By Elizabeth Weitzman, April 26, 2019
When you think about the titans of classic film, who comes to mind? Go ahead, take a few minutes.
No matter how long your list, it’s a fair bet that the French filmmaker Alice Guy Blaché — one of cinema’s earliest and most influential pioneers — didn’t make the cut.
Until recently, Guy Blaché was mostly relegated to the footnotes: credited regularly as the first female filmmaker (when credited at all), but overlooked in terms of her impact as an artist and an innovator. And yet starting in 1896, she made around 1,000 films, constantly pushing visual and thematic boundaries. She experimented with early synchronized sound, color and special effects. She explored gender, race and class. And she inspired future giants like Sergei Eisenstein, Alfred Hitchcock and Agnès Varda.
Now, amid a broader reassessment of women’s roles in Hollywood, her legacy is resurfacing. Thanks in part to a new documentary by Pamela Green called “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché,” released in theaters this weekend, Guy Blaché may finally be getting her due, nearly a century after she made her final film.
Green said she was astounded when, in 2000, she first learned about Guy Blaché in a TV documentary by Susan and Christopher Kochcalled “Reel Models,” about trailblazing women in film.
“I was blown away,” Green said. “I had a hard time getting over it, honestly. Why wasn’t she a household name?”
Shelley Stamp, a film historian who curated Kino Lorber’s 2018 box set “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers,” which gathers more than a dozen of Guy Blaché’s films, said she had thought a lot about that question.
“I get asked this all the time about early female filmmakers,” she said. “And you know, there’s ways to dance around the answer. But I think the only explanation is sexism.”
“There has been a longstanding myth that filmmaking is a man’s game,” she continued, “and that narrative has had a lot of sway and has obscured the careers of many women, probably most egregiously Guy Blaché.
Guy Blaché was born in 1873, as Alice Guy, to a convent-educated French mother who had been set up to marry an older, French-Chilean intellectual. Although her life began amid fairly traditional bourgeois circumstances, there were signs early on that Guy Blaché might be destined for an unusual path. Her father owned bookstores in Valparaiso and Santiago, and her pregnant mother insisted on traveling by boat from Chile to France, just so her daughter could be born in Paris.
Having learned stenography as a young woman, Guy Blaché applied in 1894 for a secretarial job with Léon Gaumont, one of several French inventors experimenting with the potential of early cinematography. Men like Gaumont and the Lumière brothers, who patented and presented an early cinematograph in 1895, were focused then on the mechanics of moving pictures as a way to document real life: workers leaving a factory, crowds gathered for a parade, trains traveling along tracks.
But Guy Blaché saw a different path.
“I thought that one might do better than these demonstration films,” she wrote in her witty autobiography, “The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché.” “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.”
Gaumont agreed to her request, but that was only, she wrote, “on the express condition that this would not interfere with my secretarial duties.” Soon enough she had dispensed with those duties for an expanding list of others: location scout, casting director, costume designer, cinematographer, editor, writer, director and producer.
Her first film, a short called “The Cabbage Fairy,” was one of the earliest fiction films ever made, offering a charming twist on the question, Where do babies come from? (The answer, at least in 1896, was that they’re born in cabbage patches.)
Over the next 23 years, Guy Blaché blazed a variety of narrative and artistic trails. She made comedies, adventures and romances. She made thrillers, melodramas and westerns. She made religious epics and documentaries, never hesitating to expand into new or provocative domains.
Her 1906 short comedy “The Consequences of Feminism,” in which men and women swap roles, still feels remarkably modern in its unsparing assessment of double standards. “A Sticky Woman” and “Madame’s Cravings,” also made in 1906, brazenly foregrounded female desire with humor and wit.
“She was very interested in gender norms,” Stamp said. “She was very interested in sexism. And she was very interested in crafting films with active, adventurous female heroines.”
When her white actors refused to appear onscreen with black actors, she turned “A Fool and His Money” (1912) into what is widely considered the first narrative film with an entirely African-American cast. “A Man’s a Man” (1912) offered a rare, sympathetic perspective of a Jewish protagonist onscreen. “The Making of an American Citizen” (1913) tackled immigration and marital abuse.
After running Gaumont’s studio in Paris, Guy Blaché came to America and opened the highly successful Solax, in Fort Lee, N.J., one of the earliest production companies in the United States. Her films were distributed around the country and overseas, serving not only as entertainment but also as a bedrock for the way audiences and filmmakers understood cinema.
Jodie Foster, who served as the narrator and an executive producer for “Be Natural,” was keen to participate after Green told her about Guy Blaché’s history.
“When I was growing up in the film business, I never saw another woman on set,” Foster said in an email. “Occasionally a makeup artist or script supervisor. The lady playing my mom. Directors were always telling my story (the story of a young girl) through their male lenses.”
Even so, she admitted: “I’d never heard of Alice before Pamela contacted me. How is that possible?”
Patty Jenkins, who directed “Wonder Woman” and is currently working on the sequel, was less taken aback. She appears in Green’s documentary as one of a wide range of Hollywood’s elites, both women and men.
“Though one might think that I’d be surprised I hadn’t heard of her, I really wasn’t,” she said in an email. “I feel like everywhere you look there are incredible stories of the achievements of all kinds of people who weren’t the ones that got into the history books. It’s nothing new.”
Guy Blaché was never a stranger to being pushed aside, even by her husband, Herbert Blaché. Although she had founded Solax, her powers there were circumscribed. “I would have embarrassed the men, said Herbert,” she wrote, “who wanted to smoke their cigars and to spit at their ease while discussing business.”
Eventually, Herbert set up a parallel studio he named after himself. He diverted their resources into Blaché Features, and Solax wound down. A few years later, he left Guy Blaché for an actress in one of his films, and together they moved to Los Angeles. Blaché Features folded, and Herbert continued his career there, as a for-hire studio director.
Left to support their two children, Guy Blaché moved to Hollywood as well. But the offers weren’t coming, and she was forced to accept a position as her estranged husband’s assistant. Devastated, she moved with the children back to France, where she tried to generate film work in Nice and Paris, without success.
She was never able to make another film.
Guy Blaché lived to be 94, which meant she had plenty of time to watch historians minimize or ignore her achievements. Respected texts passed her over entirely, or merely mentioned her as a rare woman in the industry. Gaumont himself omitted her copious contributions when he wrote a history of his company. Her blunt memoir, which wasn’t published until after her death in 1968, was in part an attempt to correct the record — to stake her rightful place in a culture she had helped create.
Decades later, Hollywood still proved slow to evolve. When Green tried to share Guy Blaché’s story in the days before the Time’s Up movement existed, she found the industry uninterested.
“Nobody wanted to talk about an older woman, who was French, who was at the beginning of cinema,” she said. “It was just so surprising. I felt that she had been robbed, in a way. And like I had to do something about it.”
She has since found that the need was there all along. It just had to be shaken loose. Foster’s experience provides the perfect illustration.
“When I realized I wanted to be a director, I had so few historical models,” Foster said. “Discovering the story of Alice was like a celebration, a vindication, a redemption. I wish she was here to enjoy the party.”