When I decided to review more female-directed films, a lot of film fans – both on and offline – recommended looking to silent films where there was lots of behind-camera female talent to be found. This abundance isn’t surprising – before filmmaking became an industry, an established and ‘legitimate’ middle-class profession, large numbers of women were involved in directing/writing/financing and more. Because roles weren’t yet defined, many women worked across multiple disciplines (according to Stuart Blackton’s memoirs, actress Florence Turner did the accounting at the Vitagraph Company studio in Brooklyn, New York). Surely, those early days of film must’ve had a start-up mentality, where everything was possible – technology could be created, rules didn’t exist to be broken. Many women worked alone – or with men – to develop techniques that would come to define filmmaking and cinema. Today, many of these early individuals are overlooked – although over the past few years attempts have been made to redress the balance (think crowdfunded documentaries, dedicated festivals and online resource
One woman who’s been under the spotlight over the past few years is Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female director who was involved in over 1,000 films and made her very first in 1896, aged 23. A documentary entitled Be Natural is in the pipeline (although no release date has been confirmed) and in 2013, several ‘lost’ Guy-Blaché films were recovered when the Charlie Tarbox collection came into the possession of collector Jeff Aikman. But Guy-Blaché’s influence extends far beyond sheer volume. She started her career in Paris as a secretary for Léon Gaumont, a French entrepreneur who made short films for the picture arcade business. She quickly graduated to filmmaking, including synchronised sound films for the Gaumont Chronophone. Following her marriage to Herbert Blaché in early1907, Guy-Blaché resigned from her position as head of Gaumont’s film production unit and sailed to America with her new husband. Of course, for a woman like Alice, marriage didn’t signify the end of her career. In 1910, she launched her own film company named Solax. Most of those early films were made in a little-used Gaumont studio lot based in New York. Solax was not only profitable, but also helped launch many silent era stars, including Darwin Karr, Vinnie Burns and Blanche Cornwall.
The jury’s out on whether Guy-Blaché was a workaholic or just dedicated to her company, but between 1910 and 1913, Solax released a staggering volume of films (see the full list here). Of course, Guy-Blaché didn’t direct every single one, but she supervised all the production and had three – ahem, male – directors working under her supervision (Wilbert Melville, Edward Warren and Edgar Lewis).
The genres spanned from social-commentary melodramas to action films and comedies, the characters were complex and contemporary. Indeed many of these early shorts are extremely watchable today – A House Divided and Matrimony’s Speed Limit are particularly interesting, and relevant comments on marriage. Others take a stance on gender (although these seem near-impossible to find in the UK so this is based on research only!) and in the (lost) film In the Year 2000 (1912), the male and gender roles are completely reversed. Viewed through the lens of ‘progress’ many of these films seem quaint, with a strong DIY flavour. But the truth is that then film could be much more experimental – it wasn’t necessarily being made for money, and it was likely aimed at a much smaller audience who might not necessarily have been more open-minded, but certainly had a smaller framework of context.
Although many early Guy-Blaché films are difficult to uncover there are lots available online. This fragment of la Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), her earliest film and probably the first narrative film ever made, pre-dating the first Méliès film by a couple of months – is perhaps not ethically sound (are those babies being handled correctly?!) but is simply magical – a piece of history forever preserved.
Of the several I have found online, Canned Harmony is far and away my favourite Guy-Blaché film (Falling Leaves is a close second, I recommend you read Silver Screenings’ thoughts on that). Both use the domestic world as a backdrop for comedy with stereotyped gender roles subverted to make a humorous point. In Canned Harmony in particular, the acting is simple – in keeping with Guy-Blaché’s regular rhetoric: ‘Be Natural’. There’s no slapstick or excess, the charm is in the simplicity. The plot is easy but with the right element of suspense: a sweetheart dresses as virtuoso violin player to impress his lover’s father. The father falls for the ruse and agrees to the marriage, only for the plan to be put in jeopardy at the wedding when the father hands Billy a violin to play.
Two points of interest that arise from this short? This is a silent film about a musician. Billy (Billy Quirk)is able to convince the father he has musical talent by using a hidden record player, and the audience gets the idea through visuals alone. In many ways, this narrative technique foreshadows the rise of talkies and the important role sound would eventually play in the moving picture. Suggesting sound in silence was a particular interest of Guy-Blaché – remember she had been responsible for more than150 synchronised sound shorts for Gaumont. The lively energy of those earlier attempts were a hallmark that is threaded throughout much of the director’s work – and Canned Harmony is no different.
The element of ‘dressing up’ and playing a character within a character (and particularly the opposite gender) isn’t explored as much as in other Guy-Blaché films (notably Cupid and the Comet and What Happened to Officer Henderson) but the idea remains. Some critics have suggested that the director’s cross-dressing fascination came from the Théâtre du Grand Guignol in Paris’ Quartier Pigalle. At this notorious theatre (which was open until the 1960s) naturalistic comedy horror shows were the order of the day, and shows success rates were calculated according to how many members of the audience fainted during the performance – which often involved severed limbs and huge quantities of fake blood. But it wasn’t all gore. Cross dressing was popular too, itself borrowed from the English pantomime tradition. Although I couldn’t find any reports of Guy-Blaché attending Grand Guignol, perhaps she drew inspiration from its ‘anything goes’ mentality – and there’s certainly something macabre about the previously discussed La Fee aux Choux.
Of course, that’s all hypothesis. Guy-Blaché’s interest in cross dressing might simply have been a tactic played for laughs – as there are so few close ups in early films that the reveal could come later, and be part of a surprising conclusion. Indeed, the practice changed around 1916-17, as ideas about ambiguity were replaced by conscious gender plays, used obviously and for deliberate laughs – think about some of Fatty Arbuckle’s dress-up stunts. Utilised long before on-screen roles became fixed and gender-coded, these dress up games lend a wonderful (and indeed refreshing) feel to many films from the era and shouldn’t necessarily be taken to indicate that Guy-Blaché was a particularly shocking or experimental filmmaker – seemingly everyone was at it.
Within this context it’s impossible to imagine that Guy-Blaché’s name was forgotten for so long. It’s not necessarily because of her gender, probably more because, although successful, she remained a small, essentially independent, filmmaker who got swept away by ‘big business’ film production. During her time making films, she was celebrated, profiled and interviewed – her omission seems to begin with film history itself. Terry Ramsaye, a journalist writing for Photoplay Magazine wrote a series of essays (that would eventually become a two-volume book published entitled A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture [Through 1925], published 1926) exploring the rise of motion pictures. Most of the players were US-based, and the signature and preface came from none other than Thomas Alva Edison. Whilst not asserting that film came from the US, it certainly made a strong case for it, and the contributions of many early European pioneers – including Guy-Blaché and the Gaumont company – were overlooked. Fortunately, history can be re-written.