Saturday, July 1, 2017

Alice Guy-Blaché - a Wonder Woman of Film

There's a lot of excitement over the seemingly radical way Patti Jenkin's Wonder Woman movie has changed the way women are portrayed in film and how female directors are given projects. After nearly 100 years of men dominating the majority of on-screen and behind-the-screen roles, it feels like women* are finally finding a footing in Hollywood. But that's not entirely the case. Women have always been involved with films, from the very, very beginning. Like today, they may have been outnumbered, but they were there. And they were making great female-centric films.

Over a century ago, Alice Guy-Blaché (July 1, 1873 – March 24, 1968) was inspiring women on screen. During her more than 25 years as a director and producer she made more than 700 films, most featuring female leads as heroines defending the weak and defeating the "bad guys." Her stories were inspiration for thousands of women who were seeing themselves portrayed on the screen as brave and adventurous women. Stories that likely came easy to Alice, since she herself was brave and adventurous in her own life.

When Alice took a position as a typist with a photography studio in the early 1890s, she was mainly interested in finding a way to support herself and her recently widowed mother. She'd been born into a wealthy family whose fortunes had dropped rapidly over the course of her young life, until the time that her father died when she was in her early teens and they were left nearly destitute. But this job turned out to be more than just an income, it was a event that changed the course of her life.

In 1895 Alice accompanied her boss to a showing of a short demonstration film showing workers leaving the factory, and like everyone else she was awed by the moving pictures on the screen. But she also recognized the potential of using these moving images as a new and exciting medium for entertainment. Fascinated with the idea of film as a creative endeavor, she stayed after work and experimented with the cameras. In 1896 she debuted her first film, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), a charming story about a woman growing children in a cabbage patch. It was the first narrative fiction film, and she was the first female director.

She was immediately promoted out of the office and made head of production, where she had plenty of room to be creative. She played around with film techniques and "special effects" like masking, double exposure, and running the film backwards, all to enhance the story she was telling. She worked with special equipment meant to synchronize music and films. She recorded stories about travel and dancing and tried to capture the joys of life on film.

After several years of this, she moved to the US, where she eventually opened her own studio so she could have greater control over her stories. Now she could make the films she wanted to see. Unlike the stereotypical old movie idea we think of today with the damsel tied to the railroad tracks waiting for the gallant young hero to rescue her, most of Alice's films featured a brave young woman of derring-do, rescuing herself and others as well.

Like Patti Jenkin's Wonder Woman, her films were wildly popular with the women who frequented the picture halls of the era. They went in looking for entertainment, and came out thrilled to have seen themselves on screen as courageous, fearless, and strong. They cheered loudly and left marveling at their newfound sense of self.

And all because she followed her curiosity and took a change to try something new.

*White Women. Hollywood has a long history of racism and stifling the voices of people of color, and especially women of color. There are several excellent women of color working on amazing projects, but not nearly enough. I want everyone to be able to feel the way I did when I left the theater after watching Wonder Woman. I want them to cry tears of joy at finally seeing themselves on the silver screen, shown in a purely heroic light, with the all too present filters of racism and sexism removed.

You can read more about her importance to film history: Women Film Pioneers Project

You can read about her influence on film and popular culture: "Alice’s Wonderlands: On Alice Guy Blaché"

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