Alice Guy Blaché: lost visionary of the cinema
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Alison McMahan;Continuum, New York and London, 2002, 384p, ISBN 0-8264-5158-6 £45.00 (Hbk)
One of the tasks film feminism set itself at its outset was to reclaim its lost histories. Organizing a spate of film festivals in the early 1970s, which showcased the work of female filmmakers, past and present, offered an opportunity to rewrite film history and assess the contributions made by women like Alice Guy Blaché (1873–1968) to the development of a cinema previously ignored, neglected – or simply forgotten. Preserving the reputation of the almost lost Guy Blaché for the archive started years earlier when the director herself set about locating surviving films. Beginning in 1927, and resuming her search in the 1950s, Guy Blaché only managed to find three films before she died. Writing Alice Guy Blaché back into film history maybe central to this extensive and well-researched book, but underlying the feminist project is the role played by women in making visible that history in the first place. Daughter Simone Blaché and later daughter-in-law Roberta Blaché, for example, worked as custodians of the estate, and the author, Alison McMahan, aims ‘to make her films more intelligible to modern viewers’ (p. xxxiii). Questions of what gets rescued, reclaimed, and lies forgotten, form an additional narrative to the first book length critical consideration of the work of ‘the first woman filmmaker and the only woman filmmaker for the first decade of the industry's history’ (p. 242).
Alice Guy Blaché had an extraordinary career. It spanned the entire early film period, from 1896 to 1920, and its longevity stands as ‘testament to her ability … to meet the changing demands of the industry … and fulfil various roles’ (p. xxvi). She had almost sole responsibility for production at photographer and film pioneer Léon Gaumont's company until 1905, as long as it did not interfere with her duties as his secretary. The year 1907 saw her leave for America, where she would own and operate the film production company and studio, Solax. Increasingly, her interests became absorbed by those of her husband Herbert Blaché, but with her last film released in 1920, followed in 1922 by divorce and bankruptcy, Guy Blaché decided to return to France with her children, after which she fell into obscurity.
Why should someone who achieved such considerable success, both in France and in America, become lost to the film archive is a central question explored by McMahan. Reasons are complex she argues, but the loss says much about the difficulties of situating Guy Blaché within traditional histographies and the existing theories of how we understand the emergence of cinema. Léon Gaumont, for example, did not consider the films as significant as the technical achievements, which would explain why he gave over production almost exclusively to his secretary. Given that Guy Blaché is rarely mentioned in the company's official documentation, as well as the practice during the early years of film to not cite directorial credits, it was perhaps predictable that film histories written before her autobiography in the mid-1970s failed to acknowledge her accomplishments.
Such effacement, in turn, has led to several persistent myths shrouding her life and career. Each chapter of McMahan's study addresses one of these controversies, debunking the ‘myths and [clarifying] the real issues that the myths obscure’ (p. xxxiii). In so doing, McMahan assesses the pioneering contribution made by Guy Blaché to film narration as well as early sound film production, which never gets mentioned in the standard accounts. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the American years, and seek to place her career within a broader context of the difficulties faced by the independents as the American film industry consolidated and expanded its operations around a few big studios. Uncovering Guy Blaché thus makes visible a much more complex history of early cinema than previously suggested, and the books belongs to recent revisionist endeavours that suggest much more work on the hidden contribution made by women remains to be done.
‘Of all the arts there is probably none in which (women) can make such splendid use of talents so much more natural to a woman than to a man and so necessary to its perfection,’ observed Guy Blaché in her 1913 lecture at Columbia University. Maybe not a feminist in the modern sense, but in her statement that women were ideally suited for filmmaking Guy Blaché, McMahan argues, nonetheless demonstrated a feminist sensibility. Her films, and particularly her cross-dressing comedies, are ‘used to question, undermine, and subvert the socially delimited concept of gender’ (p. 239). Her work placed enormous emphasis on female agency, in which women characters made choices, overcame obstacles set down by patriarchal society and shaped their own destinies. But perhaps the most important feminist trait of her work is the way she spoke to women, her direct feminine modes of address and her advocacy that women could achieve success on their own terms. Given her importance for the feminist canon and for early cinema, I find it quite astonishing that no sustained history has been undertaken until McMahan started this present study.
Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema belongs to the Women Make Cinema series, a collection of titles committed to uncovering hidden histories and assessing the contribution made by women to the development of cinema. This book certainly fulfils the brief and is a welcome addition to this fascinating and laudable series. Taking 10 years to research, and involving extensive travels to locate sadly only a fraction of the thousand films directed by Guy Blaché, this book offers a comprehensive history of a truly remarkable woman and original filmmaker.