The Women Directors of Silent Cinema

The forgotten legacy of Alice Guy-Blaché

Film

 

In examining the current atmosphere of the entertainment industry, specifically the push to get more women behind the camera, it’s important to look backward as well as forward. The upcoming documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, directed by Pamela Green, explores the forgotten legacy of filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché, a director and studio head during the silent era. Having worked in film production for more ten years as a title designer and graphics producer, Green felt compelled to tell the story of the pioneering filmmaker as almost no one in the industry was aware of her.

 

In this climate of women speaking up and out, demanding real equality and respect across industries, it’s the perfect time for figures such as Guy-Blaché to be brought to light. As a serendipitous accompaniment to Green’s documentary, Netflix has added seventeen silent films by women, in a collection called “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers,” which includes films by Guy-Blaché along with other obscured directors.

 

In Be Natural, actress and director Jodie Foster narrates as Green takes viewers through Guy-Blaché’s history and then on a mission to find lost films, footage, and memorabilia. Guy-Blaché began her career in Paris in 1894 as a secretary and then director for Gaumont Pictures. She was possibly the first person to create a narrative film, The Cabbage Fairy (1896), and eventually became Head of Production, traveling around the world directing films. She and her husband, Herbert Blaché, moved to the U.S. in 1908 and started Solax Studios, where she produced and directed hundreds of films over two decades, first in Flushing, New York then in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the headquarters of many early American studios.

 

Alice Guy-Blaché Wikimedia Commons

The documentary’s title comes from a giant sign that hung in the Solax studio—a reminder to the actors to “be natural.” This might seem appropriate for today’s acting style, however, in the silent era actors were expected to be theatrical, using big gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. Guy-Blaché, apparently, had other ideas of what film acting could be and how to tell a story. Indeed, in addition to being the first director to develop narrative feature films and the first woman to head a film studio, she experimented with sound, color, special effects, made one of the first big budget epics for Gaumont, (The Life of Christ, 1906), and helmed what may have been the first film with an African-American cast (A Fool For His Money, 1912). One would think she’d be enshrined in film history like her contemporary D.W. Griffith, who will be forever lauded for inventing techniques like the cut-in and adapting complex stories from literature but was also at the helm of the racist atrocity The Birth of a Nation.

 

Cinematic history focuses on Griffith as the father of American narrative cinema, while the many contributions of Guy-Blaché and other women and directors of color are largely overlooked. I now consider myself lucky that I took a silent film course in college and learned who Guy-Blaché was, but we only ever watched one of her short films, Falling Leaves (1912), and I didn’t know the extent of her career until now. Out of curiosity, I looked back at my enormous text book, A History of Narrative Film by David A. Cook and found two sentences and one footnote about her. The earliest narrative film I remember learning about in college was A Trip to the Moon by George Méliès, which I recently discovered was made six years after Blaché’s Cabbage Fairy. One big reason she has been forgotten is that most of her thousands of films have been lost, damaged, or abandoned in warehouses. Part of Green’s purpose in the documentary is to find some of her unknown films.

 

Green makes use of her background in graphics in Be Natural. Some of the animation can be gimmicky, such as the opening sequence of Hollywood Boulevard moving backward in time, but it’s also useful. Geographically, the film moves around a lot, so the old-timey graphic of a global map helps orient the viewer to different locations. In her quest to unravel the mystery of Guy-Blaché, Green speaks to cinema experts, filmmakers, film reel collectors, and manages to find long-lost family members who didn’t even know they were related to the groundbreaking filmmaker. There’s some footage of this, most amusingly of a biker guy in Arizona who has various collector’s items of Guy-Blaché memorabilia, as well as typical “talking head” interviews with well-known Hollywood figures such as Ava DuVernay and Geena Davis. As Green tracks down the lost films and footage of interviews with Guy-Blaché’s daughter as well as Guy-Blaché herself when she was long retired from film, the search plays out like a mystery thriller. In surprisingly engrossing sequences, Green and her crew discover film reels but then have to find a specific store to convert them to digital files, or they find someone with letters or photos from acquaintances of Guy-Blaché and must piece together information, or they comb through thousands of files in film warehouses for a reel that may have been ignored

 

The best parts of the documentary are the clips of Guy-Blaché’s films, which are all the more precious as we realize how few of them there are, and how spread around the globe they may be. Many of her films were lost due to negligence and general carelessness, as many silent films on fragile and combustible material were, but as a key moment in Be Natural shows, women’s contributions were also purposely ignored. Green includes 1950s footage of a board full of (white) men shutting down women (also white) who were requesting acknowledgment and preservation of films by female filmmakers. These men were critics, producers, and historians—men such as them chose which films were made, distributed, written about, and remembered. Their actions shaped Hollywood for decades to come, and still do.

 

The significance of Guy-Blaché’s story lies not only in the general need to uncover the lost history of women and marginalized people, but in the necessity to dispel the myth that film and television work is and has always been a man’s world. If women were at the forefront of filmmaking in its earliest experimental days, why are they being shut out today? The idea that filmmaking is too much of a technical feat for women sounds archaic, and yet at the turn of the 20th century being a movie director was a viable and popular career for women. Guy-Blaché and other prominent directors published articles in movie magazines espousing the reasons motion picture directing was a perfect career for women, and the various lessons they had learned about the trade. Women were pushed out of filmmaking largely due to money, among other things. Once movies became a business and not just a creative experiment, men started buying up studios and hiring each other. Guy-Blaché, like many people in the silent era, stopped making films with the advent of sound and the build-up of Hollywood in Los Angeles. But the fact remains that women have always been at the forefront of change in various arenas and then slowly pushed out. If women had continued to be welcomed into leadership roles in Hollywood after the 1920s, what a different industry it would be today.

 

It seems to be an internet trend (a welcome one) to use Black History and Women’s History months to share information of forgotten figures. As the latter ends, seek out Be Natural, opening in Los Angeles April 19 and New York April 26. Then join me in my cinematic nerd-dom and go watch some silent films by women directors on Netflix—there are three films by Guy-Blaché (A House Divided, Falling Leaves, and The Ocean Waif—look for the Solax logo) and two by her one-time employee, another innovative director, Lois Weber (Suspense and Where Are My Children). Other gems include an impressive independent film by Chinese-American director Marion Wong (The Curse of Quon Gwon) and the fabulous Salomé produced by and starring Russian actress Alla Nazimova.

 

It’s time to broaden our view of silent film beyond just Chaplin, Keaton, and Griffith; the art form was forged by women as much as men, by people of various ethnicities and nationalities, and the subjects are far wider than slapstick comedy and melodramas. Guy-Blaché is only one of the hopefully many artists and innovators who will continue to be given their due, whose work will be shared with the world after being buried for too long.

 

 

 

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Aria Chiodo

Aria Chiodo is an Associate Editor at The Mantle. You can email her at aria [at] themantle.net

She hails from New Mexico but is now based in Astoria, New York. She writes personal essays, short stories, and travel essays, but her first love is cinema.