Audrey Kupferberg: Alice Guy-Blache | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: Alice Guy-Blache

Aug 21, 2019

Audrey Kupferberg

Pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache is celebrated in a new feature-length documentary by Pamela B. Green.  The film is called BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHE.  Anyone with an interest in early film history or the study of gender inequality in the modern age of the 19th and early 20th centuries will want to see this documentary, which has been released for home viewing by Kino Lorber.

Alice Guy was born in 1873, and, at age 18, was hired by the Gaumont Company in Paris as a stenographer.  Being a stenographer was a prestige job for any upper middle-class woman in the 1890s, and Alice was bright and ambitious.  As Gaumont and the Lumiere brothers and others began to be involved in the creation and distribution of large-screen moving image films in the mid-1890s, Alice volunteered to create product.  In 1896, she made one of the first story films, THE CABBAGE FAIRY. 

To summarize her fascinating story, she became the first female filmmaker, and certainly one of the very first filmmakers, period.  Not only that, but she was a very fine filmmaker.  She thought of approaches to camerawork and directing that still are in use today.  She married at the age of 33, and she, and only later with husband Herbert Blache, owned and ran the Solax Studios in Fort Lee, NJ.  She had three children during that period, while making $50-60,000 per year as a studio owner and producer/director!

All seemed rosy, but her world crashed in and around 1918.  She and Herbert split.  She was given little to no credit for her brilliant career accomplishments, and was quickly sidelined and forgotten by the film industry once Wall Street money was invested and the industry got bigger.  As with so many other women who were early film directors, women who helped to create film language and who made plenty of profit for their employers, they were given almost no work by the studios after World War I.  It was time for the men to take over the burgeoning industry.

In Green’s documentary, we witness many prominent film historians, archivists, and people in all walks of the current film business talking about Guy-Blache.  Not one person working in film today seems ever to have heard of her.  Green makes a strong point that Guy-Blache is not in the history books where she should be.  This rings hollow for me, because I used to teach the topic of early women filmmakers, and her name certainly was among them.    In fact, I wonder how many current film industry people have heard of D.W. Griffith, George Melies, Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett, or Mabel Normand!

Pamela Green has spent much of her career making sequences for films and directing music videos and commercials.  She combines a knowledge of graphic design with the use of archival footage and animation in her work.  BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHE makes use of Green’s special talents.  However well those abilities work in other formats, her approach to composing a documentary feature is jarring.  While the research on this film is seemingly flawless and very, very interesting to hear about, the images fly by the viewer’s eyes almost at kaleidoscopic speed.  This is criticism of a film that otherwise is intelligently made and significant for its subject matter. So important is the subject matter, in fact, that I highly recommend BE NATURAL, in spite of its unnatural pace. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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