Date of this Version
Published in Quarterly Review of Film and Video 37:2 (2020), pp 194–197.
After more than a half century of neglect, pioneering women filmmakers are finally getting some of the attention they deserve. Foremost among these women is the figure of Alice Guy Blaché—also known simply as Alice Guy, before she married Herbert Blaché in 1907—who was responsible for numerous “firsts” in cinema history: the first film with narrative La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Patch Fairy; 1896), as well as early experiments with color dye processes, synchronized sound recording, multi-reel films, and other cinematic advances. Gaumont put out a set of her French films for that company—she was the head of production for Gaumont between 1896 and 1907—in a superb DVD in 2009 entitled Gaumont Treasures Volume 1 (1897–1913), but this compilation necessarily did not deal with her subsequent work in America, where she founded her own production company, Solax, and set about making a series of energetic films in every possible genre.
But Alice Guy was far from the only woman filmmaker of the era, as documented in Kino’s excellent Blu-ray collection Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, released in 2018, featuring films by Grace Cunard, Dorothy Davenport Reid, Alice Guy-Blaché, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Mable Normand, Lois Weber, Elsie Jane Wilson, Marion Wong, Gene Gauntier, Cleo Madison, Nell Shipman, Ida May Park, Frances Marion, Lule Warrenton and many others. I have long argued that women were not only making films during the formative years of the cinema—they were, in fact, the central driving force behind film production, long before D.W. Griffith ever stepped behind a camera to direct. Yet women have been consistently written out of film history because of sexism, laziness, and creation of a male filmic canon in the early 1920s that effectively marginalized these remarkable artists.
In reviewing this latest offering from the British Film Institute, it is important to note that there are more comprehensive collections available, but this set serves as a sort of “sampler” of what is out there, and does contain several titles that have been overlooked in the previously mentioned sets, including Olga Preobrazhenskaya’s feature-length film The Peasant Women of Ryazan (USSR, 1927), and Marie Louise Iribe’s haunting fairy-tale featurette, Le Roi des Aulnes (The Erl King, 1929), one of the earliest sound films produced in France, based on a text by Goethe.
So, what is included here? First off, a generous sampling of Alice Guy’s American Solax shorts, including the heartbreaking Falling Leaves (1912); the immigration drama Making An American Citizen; the gambling melodrama The Girl in The Arm Chair; the Gold Rush themed Greater Love Hath No Man; and Algie, The Miner, an early queer film set in the “Wild West,” in which the titular character helps a drunken prospector regain his sobriety. All these films—all one-reel shorts, running about 10 minutes each, and all were made in 1912—give one some indication of what a veritable factory Solax was, churning out films at a furious pace.