The incredible story of the first female director, Alice Guy-Blaché

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Sarah Cook dives into the story of Alice Guy-Blaché, one of the first woman directors of cinema. 

Previously when chatting about old movies on this site, we’ve spoken about Pre-Code Hollywood era director Dorothy Arzner and everything that she contributed to cinema, including the invention of the boom mic. 

However, did you know that there were female directors before Arzner? I mean, of course there were, especially if you leave the (admittedly comfortable) bubble of Hollywood.

But there are some pioneering female filmmakers whose contributions to cinema date all the way back to its inception. So, this time, I’m looking at a real 19th century hero: Alice Guy-Blaché.

How to distil the work of cinema’s first female director into just a few hundred words? After all, within her lifetime, Guy-Blaché created nearly 600 silent films (some theorise it could be up to a thousand) and was one of the first directors to produce a narrative fiction film. Being the only woman who directed films in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, her work should be celebrated alongside her peers such as Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers.

Born Alice Guy in 1873, the director was first hired by camera manufacturer Félix-Max Richard in 1895. The company changed hands in 1895 when it was purchased by Gustave Eiffel (of the tower fame), Joseph Vallot, Alfred Besnier, and inventor Léon Gaumont. Guy was charged with being Gaumont’s secretary where she became familiar with Gaumont’s clients such as film engineers August and Louis Lumière.

An event hosted by the Lumière Brothers inspired Guy to pursue filmmaking, largely because she was bored of cinema being used as a purely promotional tool to sell cameras. Having witnessed the Lumières’ 1905 film, Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory, Guy wanted to use the medium to incorporate story-telling elements and asked Gaumont if she could make her own film, to which Gaumont thankfully said yes.

That film was La Fée aux Choux (1896). Otherwise known as The Fairy Of The Cabbages. Guy’s short outing is considered not only the world’s first narrative film, but also the first film directed by a woman AND the first ever fantasy film. 

alice guy blache two little rangers

This charming outing sees a honeymoon couple turn to a farmer and a fairy to procure a newborn. Alas, it’s a lost film, but Guy remade the film at least twice – in 1900 and 1901, using live babies and a few dolls. There have been many theories surrounding this short film, including Guy being inspired by incubators.

Thus, Guy’s directing career was born – or plucked from a cabbage, so to speak. Guy was appointed as Gaumont’s head of productions and prolifically produced as many short form films as she could. She developed narrative filmmaking at the company as well as dance and travel films such as Saharet (1905). The most popular of which were music-hall attractions including serpentine dance films (One for a future column perhaps because it is a hauntingly beautiful genre which helped promote colour in film.)

There are so many things that Guy pioneered during her time with Gaumont’s including synchronising moving images with sound – using the Chronophone – and was amongst the first to use special effects such as double exosure and running a film backwards. She also trained many French filmmakers.

Alice Guy met and married Gaumont’s production manager Hebert Blaché in 1907. The pair quit the company and moved to the US to set up their own business, partnering with George A Magie to form The Solax Company. The studio was insanely big, producing the largest number of movies before Hollywood came into power. Through the 1900s and the 1910s, Guy was artistic director at the studio, and directed many of its releases until the pair divorced and the rise of Hollywood put an end to their business partnership.

Guy-Blaché would continue to lecture and guide upcoming filmmakers until her death in 1968 at the age of 94.

This is such a brief outlook on all that Guy pieced together, and I feel bad giving you the bare minimum of this astonishing woman and her work. It’s worth seeking out either her full films or the snippets available. Guy-Blaché made one of the first ever all-African films – a fun little outing called A Fool And His Money (1912) which sees our hero Sam seek affection from the affluent Lindy, but she seeks fortune. Another stellar one is the epic La Vie du Christ (1906.) 

Now I say epic in the early stages of cinema sense and not like, an epic that we’d deem now. It consists of 25 vignettes that depict the life of Jesus. It’s a grand spectacle, though, with an array of huge sets and extras. Comedy drama The Great Adventure (1918) is also wonderful. Starring Bessie Love, it revolves around a small-town actress who seeks fame and fortune.

My personal favourite film of Guy-Blaché’s is The Consequence Of Feminism (1906). This seven-minute short imagines what would happen if the roles between men and women were reversed: men stay at home and sew, clean, and cook while women fight, leer, and demand from their male counterparts. Though this is a comical conceit, the clever execution is showcasing the problems of male behaviour through these violent women. There are scenes where they make unwanted sexual advances to men just trying to get by on their day to day. It’s an assured, witty, and striking satire.

There has been a recent resurgence in recognition of Guy-Blaché work. A documentary in 2018, narrated by Jodie Foster, called Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché dived into the life of the director. Thanks to director Pamela B Green’s film, so many of Guy-Blaché’s films were restored and preserved and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will feature a pillar in her honour. 

Plus, there might even be a biopic. All in all, Alice Guy-Blaché was a sterling artist who is thankfully getting the recognition that she deserves! 

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