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Documentary Explores Pioneering Woman Director Written Out of Film History

Alice Guy-Blaché directed more than 1,000 films including the world’s first narrative film, but was expunged from the story of cinema

(Zeitgeist Films)
smithsonian.com

Alice Guy-Blaché, the director of approximately 1,000 early films, is believed to have made the world's first narrative movie. But unless you’re a film scholar, you’ve likely never heard her story, which has been systematically excluded from film history. Now, a new documentary is bringing her life and accomplishments as an early film mogul back into the limelight.

Sarah Cascone at artnet News reports that the documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, follows director Pamela B. Green across the U.S. as she tracks down Guy-Blaché’s living relatives and fills in the missing pieces of her life.

Born Alice Guy in a suburb of Paris, she began working at a camera and photography supply company store fresh out of stenography school in 1894. As luck would have it, that store was ultimately sold and renamed Gaumont, after one of its owners, Léon Gaumont, a movie industry pioneer, and would go on to become the world’s oldest continuously running film studio. Suddenly, the young stenographer found herself in the heart of the burgeoning film industry, attending a private screening of “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory,” a 46-second film by the Lumiere Brothers, which is considered by many to be first motion picture.

She immediately saw the story-telling potential of the medium. She secured permission from Léon Gaumont to produce her own film in 1896 during her lunch breaks, writing and directing “La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy),” a one-minute long fairytale showing how babies are born. The work is considered the first narrative film (the 1896 version is now lost, but she made two more versions, a one-minute recreation in 1900 and a four-minute version in 1902). Soon, she was promoted to Gaumont’s head of production, and went on to direct hundreds of films for the company over the next decade.

By 1910, she’d established her own studio, the Solax Company, in Queens, New York, where she moved from France with her new husband, cameraman Herbert Blaché. Two years into production, the studio had grown so large that she relocated it to a state-of-the-art facility in Fort Lee, News Jersey, the Hollywood of its day. At Solax, the Encyclopedia Brittanica notes, she directed 40 to 50 films and supervised at least 300 others. She posted a large sign in her studio that urged actors to “Be Natural,” an acting maxim that holds up today. Among her credits, Scott Tobias at NPR reports, she was one of the first directors to experiment with synchronized sound and color tinting. She also is believed to have directed the first film with an all African-American cast.

But the changing industry took its toll. As short films were being replaced by features, Guy-Blaché established a new company, Blaché Features, with her husband, and the two took turns directing and producing the films. In the late teens, however, the company was forced out of business. Her marriage also fell apart. After she survived an almost fatal bout of the Spanish Flu, she continued in the industry, working briefly for some larger film companies. But by 1922, when she moved back to France with her two children, she found the film industry no longer had a place for a female director, even one with a resume that included some 1,000 films.

Even worse, over time, she realized that academics and film historians had begun cutting her out of history. The significance of many films she directed was ignored or the work was credited to her male assistants or husband. Even Gaumont, the studio where she got her start, left her out of its official history.

Over the decades, Guy-Blaché pushed back, trying to reclaim her contributions to cinema history, but with little luck. When she died in 1968 at the age of 94 in a nursing home in New Jersey, she had found just four of her American films.

The forgotten mogul laid out her story in a memoir she wrote in the 1940s. It was published, posthumously, in France in 1976, with the help of her daughter, Simone, her daughter-in-law Roberta Blaché, and film writer Anthony Slide. But it wasn't until the last two decades that her story has reemerged in several well-researched biographies and a previous documentary. There’s even a novel based on her life.

Scott Tobias at NPR reports that the new documentary tries to take things further, connecting the director’s life and work to contemporary cinema with Hollywood notables like Smithsonian Ingenuity Award winner Ava DuVernay and Diablo Cody commenting on the way she influenced Hollywood. It’s also something of a detective story, uncovering how and why Guy-Blaché was pushed out of cinema history.

It's hard to know exactly how her directing choices and style may have influenced the early development of cinema. Currently, because of the nature of early celluloid film, only a small sample of the films she made still exist, mostly housed in film archives. A very small selection are available for streaming online.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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