Movie explores legacy of 1910s female movie mogul
FORT LEE, N.J. (AP) — Thomas Edison. The Lumiere brothers. Charlie Chaplin.
All of these men were hailed for their roles as film pioneers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
But when Pamela Green asked Hollywood directors, producers and actors about another pillar of silent film, she got a whole lot of blank stares.
The name? Alice Guy-Blache.
Guy-Blache, a native of France, was the first female director in film history. She wrote, produced or directed at least 1,000 films before the 1920s, outpacing Edison along with her French peers, the Lumieres and Georges Melies (“A Trip to the Moon”). Where others saw moving images, she created stories.
The director was one of the first to implement techniques like close-ups, synchronized sound and hand-tinted color. She also became the first woman to head a studio, opening Solax Studios in Fort Lee when the town was the epicenter of American filmmaking, earning the equivalent of more than $1 million per year.
So what happened? Why did Guy-Blache’s name fade as other directors of the silent film era were widely recognized for their work?
Green is the director of “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache,” a documentary that offers an answer to that question.
Narrated by Jodie Foster (who is fluent in French), “Be Natural,” which just opened in New York, was crowdfunded and financed by famous backers such as Foster, Robert Redford and the late Hugh Hefner.
Green works in the film industry creating title sequences and motion graphics and finding stock footage in archives. She first heard of Guy-Blache in 2010. Despite cinephiles and academics arguing to the contrary, she knew that she wasn’t alone in her ignorance of the director.
The project grew out of a conversation she had while working with Redford, founder of the Sundance Film Festival. Green showed him a picture of Guy-Blache and told him she was the first female director.
“He was completely blown away,” she says. “He said, ‘What are you going to do about this?’”
In 2013, Green launched a Kickstarter and the project managed to catch the eye of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (Davis appears in the film).
“Be Natural” draws on the 2002 book “Alice Guy-Blache: Lost Visionary of the Cinema” by Alison McMahan. In order to liven up what can seem like a dusty subject, Green uses whimsical color visuals to conjure Paris in 1895. That was the year Guy-Blache, then Alice Guy, a 22-year-old secretary for a camera company, witnessed the work of Auguste and Louis Lumiere’s Cinematographe, one of the first reliable ways to project motion pictures. The results — simple scenes of people walking around — were revelatory.
Yet at the time, films had no narrative structure. They were slices of life: the crashing of waves at a beach, trains pulling into a station.
Guy-Blache changed that.
In 1896, she directed “The Cabbage Fairy,” hand-cranking the camera on a terrace. The 50-second film was a fairytale in which newborn babies are plucked out of cabbage patches — a kind forerunner to the Cabbage Patch dolls origin story.
“There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art,” Guy-Blache wrote in the trade journal The Moving Picture World. (“Be Natural” also utilizes TV interviews with Guy-Blache from 1957 and 1964.)
She was still a secretary for Gaumont, a Paris company that sold and manufactured cameras, when she asked her boss, Leon Gaumont, if she could film some scenes. Guy-Blache soon emerged as a trailblazer in the development of the Chronophone, a 1902 system for creating synchronized sound in film, producing “phonoscenes” for which actors lip-synced recordings.
Director Amy Adrion, a New Jersey native, interviewed female directors including Ava DuVernay to examine the problem of representation in Hollywood. #MeToo and Time’s Up movements may highlight the issue, but of 1,114 directors of the top-grossing films of the last 10 years, only 45 were women.
Among Guy-Blache’s early work was the 1906 comedy “The Sticky Woman,” in which a man kisses a woman who has been licking stamps and gets stuck to her. In “The Consequences of Feminism,” a film from the same year, men and women swap roles. Also in 1906, Guy-Blache directed “The Life of Christ,” which she considered her largest film produced in France.
The next year, Guy-Blache moved to Flushing, Queens, with her husband, Herbert Blache-Bolton, her colleague at Gaumont Studio, who had been tasked with opening an American outpost of Gaumont. A few years later, they would open Alice’s studio, Solax, where she presided over every aspect of filmmaking, directing movies for the American audience that were distributed internationally.
“Be Natural” takes its title from Guy-Blache’s guidance to her actors, known as the Solax Players. The two words were always visible on a sign in her Fort Lee studio, posted right above the stage.
“It’s all I asked of them,” the director said in her 1964 interview.
Guy-Blache certainly fit the mogul mold. At the height of Solax, she had 150 employees and was producing three films every week, making (according to an article Green cites from the New York Dramatic Mirror) $50,000 to $60,000 per year as head of the studio, which would be as much as $1.5 million today.
Green traveled to Fort Lee, Arizona and beyond in search of artifacts from Guy-Blache’s life.
“We needed the detective story to kind of be the lead to show that we could find new things, even though it was 100 years ago, even though I was discouraged by many historians and professors saying I wasn’t going to find anything,” Green says.
“Women weren’t documented or recorded,” she says. “That’s what we’re doing. That’s the work.”
Guy-Blache’s example changed everything for Green’s own career, dominated by meetings with a long line of male directors.
“I think it’s a dent,” she says. “I think this is definitely part of the Time’s Up movement.”
In Fort Lee, Solax occupied a space on Lemoine Avenue north of the George Washington Bridge, the current location of an Acme supermarket next to Fort Lee High School. A marker stands in memory of the studio. Tom Meyers, executive director of the Fort Lee Film Commission, provided archival material to Green and appears in the film.
“By 1915, we had 17 major film studios in Fort Lee,” Meyers says, including Paramount, Fox and World Pictures. “Most people in Fort Lee were employed by the film industry.” Directors could film a rural-looking scene, a Western in a field or an action scene on the cliffs overlooking the Hudson River (hence the term “cliffhanger”).
Later, the studios left Fort Lee, in part because of World War I and the difficulties of filming during the winter (the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce lured them with fair weather and land). But there was another problem. Thomas Edison, founder of West Orange’s Black Maria, the first film studio, hobbled filmmakers when he started a trust with George Eastman that charged licensing fees for the use of Edison cameras and Eastman Kodak film.
Solax faltered and the Blaches split when Herbert had an affair and moved to Los Angeles. Alice moved there, too, but ended up returning to France. Herbert did not pay alimony and she was left to raise their children alone. In the 1920s, he directed Hollywood films, but Alice could not regain her footing as a director in France, where she had once made major waves in technology and technique.
It didn’t take long for Guy-Blache’s name to be obscured in the memory of cinema, even among those who were considered experts.
“They were like, ‘Oh, you know, she was a little old lady that made films’ instead of ‘no, this was a trailblazer, pioneer, entrepreneur and creator that is partially responsible for the grammar of cinema that we know today,’” Green says.
By the 1930s, Guy-Blache watched as others nearly erased her accomplishments. Other women who followed her were erroneously named the first female film director (Lois Weber was the first American female director). When articles and histories were written about Gaumont Studio, Guy-Blache was omitted, even as Leon Gaumont called her one of his most important collaborators.
“She felt like she was an impostor,” Green says, because of the way she was treated. To add insult to injury, the prominent French film historian Georges Sadoul wrote a book on the history of film that mentioned Guy-Blache, but credited men — including her assistant director and an actor — with directing several of her films, including “The Cabbage Fairy” and “The Life of Christ.”
But more than a century later, the proof was on film. Two weeks before Green had to deliver “Be Natural” to the Cannes Film Festival in Guy-Blache’s native France, an archive called her about photos from Blache’s film “Life of Christ.” With the support of her backers, Green paid for the images. She ended up striking gold. Plain as day, the photos showed Guy-Blache directing the film. Green splashed one of the images across the “Be Natural” poster.
At Cannes, the documentary ended up getting a standing ovation.
“They went nuts, people were crying. I was in complete shock,” Green says, overjoyed to help restore the director to glory in her home country.
Of the approximately 1,000 films that Guy-Blache worked on, about 130 had been located by the time Green started work on the documentary, many in film archives. One of Guy-Blache’s biggest problems in salvaging her own story was figuring out the location of her work. Decomposition and the use of old materials like nitrate film makes the search even more difficult.
“When she made the films, they were distributed and never came back, necessarily, to home base,” Green says. “They’re found in different places around the world.”
At the time of Guy-Blache’s death in 1968, when she was 94, she had located just four of her American films.
“It’s close to 150 now,” Green says. “We have to keep looking.”
Guy-Blache returned to New Jersey at the end of her life, living in Wayne. She struggled to find a home for her memoir, but it was published posthumously. Now, Green and others are trying to ensure her story endures.
On the director’s birthday (July 1) each year, Meyers brings flowers and Champagne to her grave at Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah. Next year, Fort Lee is set to open the Barrymore Film Center, a 260-seat theater that will pay homage to Solax, among other local studios of the era. Meyers says Guy-Blache will get a star on a walk of fame, and he expects to organize a film festival dedicated to the director.
Green considers “Be Natural” to be her love letter to Guy-Blache, one that can raise new questions.
“I’m just the messenger,” she says. “It’s her story. I’m just fulfilling the last chapter for her that she didn’t get to fulfill, which was get her films and restore her legacy. I just finished the job for her.”
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache” is playing at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.) in New York.
Information from: NJ Advance Media.