaumont – today considered one of the pioneers of the motion picture industry – acquired the company, forming what would become L. Gaumont et Cie (Gaumont Film Company). It was this shift to Gaumont Film Company that allowed Guy-Blaché, a staunch and trusted advisor of Leon Gaumont, to truly begin making her mark on the future of cinema.

In 1895, Gaumont acquired the rights to the new chronophotographe camera designed by Georges Demenÿ. Like many film companies of the time, Gaumont primarily produced film shorts that featured the everyday lives and happenings of society such as parades, busy railway stations and workers going about their days. Guy-Blaché however, an avid reader and theatre-goer, saw the potential in entertainment films and suggested to Gaumont she “might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform in them”. Gaumont agreed with the express condition that “it would not interfere with [her] secretarial duties”.

A pioneer of cinema and a new perspective

Guy-Blaché then went on to make her very first film, a short called The Cabbage Fairy (La Fée aux Choux). Now considered one of the first fiction films ever created, this short marked the beginning of a career that often-crossed genre lines, with Guy-Blaché experimenting across slapstick, drama, documentary, fantasy and even action films.  Her secretarial duties eventually fell to the proverbial curb and she became the head of production at Gaumont, making films full time, often with the intention of showing off new and upcoming technologies that had been acquired or even invented by Gaumont.

An early adopter, she was one of the first to experiment with hand painting film frames as a means of colouring and, in 1902, when Gaumont patented his Chronophone system, Guy-Blaché went on to make over 150 films using the technology. Learning skills from still photographer Frederic Dillaye, her films often employed use of many special effects that were revolutionary for their time including superimpositions, double exposures and some of the first examples of the dramatic close-up. The latter of these were used to hilarious effect in her film Madame a des Envies (Madam has her cravings,1906), which portrays a pregnant woman with a craving for phallus shaped items and, in a wonderful call back to her earliest film, eventually gives birth in a cabbage patch.

Progressive cinema

While her technological feats paved the way for many filmmakers of today, it’s also her subject matter and approach to social issues that set Guy-Blaché apart. Her work, like Guy-Blaché herself, often had a subtle and satirical tone that allowed her to challenge the norms of the time, and she was keenly aware and critical of the politics of her society. Despite often being asked why she chose such a “unfeminine career”, Guy-Blaché continued to push forward against expectations of the early 1900s.

In 1910, Guy-Blaché left Gaumont to form her own company, Solax Studios, with husband Herbert Blaché and a third partner. Based out of a failed studio of Gaumont’s, the company would go on to be hugely profitable and span a filmography of almost three movies a week for several years. It was also instrumental in beginning the careers of scores of famous silver screen stars of the times, many of them women like Marian Swayne, Vinnie Burns and Blanche Cornwall.

Under Guy-Blaché’s direction, Solax produced several action films with female characters as heroes, many of them conducting their own stunts such as in Dick Wittington and His Cat (1913). This same film, one of her largest productions at the time, amounted to three reels of footage and cost close to $35,000; Guy-Blaché even had a real boat exploded for effect. No cats were harmed in the explosion.
Her films often had a feminist undertone and were aimed largely at female audiences and continue to stand out today for their awareness of social issues. Les Resultants du feminisme (The Result of Feminism), a film where gender roles are reversed portraying women as lecherous cigar smokers and men as timid sewers, perfectly illustrates Guy-Blaché’s tongue-in-cheek approach to social issues and was miles ahead of its time.

Not content with challenging gender norms, Guy-Blaché had strong opinions on race, immigration and politics, themes that were all very prominent in her films. In 1912, when her white cast members refused to work alongside black actors, she simply continued filming and created A Fool and His Money, the first narrative film with an entirely African American cast.

A forgotten legacy

Despite her importance, Guy-Blaché has been widely overlooked in the history of filmmakers, the unfortunate result of the times and the minimalisation of women professionals in the industry. In 1913, Guy-Blaché’s husband began a parallel studio in his own name and began funnelling much of their resources into his own venture, a move that caused Solax to slowly wind down and eventually close. In 1918, in a move as stereotypical as any film cliché, he left for Los Angeles with a younger actress, leaving Guy-Blaché to support their two children. Despite her impressive career and number of contacts in the industry, Guy-Blaché found it difficult to procure film work and, in a cruel twist, was eventually forced to accept work with her estranged husband as his assistant. Discouraged, she later returned to France with her two children. Her final work is largely considered to be Tarnished Reputations, released in 1920.

Over the subsequent years, Guy-Blaché continued to see her legacy and contributions to the industry largely swept under the rug, even by former associate Gaumont who largely ignored her contribution to his company in his memoirs. Never one to stand by, she began to give talks about cinema and her work, as well as writing her extensive memoirs to set the record straight. She died in 1968, at age 94, before seeing her memoir published.
Only 140 of her films survive today, many in fragments, but history may be finally beginning to acknowledge her contribution to the industry. The film Be Natural, a reference to a sign that Guy-Blaché hung on set of Solax Studios, was released in 2018 by Pamela B. Green and explores the life and work of Guy-Blaché, introducing her to entirely new audiences.

Jodie Foster who narrates the film, is both sombre and hopeful on the subject of Guy-Blaché when recalling her own journey to becoming a director and the lack of “historical models” for women. She likens discovering Guy-Blaché to “a celebration, a vindication, a redemption.” However, it's Guy-Blaché herself who most succinctly captures her legacy in her memoir when she reflects on her time in the industry and her great friend the cinema, at whose birth [she] assisted”.

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