“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth 24 times per second.”
Has any medium fascinated and bewildered the world as much as film? The average moviegoer attends five to six movies a year, and watches countless others on video. Listen to any casual conversation, on a date, at the office, or at a party, and inevitably a reference to a particular movie is mentioned. What started over a century ago as an experiment by pioneers such as Edison and the Lumiere brothers has become a main staple in our lives, serving to entertain, amuse and educate, and strangely enough, connect the world: Most Africans, or say, Indonesians, may not know the intricacies of the U.S. and its customs, but they are aware that somewhere there is a Hollywood, replete with Rambos, Rockies and superheroes.
According to most film historians, the medium (though very much an American institution) spent its formative years in France, before Americans took the idea and made it the larger than life industry it is today. And as the Lumieres and Melies were developing the cinematic art, a woman by the name of Alice Guy Blaché arrived on the scene and established herself as the first woman filmmaker.
Author and scholar Alison McMahan has painstakingly devoted a decade to researching the life and works of Guy Blaché; the result: Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema (a title which aptly portrays the curious how’s and why’s of this forgotten film pioneer).
Lost? Apparently. McMahan argues that, from her feminist perspective, the reason that Guy Blaché’s contributions have been forgotten, and that she has not been rightly credited with directing the first fiction film is due to the “misogynistic male historians” who simply denied appropriate acknowledgment. McMahan’s argument is a tad weak, however, since Guy Blaché herself has claimed that the Lumiere brothers’ film, “L’Arroseur arrose” came first. In addition, Guy Blaché isn’t the only filmmaker to be forgotten. William Kennedy Dickson, an assistant of Edison’s, produced his “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” in 1894, yet the Lumiere brothers have been credited as the official inventors of the moving picture.
Guy Blaché’s entry to the world of film came by way of Leon Gaumont who hired her in 1894 as a secretary and soon realized her filmmaking potential. 1896 marked Guy Blaché’s first narrative film, “La Fee aux choux” (The Cabbage Fairy), and by 1897 she was running all production at the studio. Interestingly enough, McMahan writes that Guy Blaché initially learned the tricks of the trade by “copying, sometimes precisely, the Lumiere fiction films . . .” before developing her own style.
Along the way, she met and married Herbert Blaché, eight years her junior, and together they formed Solax, a film studio in the States, a successful company which produced a slew of films and enjoyed a stable of actors and actresses, and budding filmmakers who were trained by Guy Blaché.
During her Gaumont days, Guy Blaché produced a series of what McMahan refers to as “Miracle films” which were always laced with strong Catholic references. (Guy Blaché was a devout Catholic and politically conservative.) These films then paved the way to the American versions (made for Solax), the “forgiveness films” which similar to the French films often depicted a savior who offers redemption. As McMahan explains, “these ‘forgiveness films’ are direct descendants of the ‘miracle films’ . . .the ‘forgiveness films,’ with their focus on the family romance are [Guy Blaché’s] way of adapting what worked in France for an American audience.”
In addition, other genres such as the military film and Westerns (which fascinated both French and American filmmakers) gained popularity, and were significant in the methods they used to depict ethnicity. McMahan writes: “Indian characters were played by whites painted red and little regard was given to correct depiction of Indian customs and dress.” In addition, “Rarely was the suffering of the Indian at the hand of the white colonizers shown.”
The Eastern Westerns (which were made in the East before filmmakers headed West) began to wane as viewers and a number of critics became annoyed with the films’ “Jersey scenery” (these eventually paved the way to more authentic Westerns which were filmed where they should be). This also coincided with the Americanization of the film industry, prior to which the French held the reigns on the medium.
Eager to depict itself as an American company, Solax interestingly played an important role in depicting Jews and Blacks in a more kindly fashion than the times dictated. Two films in this genre, “A Man’s a Man,” in which “a Jew is represented as a man and not a subject of ridicule,” and “A Fool and His Money,” which catered to an African-American audience, served to depict these immigrant/ethnic groups in a more deservedly respectable light.
McMahan deftly outlines and describes the stages of film history and development, but unfortunately, the book reads more like a thesis than the sort of prose which the average layman can enjoy. McMahan’s language and style is aimed at film industry connoisseurs who arrive with an already well-developed knowledge of film history. Her argumentsthough validare never really settled one way or the other. Is Guy Blaché the first filmmaker of fiction film or not? The interesting marriage of Alice Guy and Herbert Blaché proves as a solid foundation which led to promising film careers for both, but we are suddenly confronted with the fact that Herbert Blaché abandons his family and leaves for Hollywood with one of his actresses. The leap is a little sudden, and the reader is left wanting more details about Guy Blaché’s personal life and a little less about the minute details of film development.
All in all, McMahan’s research is inevitably worthy of shedding light on an important figure in film history whose extensive body of work should be studied by film students everywhere. We only wish that the life and career of this pioneer was presented in a more reader-friendly manner.