Saturday Night Spotlight #19: Alice Guy-Blaché

Always cited as the first woman director in all of film history, Alice Guy-Blaché (aka Alice Guy) (1873-1968) had a career spanning from 1896 to 1920, also incorporating the skills of screenwriting, acting, cinematography and producing into her projects. She started in the business as a secretary at the camera company Gaumont in her native country of France, but once Gaumont began to make moving pictures, Alice Guy (who would later marry fellow director Herbert Blaché in 1907) graduated to the role of film director. After more than a decade of making films in many genres, Guy-Blaché and her husband emigrated to America in 1909. The following year they established the Solax Company, which operated out of Fort Lee, New Jersey. (Lois Weber would later be the first woman director to run a studio all her own, Lois Weber Productions, in 1917.) As Guy-Blaché said in 1914: “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.” Certainly Guy-Blaché brought a forward-thinking, feminist approach to her filmmaking; for example, in 1912 she directed a film called In the Year 2000, in which she imagines a world run by women. She adhered to the motto “Be Natural” for her films and actors, as seen in the signs she had posted around her studio and sets. By the mid-to-late 1910s she was making feature films with such actors (both experienced and up-and-coming) as Claire Whitney, Evelyn Brent, Edmund Breese, Doris Kenyon, Holbrook Blinn, Bessie Love and Flora Finch. Alice Guy-Blaché’s name may only be remembered by dedicated film fans, but her contributions to cinema were brought back into consideration in the 1990s with the release of a pair of documentaries, The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors (1993, dirs. Jeffrey Goodman and Anthony Slide) and The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Guy-Blaché (1995, dir. Marquise Lepage). More recently, Guy-Blaché was posthumously inducted into the Directors Guild of America in 2011 and her work is featured in the documentary Reel Herstory: The Real Story of Reel Women (2014, dir. Ally Acker), which debuted at the Moondance International Film Festival in September, and also in a documentary currently being filmed, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2015, dirs. Pamela B. Green and Jarik Van Sluijs). If you are looking for more information on this pioneer, check out The Memoirs of Alice Guy-Blaché (edited by daughters Roberta and Simone Blaché, published in English in 1986) and the biography Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema (Alison McMahan, 2003).

La fée aux choux (aka The Cabbage Fairy) (1896) – Lasting one minute, this is one of the earliest films with a fiction narrative. Guy-Blaché was working at the same time as the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès, yet those men are remembered as the main “groundbreaking” artists simply due to their sex. Guy-Blaché was a female contemporary who was also creating new film history. (You may see the film here.)

Les résultats du féminisme (aka The Consequences of Feminism) (1906) – A little longer, at approximately seven minutes, Guy-Blaché presents a cinematic world where sex and gender are turned upside down. Men are more feminine and women are more masculine, the latter being the aggressors in moments of sexual attraction. Men also have to do the busywork while the women get to hang out on couches, smoke and tell the men what to do. (You may see the film here.)

La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (aka The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ) (1906) – Clocking in at 33 minutes, which is quite lengthy for a film made before 1910, this dramatic recreation of Jesus Christ’s journey has impressive special effects and nice costumes, as well as the number of scenes set both indoors and outdoors (with well-designed sets) and the sheer number of actors involved (hundreds of extras). (You may see the film here.)

The Ocean Waif (1916) – This feature film survives in fragmentary form but it has been beautifully restored by Kino Lorber Films to a 40-minute version available on DVD. The lovely Doris Kenyon, whose Hollywood career continued into the late 1930s, stars as a spirited young woman who escapes an abusive adoptive father and eventually finds love in the arms of a handsome novelist played by Carlyle Blackwell. (I also recognized Edgar Norton, who plays Blackwell’s butler; Norton played a butler again, 15 years later, for Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Besides the acting in The Ocean Waif, John G. Haas’s cinematography is striking, making use of mirrors (as seen in the photo above), window frames and doorways. Even though The Ocean Waif was made for a bigger-studio distributor, the International Film Service (a William Randolph Hearst organization), Guy-Blaché continued to work with her own Solax Company. (You may see the first few minutes of the film here.)