GO ASK ALICE
The First Woman Behind a Camera, Now Forgotten- by Adrienne Vogt
She wrote, directed, or produced more than 1,000 films. At age 23, she was one of the first filmmakers to make a narrative movie. She pioneered the technology of syncing sound to film. She created the first film with an all African-American cast. And she was the first woman to build and run a film studio.
Any idea who she is?
If not, you’re far from alone. A majority of people—even Hollywood directors, actors, and producers—have never heard of her.
Alice Guy-Blaché was the world’s first female director. She was one of the most innovative moviemakers of her time—doubly remarkable because she was a woman who succeeded in a solidly all-male world. But Guy-Blaché remains forgotten by many in the movie industry. Filmmaker Pamela Green wants to change all that. Her movie in the making, Be Natural, is a product of nearly two years of research on Guy-Blaché’s life and legacy. The movie is supported by a host of Hollywood bigwigs, including Robert Redford as executive producer and Jodie Foster as narrator, plus Catherine Hardwicke, Jon Chu, Julie Delpy, Cheryl Hines, Sir Ben Kingsley, and Marc Wanamaker.
But Green, along with her co-director Jarik van Sluijs, are far from finished with their research—which is why they created a Kickstarter to fund the project. Donations are accepted only until August 27, and they’ve reached only a fraction of their goal so far.
Arguably, Guy-Blaché changed the format of filmmaking forever. “We think of her as like a Mark Zuckerberg,” Green says. “The technology was there, but she took it further by figuring out a way to connect with the audience through her storytelling.”
She was active in France from 1896 to 1907 and in the United States from 1910 to 1922, Green says. And by utilizing a narrative technique, Guy-Blaché was able to accomplish something completely unique for the time.
“She understood that telling a narrative story in film was going to require following the perspective of a singular character, and it took a good 10 years for other filmmakers to figure out exactly what she did,” Alison McMahan, a filmmaker and film scholar, says in one of the movie’s Kickstarter videos.
Guy-Blaché’s narrative roots probably started as a child, Green says, because she grew up as the daughter of a bookseller. She became a secretary to Leon Gaumont, of France's Gaumont Studios, where she witnessed demonstrations of the 60mm and 35mm cameras. She asked Gaumont if she could experiment with the new technology.
It was a perfect fit. “[Guy-Blaché] sees a box as an opportunity to tell stories, and she asked her boss for permission if she can go film something … She went out there and did it. And they told her, ‘Oh, this is a silly girlish thing, but go ahead.’ She didn’t stop,” Green says.
In 1896, The Cabbage Fairy (La Fée aux choux) became Guy-Blaché’s first film. That first foray led to hundreds of short films for Gaumont Studios, where she was eventually made head of production. When Gaumont relocated her husband and cameraman Herbert Blaché to New York in 1907, she opened her own studio, Solax, which was located first in Flushing, Queens, and then in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Solax released two or three films every week—and Guy-Blaché directed most of them herself. Even Alfred Hitchcock was a fan. She was so ahead of her time, Green says, that she even made a movie called In The Year 2000, When Women Are in Charge. By the time of her death in 1968, she had produced more than 1,000 films. However, due to distribution and wear-and-tear of old film, she knew the whereabouts of only three of her movies, according to Green. Now, about 150 of her films have been found.
Guy-Blaché received France's Legion of Honor in 1953 and Director’s Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, so why isn't Guy-Blaché more of a household name in Hollywood? That is one of the questions that Green is investigating. She says there are numerous reasons for Guy-Blaché’s near erasure from history: “History is written by men … The role of the director wasn’t really defined back then … and she was a woman—that’s automatic.”
The film’s title, Be Natural, reflects what Guy-Blaché told her actors when directing them—to “act natural,” which was dramatic for the time. She even had signs with the mantra in Solax studios, Green says.
Despite the 100-year difference, Green and van Sluijs, who started PIC Agency in Hollywood, think they have much in common with Guy-Blaché. “We built this company from scratch, and that’s why we respect Alice, because she went ahead and built a company from scratch. It’s very hard to stay in business—it was hard for her then; it’s hard for us now,” Green says.
When asked how she nabbed big names like Redford and Foster to support Be Natural, Green says, “How did Alice do it? You go out there and you ask people.”
Green wants Be Natural not only to pay homage to Guy-Blaché and her work, but also to be an inspiration for future generations of filmmakers. Green says the movie, which will have both 2-D and 3-D CGI renderings of early 20th-century locations and technologies, will fully immerse viewers into Guy-Blaché’s world.
“This story is not only an amazing example for women, it’s an amazing example for an entrepreneur, and it’s a great way to get a grasp of what really went on in cinema from a modern perspective—not just some boring history lesson,” Green says. “We want people to be emotional as well and experience the beginnings through this woman’s eyes and see the future … through going back in time and standing next to her.”