The Forgotten Revolutionary Filmmaker Whose Name Was Replaced by Her Husband's
In 1896, Alice Guy wrote, produced, and directed the first narrative fiction film. She went on make countless other advances in cinematography throughout her short career, but only her male colleagues are heralded as "fathers of modern cinema."
Herbert Blaché and Alice Guy-Blaché. Image via Wikimedia Commons
In the world's first motion picture, Louis Le Prince's 1888 "Roundhay Garden Scene," four people circle around a garden for an entire two seconds. In Auguste and Louis Lumière's 1895 films "Sortie de l'usine Lumière de Lyon" and "L'Arroseur arrosé," workers file out of a factory and two men squabble over a hose, respectively. And in Alice Guy's 1896 minute-long film "La fée aux choux," which she wrote, directed, and produced herself, a fairy prances around a garden of cabbages, magically birthing human babies out of the brassicas, plucking them from the foliage, and laying them in a pile before striking a graceful tendu arabesque in her floor-length dress—the world's first narrative fiction film.
There is no sound, but if that cabbage fairy could talk, she would finish the film with a self-assured merci.
As the years passed and film advanced, these pioneers would die and in turn become memorialized. Louis Le Prince came to be known as "the father of cinematography"; the Lumière brothers, "the founding fathers of modern film."
But seeing as Guy wasn't biologically fit to be a father, she didn't come away with such a grandiose epithet. Perhaps most appropriate for her would be "the first forgotten female filmmaker."
"I had to invent Alice Guy before I could find her," Alison McMahan writes in her biography Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema.
Born in Paris on July 1, 1873, Guy spent the first four years of her life with her grandmother in Switzerland—her French mother, at the time living with Guy's father in Chile, wanted her daughter to be born in France and therefore traveled home for her delivery. At age four, Guy moved to Santiago and met her father for the first time, who then moved her back to France just two years later to attend the convent where three of her older sisters had been living. And then came hardship.
When her father's bookstore chain went bankrupt five years after she started school, Guy was forced into a cheaper boarding school. She then watched her older sisters marry off. Next went to funerals back-to-back for her older brother and father. Eventually, she became a secretary for a company that sold varnishing products, where she was sexually harassed.
In 1895, life became a little less horrible. Working as the secretary for film industry pioneer Léon Gaumont, Guy was present when inventor Georges Demenÿ visited Gaumont's studio to demonstrate his revolutionary phonoscope and biographe, a 60-millimeter motion picture camera, and offered Gaumont patents for them. Soon after, the duo witnessed the Lumière brothers showing off a film they had made with their cinematogrape, a 35-millimeter motion picture camera. Afterward, Guy decided to take a chance: She asked Gaumont if she could use his Bioscope (what Gaumont had renamed the biographe) to direct a film.
He said yes, and later that year, Guy birthed her baby-making cabbage fairy.
Aware of Guy's talent, Gaumont made her head of production at his studios, a position she held until 1907 and during which she made over 100 films. That year, she married Herbert Blaché, a manager at Gaumont, and moved to America. In Flushing, Queens, she started Solax Studios in 1910 while raising two children, producing two films a week, and writing and directing at least half of them (a rate of production that equaled that of D.W. Griffith, the "inventor of Hollywood.") She was no longer simply be the first female film director—she was also the first female film studio owner.
Guy wasn't in the business of collecting firsts, as she wasn't getting recognition (and, disclaimer: never would). She instead prioritized subverting social constructs and taboos, writing films that treated gender conventions as a social structure and then deconstructed them. While playwrights had employed cross-dressing since Shakespeare's time, Guy was one of the first (if not the first) to dress women in men's clothes to emphasize male privilege.
"What stands out in her films of crossdressing...is the preoccupation with female agency, the connection between agency and gender construction, and the obstacles facing the development of female agency in a patriarchal society," McMahan writes. "Almost all of her films are addressed directly to women with the message 'you too can do more—here's how'."
Beyond crossdressing, Guy analyzed gender performance as it related to behavior. Nearly 50 years before psychologist John Money coined the term "gender role" in 1955, she reversed them in the gender-bending "Les résultats du féminisme," characterizing women as masculine and men as feminine in a short six minutes. The title of the film translates to The Consequences of Feminism, and in Guy's interpretation, that meant a world in which women flourished in traditionally male roles while men writhed under oppression. Six years later, her science fiction film "In the Year 2000" imagines a fantastical world in which women rule men.
At the height of her career, Guy would fall, and so would begin her erasure. In 1914, her husband started his own film company, Blaché Features, moving into Solax's studio and encroaching on Guy's workspace. The two companies quickly became synonymous, with Blaché putting his name above Guy's in dealings with the public. In less than half a year, he convinced Guy to fold Solax. Between 1915 and 1918, Guy directed 13 feature films (five of them starring Madame Olga Petrova, a major actress at the time), but the day-to-day wasn't simple. Guy found herself moving around the US. and Canada in an attempt to raise her children in healthier environments. Blaché—her husband, remember—was too busy making mediocre films to travel alongside her.
In 1920, author Carolyn Lowrey published The First One Hundred Noted Men and Women of the Screen and dedicated a page to Herbert Blaché's legacy, making no mention of Guy. Lowrey did so kindly mention a few of her films—she just falsely credited them to Blaché. He, at the time, was off fucking a younger actress in Los Angeles while Guy was living in North Carolina.
Two years later, Guy finally divorced her husband and moved to France, living there for five years. It was just long enough for her to realize there was no longer a place for her there; she, yet again, moved to New York. But she wouldn't find success there, either. She visited the Library of Congress in 1927 in search of copies of her films and found none—the forgetting had already begun. She spent the next 45 years living off her daughter, giving the occasional talk to college students, helping out other directors and screenwriters, and forever searching for her lost films.
Before her death, her erasure would be memorialized. In 1954, Louis Gaumont, the son of Léon Gaumont, delivered a speech in Paris on Guy, "the first woman filmmaker" and one who "[had] been unjustly forgotten." A few years later, she was honored at a Cinémathèque Française ceremony; it went uncovered by the press. In 1968, Guy died in a New Jersey nursing home at 95 years old, more than 48 years since she had last directed a film, already remembered as having been forgotten.
When Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman premiered Jeanne Dielman, a nearly four-hour-long film that follows a woman as she makes dinner for her son, brushes her hair, goes grocery shopping—what it meant to be a woman at that time—the journalist Louis Marcorelles called it "undoubtedly the first masterpiece in the feminine in the history of cinema." The year was 1976, 80 years after Guy made the "La fée aux choux." To discredit Akerman as a genius would be amiss, but to consider the (albeit brilliant) film Jeanne Dielman the first masterpiece of feminine cinema would also be misguided.
To this day, many film historians credit Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith, Thomas Edison, and the Lumière Brothers, among others, as pioneers of the cinema; Ephraim Katz, a film scholar and author of The Film Encyclopedia, was one of the few who even mentioned Guy. In 1980, Henri Langlois published the article "French Cinema: Origins," which mentioned George Méliès, Ferdinand Zecca, and even Guy's assistant Victorin Jasset, but he listed Guy's films and forgot to include her name. Save for a few films surviving in the National Archives in DC, the Gaumont Archives, and the Cinematheque Française, more than 95 percent of Guy's work has been lost or destroyed. And while some of this can be blamed on nitrate decomposition of the actual film, the ultimate problem is sexism, which prevented her from becoming a part of film history in the first place.
While Guy would eventually go on to earn the title of the first forgotten female film pioneer, she would not be the last. Immediately following Guy would come the Austrian Luise Veltée (1873–1950), the second ever female feature film director in the world, and Lois Weber (1879–1939), the first American female film director (who actually got her start in one of Blaché's films). Shortly after would come Marion Wong (1895–1969), the first Chinese–American director (male or female); Dorothy Arzner (1897–1979), one of the first female directors in Hollywood; Tazuko Sakane (1904–1975), Japan's first female director; and Julie Dash (b. 1952), the first African–American woman to direct a full-length feature film with general theatrical release in the United States.
Historians today ask why—why were these women forgotten? In Women Screenwriters: An International Guide, Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo write that filmmaker Ester Krumbachová of Czech New Wave, whose looks were of more interest to her male counterparts than her work, was written out of history "because of the lack of a specifically feminist and gender-sensitive discourse, in both historical and contemporary accounts of women in communist Czechoslovak film." In Man in Disorder: The Cinema of Lina Wertmüller in the 1970s, Grace Russo Bullaro ponders Lina Wertmüller, the first woman nominated for an Academy Award in direction for her Italian film Seven Beauties: "Why was she so phenomenally popular one moment and so forgotten the next?"
When Marcorelles wrote about Akerman, he clarified what had been unsaid—that film had not only forgotten Guy, but it had also forgotten the countless women who, in one way or another, revolutionized female filmmaking in their countries and around the world.
But one must remember that being forgotten doesn't have to constitute an end point.
The lack of recognition for female directors and actresses in American film award shows is no new thing. In the past 86 years, only four women have been nominated for an Oscar for best director; only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won. None of these women have been of color. Earlier this month, the Hollywood Reporter decided it would host an Oscar roundtable, ostensibly inviting who they believed to be the six most influential directors from 2015. Down sat Quentin Tarantino, Tom Hooper, Alejandro G. Iñarritu, Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle, and David O. Russell. Six cisgender men, five of them white.
While their lack of female recognition is inexcusable, to equate prestige with awards is inherently illogical when 94 percent of Oscar voters are white, and 76 percent of those are men at the average age of 63 years old. Instead, what is a productive action is remembering women before the awards, by way of critics and writers covering more films made by women and people of color, journalists being more critical of the film industry, and theaters hosting more retrospectives on past female filmmakers who weren't acknowledged during their lifetimes.
Acknowledging future female filmmakers starts with remembering those past, reminding ourselves that women have always been behind the camera—often doing things that had never yet been done. To say the film world is male-dominated is like considering quantity superior to quality. According to a study done by the New York Film Academy, there are five times as many men making films as there are women. These men are getting more coverage, yes, and they're going home with golden men and globes at American film awards, the world's gaudiest white man's circlejerks. But there is no lack of female talent.
In Asia, there's Samira Makhmalbaf, Haifaa al-Mansour, Ann Hui; in Europe, Claire Denis, Celine Sciamma, Lone Scherfig; in North America, Dee Rees, Joan Chen, Jehane Noujaim, Sofia Coppola, Ava DuVernay. The list does not end. Every day, a new woman picks up a camera. Every day, a new woman does something for the first time.
"There is no doubt in my mind that a woman's success...is still made very difficult by a strong prejudice against one of her sex doing work that has been done only by men for hundreds of years," Guy wrote. "...of all the arts there is probably none in which [women] can make such a splendid use of talents so much more natural to a woman than to a man [as in film]."