Who was Alice Guy Blaché? The Forgotten Mother of Cinema...
The history of cinema is peppered with the names of ingenious inventors, bandit business men, and imagineers of all kinds. The The Lumière Brothers come to mind as the credited with being the fathers of film technology-- even though their contribution was more of a business arrangement after they patented the first all in one film camera / projector known as the cinematograph, originally created by French inventor Léon Bouly. Georges Méliès is another figure commonly referred to as the Father of Film Technique-- best displayed in his now primitive but still bold special effects film short, A Trip to the Moon. Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith are considered the Fore Fathers of Film Narrative. Porter is even credited with presenting one of the first anaglyph 3D technologies ever presented cinematically.
But what if I told you that within the same time frame in which these men were giving birth to the craft, there was another filmmaker who would go on to helm over 1000 films and run her own film studio. What if I told you that she was screening moving pictures that employed the exact same craftsmanship and storytelling methods that her male counterparts were utilizing, but in some cases, executing such techniques before her fellow filmmakers employed the advances themselves. And if such a person existed, how is it that her contribution to the founding of what is now a multi-billion dollar industry, been all but lost to the canonical texts of cinema.
Born in Paris, France in the late 1800s, Alice Guy Blaché would begin her cinematic career at the famous Gaumont Studios as an administrative assistant at the ripe old age of 24. That parochial trajectory changed when in March of 1895 she, along with her boss Leon Gaumont, attended the first ever film projection exhibition, presented by the Lumière Brothers. Shortly there after, the inspired Guy Blaché requested permission
to employ the Gaumont Studio resources in order to produce her own film. That very first venture resulted in a silent film entitled La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy - 1896). It is now considered the first film to ever utilize the concept of narrative storytelling. And thus was birthed the career of the very first female cinematic figure. But I would guess, that you never heard of her before now.
Alice Guy Blaché's film career would go on to span roughly 25 years from 1894 to 1919… surpassing in length the careers of filmmakers such as Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès. She was at one point a mother of two while managing her notably successful production studio Solax, an American film company she incorporated after traveling with her then husband
Herbert Blaché to the United States in 1908.Being a working mother at the turn of the 20thdidn't distract Guy- Blaché from being a cunning business woman, where at the height of her profession, she was earning an unprecedented industry income of nearly $60,000 a year. She was a ground- breaking filmmaker who was even the first artist of the industry to present a film which featured an all African American cast (A Fool and His Money, 1912).
She was the first filmmaker ever to risk producing the often cost prohibitive multi-reel films of the day (e.g. The Pit and the Pendulum - 1913 / Dick Whittington and His Cat - 1913) . And to top it off, she was also one of the first filmmakers to consistently employ such special effects as double exposure, masking techniques, backwards cranking and even color tinting. She was a true pioneer of the craft, a visionary of the industry. She was experimenting with synchronized sound long before Hollywood would ever adopt the technology. Even prominent filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock often referenced her as one of cinema's most inspirational legacies. So then why is it they you have probably never heard of Alice Guy Blaché. Honestly, how is it that over a mere 100 years, the Guy Blaché story could have been all but erased from the cinematic conversation.
Sadly, at the turn of the century, Alice Guy Blaché would have been a pilgrim in an unholy land, as it were. As was the case for most pioneer women of the era, a patriarchal historical record would slowly expunge the female legacy, placing accolades that Alice Guy Blaché well deserved onto the shoulders of her male counterparts. We now read of her industry firsts being performed by the likes of the Lumière Brothers, Méliès, Porter, Griffith amongst others. She has never historically received the recognition that such a prominent contributor should have been awarded.
Although Mme. Blaché, did receive the Légion d'honneur, the highest non-military award offered by the French government for her contributions to early French Cinema. And in March of 1957, Cinématheque Française honored her with ceremony, at an event that went unrecognized by the press core of the day. But this is the 21st Century we live in; an era when the recognition of the prominence of women in all fields should finally be celebrated… however latent. And so it shall be with our exploration of Alice Guy Blache.
In a few months time, Cryptic Pictures will be releasing the Women In Film podcast series via CryptiCast. In our very first interview, we have secured time with Alison McMahan author of Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema. the book that inspired the documentary Be Natural produced by Jodie Foster and Robert Redford.
The story of Alice Guy Blaché shall be silent no more, resurrected to be an inspiration to women filmmakers everywhere. Let the stories be told and the conversation begin!