It is a great tragedy that French innovator Alice Guy-Blaché has been forgotten by most of the world today despite being the first woman to foray into the male-dominated world of cinema. By every conceivable standard, it is still an extremely impressive fact that Guy-Blaché was the only woman working as a film director in the early years of cinema – ranging from 1896 to 1906. As a tribute to the endless achievements of the first female film director and in order to battle the erasure of female history, we revisit the life and works of the incredible Alice Guy-Blaché as part of Far Out’s Female Representation in the Arts series.
Born in 1873 in France, Alice’s father was the owner of a publishing company in Chile but her family moved to France temporarily due to an epidemic that was taking place in the country at that time. Alice received a formal European education and following her father’s death and, later, she managed to get a job as a stenographer in order to ensure the survival of her family. Slowly but surely, Alice entered the world of photography and visual arts when she began working under the French inventor Léon Gaumont. Starting out as Gaumont’s secretary, Alice gained invaluable experience in the burgeoning film industry before carving out her own path.
Over the course of her remarkable career, Alice Guy-Blaché was involved in the production of more than 1000 films in various capacities. When the Lumière brothers shocked the world with the world’s first film screening in 1895, Alice was present in the audience and she felt that she could improve the film-viewing experience by transforming the visual narratives into fictional stories. By 1896, Alice had already ensured that she would be remembered in the history books for creating one of the first fiction films ever made – The Cabbage Fairy. She observed the influence of her techniques in many films being produced in the early 20th century: “Before very long, every moving picture house in the country was turning out stories instead of spectacles and plots instead of panoramas.”
Therefore, Alice wasn’t just the first female filmmaker but also the first director to envision the potential of cinema as an incredibly effective storytelling medium. Pioneers like the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès have received a lot of attention from film scholars for their visual innovations but many of the same techniques can be found in the early works of Alice Guy-Blaché as well. Her list of achievements is practically endless, including the development of visual effects like double exposure, playing a film in reverse and experiments with masking methods. Alice’s vision of cinema’s power went to such an extent that she was also one of the first filmmakers to figure out the beauty of using audio and images together in order to curate a truly unique experience.
After marrying British filmmaker Herbert Blaché in 1907, Alice and her husband worked in the U.S before deciding to form their film studio called The Solax which would go on to become the largest of its kind in the pre-Hollywood era. Although they were wildly successful for a short period of time, the Hollywood boom soon wiped the studio out. However, the films that Alice produced during The Solax years still stand out as important historical chronicles. Ranging from cinematic critiques of societal oppression to truly masterful comedies, it is a true tragedy that some of these works of art are now lost forever.
In a 1914 edition of the journal The Moving Picture World, Alice Guy-Blaché rightly criticised the systematic erasure of women’s achievements by a patriarchal system: “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 she cannot master every technicality of the art…In the arts of acting, painting, music and literature women have long held their place among the most successful workers, and when it is considered how vitally these arts enter into the production of motion pictures one wonders why the names of scores of women are not found among the most successful creators of photodrama offerings.”
After Alice’s divorce and the bankruptcy of the studio, she made her way back to France where she spent the rest of her life educating others about the wonders of cinema and writing. She was so scared that history would forget her that she kept recording the lists of the films she made so that they would serve as historical documents, knowing first-hand how women’s achievements were swept under the rug with disgusting nonchalance. Thankfully, we are not just aware of the names of the films she made but also of the magnitude of the influence of her experiments. Later innovators like Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock did acknowledge the pioneering efforts of Alice Guy-Blaché but her seminal accomplishments speak for themselves.