Monday, March 5, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Alice Guy-Blaché

Alice Guy-Blanche : published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.
Alice Guy-Blaché
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Oscars celebrated 90 years last night and featured several notable female nominees, but the film industry and women in film date back much further than 1929. In fact, women have a much richer history in film than most awards shows would have us think.

Starting out as a secretary to French film-industry innovator, Léon Gaumont, Alice Guy-Blaché became probably the first female film director and producer. Barbra Streisand called Guy "a French film pioneer who invented the director's job."

Guy certainly was a pioneer for film as a whole as well as women in film. She practically invented the concept of going on location. She was one of the first people to make narrative fiction films. She made action movies with female protagonists. She even made films with color tinting and used Gaumont's Chronophone, which was an early way to sync sound with moving pictures.

Guy was born in France, lived in Chile for a time, went back to France for school and eventually went to work for Gaumont. It was under his employ that she discovered moving pictures and asked for permission to film her first story, The Cabbage Fairy, on the back patio of Gaumont's studio. Filmmaking came naturally to Guy, and she set to work making new films and creating techniques as she went.

Not long after hiring Herbert Blaché to work as a cameraman, Guy married him. The pair moved to America in 1905. She had created over 1,000 films at that point. Her husband headed up Gaumont's New York office, while Guy became one of the first women to start her own studio. She began producing a film a week and made her husband president of her studio so she could focus on the work. He resigned shortly after this and started a rival studio, but the pair continued to work together.

Guy innovated in all aspects of filmmaking. She cast diverse actors, featured interracial casts, invented many early special effects techniques and coached her actors to present natural, rather than over-the-top, performances. Guy is quoted as saying, “I put signs all around my studio that said 'be natural'—that is all I wanted from my actors.”

She made her last film in 1920 as WWI began to slow the film industry. After she and her husband divorced, she returned to France where she worked primarily as a writer and film lecturer but never made any further movies. She came back to the States with her daughter in 1965 before passing away in 1968. During her later years, Guy worked on a memoir after realizing her contributions to film were not widely known.

Much of Guy's work has been lost, but her impact on film has not gone unnoticed. While she isn't widely known outside of film circles, Guy has been receiving more and more recognition for her many achievements. The Director's Guild of America posthumously gave Guy a lifetime achievement honor in 2011.

While presenting that award, Martin Scorsese said, "It is the hope and intention of the DGA that by presenting this posthumous special directorial award for lifetime achievement, the Guild can both raise awareness of an exceptional director and bring greater recognition to the role of women in film history."

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