- Film historian Anthony Slide discusses the recently republished The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché, about the life and career of the world’s first woman director.
Remembering Alice Guy Blaché: Film historian Anthony Slide discusses the world’s first woman director, whose memoirs have recently been republished
Several decades ago, the name Alice Guy Blaché meant … nothing.
The French-born pioneer filmmaker was as forgotten – and deemed as irrelevant and unworthy of attention – as the vast majority of those who, regardless of gender, nationality, or what-have-you, made movies during the first couple of decades of the 20th century. D.W. Griffith, the director of the first American blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, and comedy names like Mack Sennett and Charles Chaplin were among the rare exceptions.
And yet Alice Guy Blaché – who, while still in her 20s, began directing shorts for the Gaumont Film Company before the turn of the 20th century – was one of the first filmmakers to make narrative films (La fée aux choux [“The Fairy of the Cabbages”], possibly 1896, or, according to film historian Francis Lacassin, 1900), to experiment with sound (via Gaumont’s Chronophone sound-on-disc system), to try out color-tinting (e.g., Le départ d’Arlequin et de Pierrette, a.k.a. Les fredaines de Pierrette [“Pierrette’s Escapades”], 1900), and, after moving to the United States with husband Herbert Blaché, may have been the first one to direct an American movie with an all-black cast (A Fool and His Money, 1911).
Lastly, Guy Blaché was the first woman anywhere in the world to become a de facto filmmaker. And she may have been the only one working in that field at the dawn of the 20th century, predating U.S. actress-director Lois Weber by at least a decade. And, nearly ten years before Mary Pickford and United Artists, Alice Guy Blaché appears to also have been the very first woman to (co-)own a movie studio (with Herbert Blaché and Universal’s future general manager George A. Magie): The Solax Company, founded in 1910 in Flushing, New York, and two years later transferred to Ft. Lee, New Jersey, then the hub of the American film industry.
Early 21st-century resurgence
Ironically, after decades of obscurity – and more than half a century after her death at age 94 in 1968 – the name Alice Guy Blaché is probably better known these days than at any time since the 1920s.
Alison McMahan’s Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema came out in 2002, and 16 years later U.S. filmmaker Pamela B. Green directed the documentary feature Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, narrated by two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster (also an executive producer along with Robert Redford, Hugh Hefner, and a number of others). Be Natural would be screened at the Cannes Film Festival’s Caméra d’Or sidebar and aired on Turner Classic Movies.
Yet let’s not forget that a few decades earlier there was The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché, first published in French in the mid-1970s and about a decade later in English, translated by Alice Guy’s daughter and daughter-in-law, Simone and Roberta Blaché, and edited by film historian Anthony Slide, whose extensive literary output in the last six decades includes The Silent Feminists (in which Alice Guy Blaché is also discussed), The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine, and the recently published anthology The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second.
New & improved Memoirs
In spring 2022, The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché is getting a welcome relaunch (Rowman & Littlefield website). The updated version features the following:
- A new foreword by editor Slide.
- A biographical “sketch” of London-born Herbert Blaché (1882–1953), the director of nearly 50 features.
- A “complete” filmography compiled by Anthony Slide (the American titles) and Francis Lacassin (the French titles). The latter explains that most of Alice Guy Blaché’s French movies – a sizable chunk of these consisting of blink-and-they-are-over shorts – were made at a time when directors didn’t get screen credit.
- A letter penned by Olga Petrova, a stage star who supposedly changed her mind about motion pictures after watching two of her collaborations with Alice Guy Blaché from the mid-1910s, The Tigress (Petrova’s feature debut) and The Heart of a Painted Woman.
- Several essays, including one by the filmmaker herself.
Anthony Slide (website) has kindly agreed to answer (via email) several questions about The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché and its seminal author/subject. See below.
The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché: Q&A with editor Anthony Slide
First of all, how did you become involved in the editing of The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché? And what did the editing entail?
I first became aware of Alice Guy Blaché’s Memoirs back in the 1970s, when I met her daughter, Simone. The Memoirs were, of course, in French, and in the late 1970s, I was able to find a French publisher, Denoel, and two brilliant ladies, Claire Clouzot and Nicole Lise Bernheim, both of whom are no longer with us, who edited the manuscript for that French publication.
I had always wanted the book to be published in English, and it was Simone who suggested she and her sister-in-law Roberta should translate the Memoirs. Luckily, I was editor of the Scarecrow Press Filmmakers series, and I was able to arrange for the book to be published as part of that series.
It came out initially in hardcover in 1986, and then, a few years later, in a paperback edition. Editing of the actual Memoirs was pretty much standard, checking for spelling errors, repetition, etc. Perhaps my most important contribution was in adding supplemental material, including the first “complete” filmography of Alice Guy Blaché’s French and U.S. career, and persuading Simone to write a brief remembrance of her mother, bringing the story up to date.
Simone and I had lengthy discussions as to whether to call the book The Memoirs of Alice Guy or The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché. Ultimately, we decided on the latter, as Alice was known as Alice Guy Blaché for most of her life, and in the U.S. was generally referred to as Madame Blaché.
These are, of course, a filmmaker’s memoirs. What’s Alice Guy Blaché’s focus – her career or her private life? Both? And since this is from her point of view, how honest does she come across?
The Memoirs cover both Alice’s personal and professional life, although there is almost nothing on the years after 1920, when her film career ended.
I have no reason to doubt Alice’s honesty in the telling of her life story. Obviously, she doesn’t reveal all about her private life.
Thanks to Pamela Green’s 2018 documentary feature Be Natural, we know that Alice’s husband, Herbert, had an affair with Lois Weber, another pioneering woman director. I had always wondered why in an interview in old age, Alice vaguely recalled another female director from the same era but claimed not to remember her name. Now we know why.
[See below Le départ d’Arlequin et de Pierrette.]
First woman director ignored
These days, Alice Guy Blaché has a following as the first woman to direct movies. (Was she really the very first one that we know of?) But you complain in your introduction that there didn’t seem to be much interest in her even after the English-language version of the book came out in the mid-1980s. How come? In your view, what has changed? And how was the original French-language version received in the mid-1970s?
I don’t think anyone can dispute that Alice Guy Blaché was the world’s first woman director. It was a decade or so later before Lois Weber began her career.
When the Memoirs were first published, there was little interest from the academic community. Nobody seemed to care, least of all the female members of that community whom I read have done so much to restore and document the careers of Alice and other women filmmakers of the silent era.
Actually, I think the French edition generated more attention, with reviews in some prominent outlets. Today, in large part thanks to Be Natural and Pamela Green’s efforts to screen the film as widely as possible, Alice Guy Blaché’s name is much better known.
I should also acknowledge the belated 2018 obituary in the New York Times, which references the Memoirs and also my efforts (which is nice to read).
What do you have to say about Alice Guy Blaché’s movies? How was she different from other filmmakers of the period? How many are extant? And which one(s) would you recommend to someone becoming acquainted with her work?
Thanks to the efforts of Alison McMahan, author of the first biography on Alice [Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema], we now know that many of her films have survived. A surprising number. When the Memoirs came out, we thought only a dozen or so were extant, but now we know that 150 or more are preserved in archives across the world.
Some of Alice’s films are great fun, and my favorite of her American short Solax productions is A House Divided from 1913. I also find fascinating the early Gaumont sound-on-disc films that she made in the early 1900s. Yes, Alice was also a pioneer of sound motion pictures.
In that she directed those sound films, she was different from other filmmakers. But I think that generally her films are as good or as bad as those of many other pioneering filmmakers.
I don’t think her work is on a par with that of D.W. Griffith, but she was a very accomplished director. You tend sometimes to emphasize Alice as a woman filmmaker, but the reality is that she was a pioneering filmmaker regardless of her sex.
More specifically, how did she depict female characters and male-female relationships in her movies? Any noticeable difference in how her characters were portrayed when compared to those of other (male) filmmakers of the period? Or, for that matter, from characters seen in Lois Weber’s movies?
A difficult question to answer.
I don’t think I perceive any difference in terms of male-female relationships in her films compared to other films of the era. Her short one-reelers are often highly original in terms of story matter, but not necessarily in terms of characterizations.
Madame Olga Petrova
Anything you can tell us about actress Olga Petrova’s views on Alice Guy Blaché? They collaborated on five productions, at least one of which survives (The Vampire). Have you seen it? How does it compare to Frank Powell’s 1915 Theda Bara star vehicle A Fool There Was?
I had the honor to know Madame Olga Petrova at the end of her life. She was a remarkable woman, a major figure on stage and screen in the early years of the 20th century and an avowed feminist. Somebody should really write a serious biography on her.
In my files I have a substantial correspondence with Petrova (as she liked me to address her), including a fascinating letter in which she reminisces about working with Alice as the star of some five feature films, and which is reprinted in its entirety in the Memoirs.
I regret I have not seen any of Madame Petrova’s films. She was actually Welsh [born Muriel Harding in May 1884], but she always pretended to be Russian and spoke with a Russian actress. Even in old age, she kept up the illusion.
How come Alice Guy Blaché’s directorial career collapsed after the end of World War I? Was sexism an issue? Or were there other factors at play? [Not making things any easier, the Solax Company lab facilities were destroyed in a fire in 1919.]
I don’t know why Alice’s career ended when it did. I suspect it had something to do with her being active for so long — almost three decades. And as you get older, you tend to be dismissed as lacking in understanding as to how films are made today rather than yesterday.
Perhaps she became somewhat obsessed with Herbert’s extra-marital activities, and failed to concentrate enough on her career. Who knows?
She might have been able to continue her career into the 1920s, but it would have required her agreeing to make low-grade, cheap films and not being allowed to make her own directorial decisions.
Anything you can tell us about Alice Guy Blaché’s relationship – both personal and professional – with Herbert Blaché?
Alice married Englishman Herbert Blaché-Bolton in 1907.
You might argue that he used his wife’s abilities as a filmmaker to advance his own career, but I am not convinced this is strictly correct. While his career as a director started a lot later than that of Alice, he did continue to direct after her career was over — and directing major stars such as Alla Nazimova and Buster Keaton.
The problem was that Herbert was a womanizer. He had a lengthy relationship with Catherine Calvert, an actress whom Alice directed in 1917.
Shirley MacLaine introduces ‘Alice Guy Blanche’
Apart from her gender, what would be Alice Guy Blaché’s legacy as a filmmaker? Is there or has there been a difference in how her legacy is seen in the United States vs. France?
Obviously, Alice’s legacy relates primarily to her gender. But it should not, simply because she was a very good filmmaker regardless of her sex, as I have already noted.
Surprisingly, it seems that she is more recognized today in the United States than in her native land. May I conclude with a sad story?
In 2000, I was featured in an AMC documentary, Reel Models, which looked at the work of Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Frances Marion, and Dorothy Arzner. Each segment was “hosted” by a different actress: Minnie Driver, Susan Sarandon, Hilary Swank, and Shirley MacLaine. The last “hosted” the first segment on Alice Guy Blaché.
When I saw the film for the first time in New York, I was horrified and outraged to discover that throughout Ms. MacLaine described Alice Guy Blaché as “Alice Guy Blanche.” I complained to the director/producer, who explained to me that he was very much aware of this, but that Shirley MacLaine was only hired for so many hours, and she spent so much time in hair and makeup that she could only read the narration through once. There could be no retakes as she was unwilling to work any longer.
So, poor Alice discovers how little modern Hollywood really cares about her. I wonder, has it really changed all that much in the last twenty years?
Will the much-vaunted Academy Museum sell the Memoirs in its gift shop? I doubt it.
Will the Directors Guild promote the Memoirs in mailings to members? I doubt it.
Will today’s female directors speak up about Alice and urge their supporters to buy her Memoirs. I doubt it.
Plus ça change….
“Alice Guy Blaché: First Woman Director” notes
Wild Olga Petrova melodramas
 Released during World War I, the Alice Guy Blaché-Olga Petrova movies were unbridled melodramas with absurd – and somewhat repetitive – plots featuring variations of the following: Wronged woman wrongs man who wronged her (or whose father had wronged her, or whose father she had wronged, or whom another [totally unrelated] man had wronged); at least one cast member should obligingly end up dead, preferably either before or after a kidnapping, a change of identities, someone’s financial ruin, or the busting of a spy ring.
“Alice Guy Blaché” endnotes
Olga Petrova seeing motion pictures through different eyes: Motography (April 1915), via the AFI Catalog, which also features a little info on the five Petrova-Alice Guy Blaché titles.
As found in Anthony Slide’s The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry, the Solax Company’s first release – on Oct. 21, 1910 – was the one-reel short A Child’s Sacrifice, featuring a selfless little girl, her doll, a kindhearted storekeeper, and the suffering striking workers and their families must endure.
“Alice Guy Blaché: First Woman Director Q&A” last updated in April 2022.