Women You Should Know: Alice Guy-Blaché

Women You Should Know
Alice Guy-Blaché, forgotten filmmaker
[Meredith Sell]

Seat yourself in a movie theater. The lights dim. You hear the projector and reel whir to life. A vision floods your eyes.

You’ve experienced it before: the close-ups emphasizing characters’ facial expressions; the musical themes introducing characters, melting together or clashing to enhance drama; the special effects applied to accomplish the right visual, whether explosions or never-ending staircases.

The movie is new, but the ideas behind what you see and hear are old. Older, in fact, than many filmmakers realize. And the credit for them—for close-ups, sound synchronization, and special effects—may belong to a woman.

Alice Guy-Blaché (1873—1968) was a filmmaker over the turn of the last century, when moving pictures were brand new and silent short films (like those of Charlie Chaplin) were growing popular.

As secretary for Gaumont-Paris, a camera manufacturer, Alice witnessed firsthand the ongoing changes made to photograph technology.

Others may have scoffed at the innovators’ obsessions with film cameras, but 23-year-old Alice didn’t. Instead, she asked if she could borrow the Gaumont-Demeny camera, received permission, and made her first short film, “La Fée aux Choux,” or “The Cabbage Fairy”.

When Gaumont began producing movies, Alice became one of the studio’s first film directors. By 1897, she was Gaumont’s first Head of Production, overseeing a team of directors. In 1907, she moved to the U.S. and opened her own studio.

Twenty-four years after beginning her film career, Alice had written, directed, and produced more than 1,000 films, worn nearly every hat in the industry, and made innovations from behind the lens that are still used today.

“She took the possibility and decided to make it an opportunity,” said Pamela Green in a phone interview. Pamela is co-founder of PIC Agency, an audio-visual communications studio in Los Angeles, known for its title sequences for films including The Bourne Supremacy, The Illusionist, and Twilight.

Pamela started intensively researching Alice in 2010, after first learning of Alice through a show called Reel Models.

“I couldn’t believe, with all the accomplishments she’d had, that I’d never heard of her,” Pamela said. “The body of work itself is incredible.”

In 2011, Pamela started traveling the country on her own dime to chase down Alice’s story for an independent documentary project called “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache”.

“You don’t go and pick up a camera as a secretary, make a film, move to the States where you don’t speak the language, and make over 1,000 movies, and have nobody know you,” Pamela said.

Pamela talked to descendants of Alice, descendants of her employees, and even people who knew her directly. She tracked down her films in various forms, found print and audio interviews with Alice and letters handwritten by her.

Through the process, she learned that Metro, which later became part of MGM, distributed Alice’s films, and that Samuel Goldwyn’s company (Goldwyn Pictures) rented production facilities from her studio. She learned that the world she lived in was a lot like our own—on the cusp of change with new technologies making the difference, better or worse, for its future. She learned that Alice was strong-willed, determined, and not about to be turned away.

“If we were to grab her and put her in society today, she would fit,” Pamela said. “She was a CEO in a time when it wasn’t possible for a woman. Instead of seeing the boundaries, she saw the possibilities.”

This trait of Alice’s has rubbed off on Pamela. Since Pamela first stumbled upon Alice, she’s followed a passion, an obsession to learn as much as possible about her predecessor in film and find a way to share Alice’s story with the world.

“What I like about Alice is her wit and comedy,” Pamela said. “She’s very emotional as well, and she has a great eye.”

A self-described perfectionist, Pamela is personally editing the documentary, Be Natural, which will be a more creative presentation of Alice’s life than just a series of talking heads. Factuality is of primary importance — “I don’t want to send something out in the world that is inaccurate.” — so fact checking has been key.

Six years of dedicated work have brought Pamela closer to Alice’s story than perhaps anyone else. At a certain point, she remembers, “I kept saying, ‘I wish I met Alice,’” and a friend told her: “You have met her. And by the time you’re done, you’ll definitely know her.” Now, as she does the last bits of cutting and editing and fine tuning, Pamela sees that as true: “I do know her.”

For much of the past decades, many of Alice’s surviving films have been unavailable and inaccessible to the public. After Be Natural is released, Pamela hopes to make more of Alice’s work available on video streaming services like Netflix. Recently, she convinced the EYE Film Institute in Holland to ship a film Alice made in 1911, “The Tramp’s Strategy,” to the U.S. to be converted from its original nitrate film and translated into English.

“If it wasn’t for your project,” a woman working at EYE told Pamela, “the film would have remained on the shelf.”

Learn more about Be Natural.

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