March was Women’s History Month which is a great opportunity to learn about the heroines of yesterday who got us where we are today. For example, we wouldn’t have the Marvel or Fast and the Furious cinematic universes without one incredible woman.
In film school I was taught about the industry’s earliest pioneers like Georges Méliès, the Lumière brothers and Edwin S. Porter. However, I recently learned those men had a young contemporary named Alice Guy-Blaché. Not only was she the first female filmmaker, but she was an incredible pioneer in the field. Alice Guy-Blaché worked with color, created one of the first narrative films, and had her own studio. Without Alice, we would have no MTV, since she developed the first music videos.
At the age of 23, Alice Guy-Blaché was a secretary for Léon Gaumont of the Gaumont Film Company. As the company produced photographic equipment, Gaumont and his secretary were present at a Lumière screening of this new motion picture wizardry. It is said that the event inspired Alice to ask Gaumont if she could be allowed to make a film. What followed was a career directing, writing and producing over 700 films. In fact, the Gaumont Film Company became the first film production company in the world with Alice as the studio’s director.
Rather than document everyday life like the Edison films and early Lumière works, Alice wanted to tell a story. Her first picture, The Cabbage Fairy, is arguably the first narrative film ever made. The Lumière brothers first fiction film was screened in December of 1895. Many argue that Alice’s The Cabbage Fairy was in production before this even though it was screened in 1896.
The video essay above from Fandor and Catherine Stratton is a brief look at Alice Guy-Blaché’s amazing story. Like Méliès, she was experimenting with color as early as 1900. Alice was the first to use synchronized sound with film. Léon Gaumont patented a device called the Chronophone that Alice used to make the first music videos. After marrying Herbert Blaché, they moved to New York and started Solax Studios, the largest U.S. film company prior to the Hollywood boom. She directed and Herbert was the production manager. No doubt thanks to her tutelage, Herbert went on to direct films as well. He would eventually direct Buster Keaton in his first feature film as a lead.
Alice Guy-Blaché was also unique because she wanted her actors to behave naturally on camera. In those days, the performers were acustomed to the stage where they had to exaggerate their gestures so that people in the back row could see them. Thus, an upcoming documentary about her life is called Be Natural. The film is being produced by Robert Redford and features Jodi Foster as the narrator. Keep an eye on the film’s website if you’re interested in learning more about the incredibly talented, first woman filmmaker.