Women in Film: Alice Guy Blaché

Today we have an amazing piece from Marina Brafa who writes for Fem Film Fans.

Back to Life – Rediscovering Alice Guy Blaché (July 1, 1873, Saint Mandé –  March 24, 1968 in New Jersey)

Have you ever heard of Alice Guy Blaché? Guy Blaché was one of the first female directors ever, starting her work as early as 1896. By 1914 – just 18 years later – she had either directed, overseen or produced roughly 1000 films of various length and genre, which makes her not only one of the few women in the early film business (besides actresses) but also a very productive one indeed.[1]

Just two years before kicking off her film career in 1894, the twenty-year-old Mademoiselle Alice Guy had to earn a living for herself and her mother. She started as Léon Gaumont’s secretary at Le Comptoir general de photographie, the famous French camera manufacturer (Gaumont later became head of the company). Ambitious and willing to invest in her work and future, Guy learned not only to be an efficient secretary but observed her environment and noticed how business in the male-dominated world of the late 19th century worked. She was there on 22 March 1895 when the Lumière brothers projected their famous film of workers leaving a factory (see Lumière brothers: “Workers leaving the factory” on Youtube). But Guy was not satisfied. She thought she could do better than this and tell a real story through images and asked her boss Gaumont for permission to shoot a film. He agreed and, at the age of only 23, Guy made her first film: La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy). [2] How did such a young, inexperienced woman get, seemingly, the chance of a lifetime? The most probable answer seems paradoxical: Because film had not yet been viewed as a serious means of storytelling or money-making, and (financial) stakes were low, Gaumont saw no threat in having his secretary trying it out – as long as it would not interfere with her secretarial duties. We do not know whether Guy had envisioned the future development of filmmaking into a serious art form, but she used moving pictures not to advertise products or showcase scientific observations but as an aesthetic object in themselves.

In 1907, Alice Guy married Gaumont employee Herbert Blaché. Taking on his last name signaled a turning point in her life and career. After having worked mainly as a director in France, Blaché and her husband moved to the U.S. where they would establish their own production studio, Solax, in 1910. By then, Madame Blaché was a technically and artistically acclaimed director, owner of a production company and a mother (the couple had a daughter). Four years later, however, her career in the film business would end as abruptly as her marriage. Initially, Herbert Blaché had taken care of sales decisions at Gaumont and continued to do so at Solax. But he also learned how to make films with the help of his wife (who was nine years his senior). Although the couple tried to maintain a private and work life based on equality and collaboration it became more and more difficult for Alice Blaché to ignore her husband’s escapades. His poor business decisions as well as his amorous relationships with American actresses cooled down her love and finally led her to divorce Herbert.[3]

Once again her last name would signal the new turn her life was about to take. In 1922, freshly divorced Mmd Blaché re-adopted her maiden name and becomes Alice Guy Blaché. This is the name that she kept for the rest of her life.[4] She returned to France and tried to restart her abandoned film career. An endeavor that failed: “As Mr. B. [Blaché] himself said, I am old, and people don’t care to take a white-haired woman when there are so many young people unemployed. Besides, after 16 years in America, I am absolutely forgotten, an unknown in France.”[5]  In the end, this exceptional woman’s cosmopolitanism turned out to be a pitfall.

Guy Blaché continued to work as an author of articles and her memoirs until her death in 1968 (at the age of 95!). From early on, her films mirrored the times in which she lived and depicted the challenges women encountered back then. Not all her movies contained (obvious) critical content but she always had an eye and a heart for the stories of ordinary people. It is perhaps more than ironic that Guy Blaché’s own life lends itself to a biopic that could finally bring her back into the minds of today’s audiences and to the most important place of her life: the silver screen. Any takers?

[1] Cf. McMahan, Alison: “Alice Guy Blaché”. In: Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013.

[2] Simon, Joan: The Great Adventure, in: Simon, Joan (ed.): Alice Guy Blaché. Cinema Pioneer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. S.4f

[3] Musser, Charles: “The Wages of Feminism: Alice Guy Blaché and Her Last Feature Films”, in: Simon, Joan (ed.): Alice Guy Blaché. Cinema Pioneer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. S. 84.

[4] Simon, Joan: The Great Adventure, in: Simon, Joan (ed.): Alice Guy Blaché. Cinema Pioneer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. S. 21.

[5] Cit.after: ebd. S.19.

Bibliography and recommended reading

Guy, Alice: Autobiographie d’une pionnière du cinéma (1873 – 1968). Presented by the Association Musidora. Edited by Nicole-Lise Bernheim and Claire Clouzot. Paris: Denoel/Gonthier, 1976.

https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-alice-guy-blache/

Guy Blaché, Alice: The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché. Edited by Anthony Slide. Translated by Roberta and Simone Blaché. Lanham, Md., and London: Scarecrow Press/Filmmakers, no.12, 1996.  

McMahan, Alison: “Alice Guy Blaché”. In: Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia university Libraries, 2013.

McMahan, Alison: Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema. New York and London. Continuum, 2002.

Simon, Joan: The Great Adventure, in: Simon, Joan (ed.): Alice Guy Blaché. Cinema Pioneer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Simon, Joan (ed.): Alice Guy Blaché. Cinema Pioneer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Simon, Joan: “The Great Adventure”, in: Simon, Joan (ed.): Alice Guy Blaché. Cinema Pioneer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. In cooperation with the Whitney Museum of American Art.

 

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