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In a series for the first day of each month, Hyperallergic is exploring some firsts in art, from the earliest known depictions of things to pioneers in the visual fields.
“There is no doubt in my mind that a woman’s success in many lines of endeavor 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,” filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché wrote in a 1914 article for Moving Picture World. She adds 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 why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art.”
Over a century later, there is still a major lack of support for women in the directing, writing, and producing of cinema. Guy-Blaché is recognized as the first woman filmmaker, having made around 1,000 films. Just over 100 survive, and even before her death in 1968, she could sense her legacy fading. Unable to find her films at the Library of Congress, or to get work after her divorce from Herbert Blaché (to whom some of her films were erroneously credited), her career effectively ended in the late 1920s. Even receiving France’s Légion d’Honneur award in 1953 did not revive her reputation.
But her name should be heralded alongside early filmmakers like Georges Méliès and Auguste and Louis Lumière. She was one of the first filmmakers — some argue the first — to work with fictional narratives, beginning with her 1896 La Fée aux Choux in which babies are born from cabbages with the help of a fairy. It’s not even a minute long, but as Open Culture points out, it came out only a year after the first film screening by the Lumière Brothers, who were still focused on “actualités” that were more documentary than fiction.
Born in France in 1873, she got her start at Léon Gaumont’s Gaumont Studios, beginning as a secretary and, by the age of 23, she was making her own films. After she married Herbert Blaché, they moved to the United States in 1907, founding Solax Studios three years later. Looking back on her films, mostly shot straight on like plays, it can be hard to appreciate her innovation, but by using hand-tinted color, synchronized sound, and multi-reels for features like the epic 1906 The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ, they represented the cutting edge of early film. And the subjects were broad, with comedies, dramas, westerns, literary adaptations, and dance films, often featuring surprisingly progressive themes.
TCM notes that her 1912 Algie, the Miner, which follows an “effete city boy” who goes west to “develop some virility before he can have the hand of his girlfriend” is an emotionally complex story that could be interpreted as a gay romance as he ends up charming a tough cowboy. The 1912 Making an American Citizen follows an immigrant couple who become “Americanized” through finding equality in their marriage, and the 1912 A Fool and His Money featured an all African American cast. As Amanda Arnold notes in an article for Broadly, the 1912 science fiction film In the Year 2000 considers a future world that is a matriarchy. (Did Guy-Blaché sleep in 1912?)
The retrieval of her name from obscurity has been slow, but in 2009, the Whitney Museum of American Art organized the first retrospective of her films, accompanied by a catalogue on her career. It followed the 2002 book Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alison McMahan (who has her ongoing research on a dedicated site). Currently, a film called Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is also being developed. And while her simple grave marker in New Jersey’s Mayrest Cemetery once only had her name, in 2012 a new tombstone was unveiled with this engraved text: “First Woman Motion Picture Director. First Woman Studio Head.”