A Short Video Introduction to Alice Guy-Blaché (1873–1968), the First Female Film Director & Studio Mogul

This year’s Women’s His­to­ry Month theme is “Hon­or­ing Trail­blaz­ing Women in Labor and Busi­ness.” Before these lioness­es are hus­tled off­stage in order for us to refo­cus our atten­tions on Asian/Pacific Amer­i­cans, Jew­ish-Amer­i­cans, Autism Aware­ness, Mul­ti­ple Births, Sex­u­al­ly Trans­mit­ted Dis­ease Edu­ca­tion, pecans and the myr­i­ad oth­er cal­en­dar girls and boys that April brings, let’s join video essay­ist Cather­ine Strat­ton in cel­e­brat­ing the achieve­ments of film­mak­er Alice Guy-Blaché, above.

While not an offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized hon­oree, Guy-Blaché, who made over 1,000 films over two decades, def­i­nite­ly qual­i­fies as a trail­blaz­ing woman.

At age 21, she became the first female direc­tor in cin­e­ma his­to­ry with The Cab­bage Fairy, below, a whim­si­cal, if not par­tic­u­lar­ly accu­rate vision of where babies come from. (It was shot in 1896, long before rules lim­it­ing the amount of time a new­born actor can spend on set, but only a hand­ful of years before nurse Mar­garet Sanger took up the cause of women’s repro­duc­tive health.)

She tack­led the Life of Christ with a pas­sel of ani­mals, spe­cial effects, and 300 extras.

She popped view­ers eyes with can­dy-col­ored hand tint­ing.

She built a state-of-the-art film stu­dio in Fort Lee, New Jer­sey, prun­ing the ter­rain to serve as a vari­ety of land­scapes.

Viewed from the lens of 2017, one of her most star­tling achieve­ments is 1912’s A Fool and His Mon­ey, an excerpt of which is below. The tale itself is an unre­mark­able crowd­pleas­er: a poor guy falls in love with a wealthy young woman. He goes to great lengths to woo her, out­fit­ting him­self with fan­cy duds and throw­ing a huge par­ty, only to be best­ed by a flashy rival.

What is remark­able is that Guy-Blaché was white and the film’s cast is entire­ly African-Amer­i­can. Accord­ing to essay­ist Strat­ton, the char­ac­ters are por­trayed with none of the explic­it racism DW Grif­fith brought to The Birth of a Nation three years lat­er.

As Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls site reports, Guy-Blaché passed from the pub­lic view after an expen­sive divorce from her phi­lan­der­ing hus­band forced her to sell her stu­dio. She strug­gled to gain pub­lic recog­ni­tion for her pio­neer­ing con­tri­bu­tions to film his­to­ry with lit­tle suc­cess. A Fool and His Mon­ey was redis­cov­ered when a flea mar­ket shop­per bought a musty chest of old, unmarked reels.

Like that film, her rep­u­ta­tion is slow­ly being restored to its for­mer glo­ry. She was award­ed France’s Legion of Hon­or in 1955 and a Director’s Guild of Amer­i­ca Life­time Achieve­ment Award in 2012.

Give this trail­blaz­ing woman anoth­er look!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

100 Over­looked Films Direct­ed by Women: See Selec­tions from Sight & Sound Magazine’s New List

85 Com­pelling Films Star­ring and/or Direct­ed By Women of Col­or: A List Cre­at­ed by Direc­tor Ava DuVer­nay & Friends on Twit­ter

245 Films by Female Direc­tors You Can Stream Right Now on Net­flix

4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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