Editor’s Note: In honor of Women’s History Month, we are republishing a few of our favorite articles about fascinating women who have been largely overlooked. This story about Alice Guy-Blaché gobsmacked us because her significant contribution to film and culture has been so thoroughly erased. Let’s hope this failure is being corrected now.
Most of us, even movie buffs, think of all the earliest film innovators as being male: The Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison, Georges Méliès (immortalized in Hugo), and D.W. Griffith. But history belongs to those who write it. How else could the story of female cinema pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché have been obscured for so long?
Now, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a new documentary directed by Pamela B. Green, traces the life and accomplishments of this astonishing woman. While doing so, Green unearthed archival footage and historical documentation that challenged the status quo put forth by film academics, furnishing proof that Alice was indeed a mother of cinema.
It is equally the story of the birth of motion pictures, as well as Alice’s life, because the two are intrinsically intertwined. The film takes the viewer on a voyage of discovery, along with Green, as her sleuthing unearths family connections and lost films. Jodi Foster, an executive producer, narrates the film’s story. Through the painstaking research that was done, we learn about and celebrate Alice’s remarkable creative contributions.
Her Office-Worker Roots
Alice Guy was born in France in 1873. When her father died, she had to earn a living to support herself and her mother. Originally, Alice had wanted to act, but her father did not approve. Instead, she learned stenography—a suitable way for an upper-middle class woman to earn a living.
Alice had an ‘a-ha’ moment: She incorporated storytelling into a film.
Alice took a job as a secretary in the Comptoir Général de Photographie, a camera manufacturer. The company would later be headed by Léon Gaumont. It was a time of innovation and discovery in photography, the use of cameras, and the emerging moving picture field. Alice met inventor George Demenÿ and the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis. These men, along with Thomas Edison in the United States, were all striving to develop a camera that could capture and project live action in a commercially viable system. The Lumière brothers would win the race and garner the title of “Fathers of Cinema.”
After attending a demonstration of a simple filmed scenario presented by the Lumières, Alice had an “a-ha” moment: She had the vision of making storytelling an integral part of film, rather than just screening footage. Alice asked Gaumont if she could “shoot some scenes,” testing out the concept. He gave her permission, on the condition that she “didn’t let the mail suffer.” (She didn’t.)
In a 1964 interview, Alice noted, “I knew nothing of photography.” She had to learn absolutely everything.
Trying Her Hand, Finding Her Voice
Proceeding to write, direct, and produce her first film, Alice delivered La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy). It is considered the first “narrative film” ever made. She employed close-ups, synchronized sound, and hand-tinting. Indeed, The Cabbage Fairy was such a success that Gaumont promoted Alice to be the head of production, where she oversaw the demo films used to sell the company’s cameras. She developed what would be termed the “Gaumont house style.” The product was distributed in France and abroad, in both black and white and color versions. At the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Alice won her first award for one of the Gaumont films screened.
Alice created what is considered to be the first ‘narrative film’ ever made.
Gaumont built a studio facility where Alice directed and produced Esmeralda, based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Simultaneously, she purchased scripts, trained writers, and conducted production meetings. She took on a breadth of topics and formats: comedies, chase films, cowboy stories, and musicals. Nothing eluded her creative touch.
In 1906, Alice directed her groundbreaking La Vie du Christ (The Life of Christ), in which over 300 extras, 25 sets, and outdoor locations melded to deliver her singular version based on the Tissot Bible.
Coming to America
The same year, Alice, age 33, became engaged to Herbert Blaché Bolton, 24, another employee at Gaumont. They left for America, and Alice was told, “You have made the Gaumont company bloom.”
The couple arrived at Ellis Island (their paperwork gives their ages as 28 for Herbert and 30 for Alice) and established a studio for Gaumont in Flushing, New York, and their daughter Simone (who’s featured in Be Natural) was born in 1908, when Alice was 35—quite an old mother for that era.
Parenthood didn’t slow her down, as she became the leading female American film director, with her reels featuring singers and vaudeville performers. Both a creative force and a savvy business person, Alice decided to rent part of the Gaumont studio and make her own movies. “I am a woman of activity. I still want to work, and I think I can make money,” she said.
Recruiting a former production designer to join her, Alice founded her own company, which she named Solax. She began with one production a week, then boosted that to three. The company did well, and Alice developed a troupe of actors, the Solax Players. Gaumont agreed to distribute her films outside of America.
By employing the use of special effects, double exposures, and split screen, Alice was constantly developing her own technical and expressive vocabulary. She even used live animals, including rats, for her 1912 film, The Sewer.
In retrospect, it’s noteworthy how prescient Alice was in using the medium to explore and comment on issues that are as prevalent today as they were 100 years ago. In 1912, The Making of an American Citizen dealt with immigration, and The Strike delved into labor conflict. Four years later, Alice would join with social activist Rose Pastor Stokes to co-author the script of Shall the Parents Decide, about Planned Parenthood.
In a prescient move, Alice used film to explore and comment on the social issues of her day.
In her films, women were cast as key dramatic characters, reflecting portrayals of agency and self-empowerment. They were also shown in action roles, doing their own stunts. Her innovation didn’t end there: Perhaps most groundbreaking was her 1912 film, A Fool and His Money, which featured all African American players. When white actors didn’t want to be part of an integrated cast, Alice pushed forward without them. As Ava DuVernay commented, “The film is of its time, but it is historic in nature” because of the all-black presence.
The directing words that Alice lived by were “Be Natural.” She had it painted on a sign in her studio to remind actors that a naturalistic approach was what she was seeking, not artifice.
Top of Her Field
Alice was hugely successful at this point: “There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art,” Alice emphasized.
A dominant figure at the dawn of the movie era, in the first decade of the 1900s, Alice was earning $50,000 to $60,000 per year. Yet, with the economic unrest and the coming of World War I, circumstances changed. Thomas Edison and George Eastman created a trust that closed ranks to filmmakers using the Edison camera without paying a licensing fee. The independent movie-makers pulled up stakes and moved their operations to California.
People don’t want to hire a white-haired woman.
By 1918, the professional and personal partnership Alice shared with Herbert was crumbling. He left the family to move to Hollywood, accompanied by an actress with whom both he and Alice had worked. Alice and her children stayed behind on the East Coast, but between a major fire at Solax and a bad financial move by Herbert, the two were deep in debt.
Eventually, Alice was forced to sell off Solax’s assets and returned to France as a divorced mother of two in 1922. At the time she wrote of her struggles to find work: “People don’t want to hire a white-haired woman.” She sold her possessions, from jewelry to furniture, to keep herself afloat.
By 1932, daughter Simone has replicated the role Alice had once played for her mother—breadwinner. In the documentary, Simone speaks of her mother’s struggle to cement her rightful place in the history of cinema, as well as about their relationship. They lived together for 60 years, and Simone underscored her mother’s “energy, youthfulness, curiosity, and enthusiasm for life.” Despite the fact that she and her brother “were often left with governesses,” and that wasn’t the usual arrangement of the era, Simone said, “For me, she was more than a mother. She was a friend and I owe her the greatest part of happiness left to me.”
Reclaiming Her Rightful Legacy
Repeatedly, whether in a book released by Gaumont about their company history or elsewhere, Alice’s accomplishments were misattributed to her husband or other directors, ignored, and written out of the record. Ironically, her films were referenced in the writings of other prominent directors who admired her, including Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock.
Alice kept pushing to receive her due credit. In the late 1950s, she wrote her memoirs but commented, “Nobody wants to publish them. It just doesn’t interest anyone.”
This movie changes the canon. The gatekeepers changed their opinions (about Alice’s role).
In 1968, she died in New Jersey, where she’d been living for a number of years with her daughter. Her memoirs were published in France in 1976, but a remark of hers was quite accurate about how history regarded her over the past few decades: “There is no merit in being first.”
With Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, perhaps the tide is turning. The film has had premieres in Cannes, New York, and London. NextTribe spoke with director Pamela Green about her almost decade-long journey bringing Alice’s story to the public.
Despite being a member of the motion-picture industry, Green was shocked when she first learned, relatively late in her career, about Alice and her work when watching a program about women in film. How have I never heard about her, she wondered.
Robert Redford, who became an executive producer, was an early encourager. Green had the opportunity to mention Alice to Redford when their paths crossed at Sundance. “What are you going to do about it?” he asked her.
Funding was a major obstacle. Green put the project on Kickstarter, and with the help of recognition from Upworthy, it went viral. “I think the question about women’s role in film touched a nerve,” said Green. “The first woman filmmaker. Just to say the words.”
Green spoke of how the eight-plus years working to make the 103-minute documentary changed her—and film history. She says of the French cinema industry, “They were very chauvinistic. This movie changes the canon. My job was to go back and paint a more accurate picture.” With satisfaction, Green added, “The gatekeepers changed their opinions as I was making it. I converted people who opened their eyes.”
On the relevance of Alice to today’s culture, Green emphasized, “It’s a modern story. It’s a woman in power. She’s married with two kids. Successful, and a lot on her plate.” Of Alice’s former husband Herbert, she says, “He put his name on her stuff. He didn’t have her back.”
With the film released, the next steps for Green include getting a foundation for preserving Alice’s work established and making a DVD set of her American films available. Green sees Alice’s story as an example for women everywhere. The takeaway is, “If you can see her, you can be her.”
Marcia G. Yerman, based in New York City, writes profiles, interviews, essays, and articles focusing on women’s issues, human rights, the environment, politics, culture and the arts. Her work has been published by the New York Times, truthout, AlterNet, The Raw Story, Women News Network, and The Women’s Media Center. Her articles are archived at mgyerman.com. You can find her on Twitter @mgyerman.
All Photos Courtesy of Be Natural Productions.
A version of this story was originally published in May 2019.