Most people don’t know about the woman who made some of the greatest contributions to film. This woman was responsible for developing filming techniques like deep focus, music videos, blurring the lines of gender, and last but not least, narrative film. Born July 1st, 1873 in Paris, France, Alice Guy-Blaché was a pioneer of both French and American film. She first started out as a secretary to Leon Gaumont, who allowed her to use his manufactured motion-picture camera to make her first moving picture, “The Cabbage Fairy,” in 1896. This one minute film is considered to be narrative,and hence “preceded the story films of Georges Méliès’ invention of narrative film. Just another example of a man taking credit for a woman’s work, which in layman's terms was “the story of Alice’s life” (The Lost Garden).
Alice was constantly experimenting with film and narrative. However, because of her gender, she was able to bend the rules of societal norms, which guaranteed her the ability to make any kinds of films she wanted because everyone patronized her and blamed her avant-garde take on defying heteronormativity and patriarchy as “innocence.” Unfortunately,the freedom she had in including these images came with a price because of her success in the obvious manipulation of gender in her movies, she was ‘essentially forgotten by a society that was not ready to accept women as equals.’ She was was forgotten, and basically written out of film history for her futuristic ideologies that objected to patriarchy and misogyny. Her cinematic techniques not only included her views of society and it’s discrimination, but the influences of her Victorian childhood as well as a reflection of her own life. From her film At “The Floral Ball” (1900) to The Results of Feminism (1906), ‘Guy’s use of cross-dressing and blurring gender roles expressed her societal observations and her struggle to gain credit and notoriety in a patriarchal business that was not ready to accept women as equals to men’ (McMahan, 11)
While gaining notoriety under Gaumont, in 1910 she opened her own production studio and called it Solax. Her company eventually grew to become the largest film studio in the United States. By 1912, she was probably the highest paid woman in America, making a whopping twenty-five thousand dollars a year, and as head of her own production studio. Alice, however, had trouble getting credit for her work, which caused her burial into the film records.While she struggled to fit in an industry that repudiated her existence, Alan Williams, author of “Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking”, claims that “Guy’s absence from many film histories is directly related to the fact that she was a woman (The Lost Garden).
After many years of producing and directing, she took some time off to have a family and temporarily passed the reigns to her husband, Herbert. Alice didn’t doubt her capabilities to lead the working mom lifestyle . However, she agreed to give up control of her studio temporarily because the board of Solax feared that conglomerations wouldn’t invest in her company on account that she’s a woman on the verge of motherhood -- something still seen in today’s society. Unfortunately, Herbert did not possess Alice’s finesse in running a studio, eventually leading it to it's demise (Indiscreet Questions).
Aforementioned, Alice’s films were feminist and her ideas were resisted by the society that she lived in. She portrayed the reality of sexism in her time by creating strong female leads. While these female characters were sometimes exaggerated, they remained a symbol for what she observed of the oppressive world that she lived in: the objectification of women by their male counterparts.
While heteronormativity monopolized the early 20th century societal norms, Alice ‘did not adhere to the traditional view of “manhood”’ as shown in her films. For instance, she would switch the roles of men and women , sometimes even ‘removed gender lines completely through her cross dressing.’ She made women aggressive, and men effeminate in her movies, challenging the society that she lives pushing them to give women a more egalitarian role. Examples of cross dressing in her movies would include “At The Floral Ball” (1900) where women are dressed as soldiers, and“The Glue” (1907) where two men are dressed as woman groveling on their knees and hands. The most famous of her gender flexible films is “The Consequences of Feminism” (1906), which was later edited and renamed “In the Year 2000” (1912). Not only were men wearing heavy make-up and participated as stay at home fathers, but men were also ‘objects of women’s unwanted advances,’ while the women would go have a drink at the pub with their friends and would not be bothered with housework. She quickly became one of the only film producers to use costume alteration to represent the blurred gender lines as commonly as she did (McMahan, 25).
Alice directed over 1,000 films yet only a small fraction of these films remain. Many critics consider her to be ahead of her time. This is because when she experimented with film and sound, she made audible films by making the actors lip sync their lines, then record their voices to sync with the picture, way before the development of the “talkies”(Le Cinema Premier: Alice Guy). She was also responsible for the first blockbuster film in the world, “The Birth, Life and Death of Christ” (1906), a film that her assistant ,Jace,took credit for (Slide, 117). This film has techniques that according to the history books were developed much later. The film was 35 minutes, and consisted of multiple acts. Her perfectionist persona made her use over 300 extras. Her dedication to the reality of the narrative caused her stress the importance of costuming and set design. Furthermore, she developed the use of shadow and light to distinguish between both fore and background, a step towards deep focus, a technique credited to D.W Griffith, years after she used it.
For a woman living during such an oppressive time period, Alice was a pioneer and a survivor. Not only did she deal with the criticisms of society, but she also dealt with the misogyny of her public and her colleagues. She was a warrior against the zeitgeist of patriarchal dominance. While men took credit for her work and denied Alice the satisfaction of having her name remembered for her accomplishments, her accomplishments will no longer go unnoticed. In 1953 in France, she was awarded the Legion of Honor for pioneering work in film. Before she died, she wrote an autobiography about her life in the film industry which was published by her daughter Simone after her death on March 24th, 1968. Women like Alice should not be forgotten. They should be remembered and given credit for their contributions. Women like Alice inspire women like me to reach out for my dreams in a world of impossibility. Thank you, Alice. You are an inspiration to us all.