Cinema was born with the Lumière Brothers, but little do people know that narrative film began somewhere else. In 1896, whilst the Lumière’s were amazed in recognition of trains and people leaving their work, Alice Guy-Blaché looked at the medium of film and the wider landscape it can bless than just documenting real life. Whilst other early pioneers of the silent era have had statues and monuments commemorating them, Guy-Blaché seems to have been completely forgotten; despite the fact that she developed narrative filmmaking and was the first female filmmaker around.
Her place in movie history has been there since the start, ever since the first screening of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). At the time, she was working as a secretary for a camera manufacturing company but she prospered to have one of the most successful careers of pre-Hollywood film. Her first narrative film, La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) (1896) ran for sixty seconds, comprised of a fairy delivering new-born babies from cabbages. It was the first exploration into the limitless boundaries that storytelling could give. Guy-Blaché would go on to direct over 1,000 films, which of around 150 still survive today. A mixture of short and feature-length film – her work was not bound in scope and was often revolutionary for its time.
The pre-Hollywood era is full of ground-breaking ideas – ones that would later be replicated once it would hit California. A Sticky Woman (1906) and The Glue (1907) would feature similar gimmicks that Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy would perfect in their routines in the 1920s. However, Guy-Blaché didn’t just provide comedy, she also broke new ground with animal actors and set pieces in films like The Race for the Sausage (1907) and provided a feminist voice with The Consequences of Feminism (1906).
Guy-Blaché was the first feminist filmmaker and The Consequences of Feminism provides an insightful look into the treatment of woman in a society that still didn’t give them the right to vote. It’s set in a world where gender roles are swapped between men and women, highlighting the grotesque behaviour of men and the expectations of women – with an iconic image of two men doing housework whilst the wife sits with her feet up smoking a cigar. Her films were focused on female drive, desire and self-determination. She was able to improve upon on her work, and this is evident in later films like Falling Leaves (1912) that focuses on a larger ensemble, with more of a story to them. Her editing, performances and production had improved and continued to do so until she worked no more.
Whilst Guy-Blaché was still alive in the late 1940s, she looked back at her career and found herself absent from historical records of the film industry and was constantly communicating with historians and colleagues to correct false statements on films with which she had worked on and not been credited for. Although her success wouldn’t carry on with the emergence of Hollywood, she was the first woman to run her own studio and did as such whilst pregnant with her second child in 1912. At the time she built a studio in New Jersey and carried working on between one to three films a week.
It wasn’t until the mid-noughties that feminist historians discovered the widely extensive and successful career that Guy-Blaché had in the pre-Hollywood era. Her erasure before this is one of many past cases in female-voices being eradicated or ignored within film. Of the top-grossing 100 films last year, 89.4% of the 113 directors were male, which calculates into a gender ratio of 8.4 males to every 1 female – with only 18% of studio heads being female also. Guy-Blaché should have cinemas named after her, memorials dedicated to her contribution for film history, but it seems the industry around her severely let her down. Guy-Blaché summarised it best when writing about her life – she stated “is it a failure, is it a success? I don’t know.”
Header Image Courtesy of The New York Times. Alice Guy-Blaché on a film set in France in 1906.