I must confess, I know very little about the early days of cinema. I would say that I know the basics, and by that I mean I've heard about this history, but I've not really delved into it. I tend to discover cinema history as I go. Something will lead me down a path and then I unearth some new nugget of info from a past era.
Case in point, Alice Guy (Alice Guy Blanche). She was the first female writer-director to work in motion pictures. And this was at the dawn of cinema. She didn't sneak in there in the 20's or 30's. Guy made one of cinema's earliest films, La fée aux choux / The Cabbage Patch Fairy in 1896. (She later remade it in 1900 -which caused no end of confusion- so she very well may be the first filmmaker to ever produce a remake!)
In cinema's infancy, films were one reel long. Guy worked on the earliest sound stages as well as on location and delivered 15 films in 1897 and 18 films in both 1898 and 1899.
She began her career in France, well aware of what Thomas Edison was doing in America, and she crossed paths with such influential people as Leon Gaumont, Georges Demeny, Auguste & Louis Lumiere, Charles Pathe, Rene Decaux, Gustave Eiffel, Georges Melies, Billy Quirk, Catherine Calvert, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin, to name but a few. (If any of those names are not familiar, look them up. This is a Who's Who of all the major movers and shakers in cinema's infancy.)
Guy would go on to not only continue to make films, growing and cultivating audiences for longer films (five reels!), but she also ran a number of early studios. She hired the crews, casts, keep the day to day business moving and all the while she managed to raise a family with Herbert Blanche, who always had an eye (and other body parts) for the younger ingenues in his wife's films.
She was a no nonsense filmmaker. She struggled for the respect of her French contemporaries who never seemed to give her the same respect they did male filmmakers. (She noted that it was the opposite in America. American crews believed that if she was hired to direct a picture, she had earned that right as well as their respect.)
The one piece of direction she gave all her actors was "Be natural." That was pretty much it. If they could be natural in their roles, then the audience would believe whatever the plot of the movie they were in. (This phrase was plastered on a giant sign for all to see as they entered the studio for work every day.)
Guy did not have an easy life. She rarely was recognized for her contributions to film and Herbert did very little to help with the family. She fought to make films of some substance, battling to cover subjects she felt important (such as Les résultats du féminisme / Consequences of Feminism, her 1906 farce wherein the roles of society are reversed and men are seen as the fairer of the sexes).
She would revisit this theme again, like in her 1912 comedy In the Year 2000, where women are the ruling gender and men are set meekly in the background.
While she made all types of films (she certainly helped to define the genres recognized today) she did make horror films and was possibly the first to adapt Edgar Allan Poe for the screen with The Pit and the Pendulum in 1913. (It should be noted that Guy insisted on using real rats because audiences would be able to recognize puppet rats. She had no problem tying her male star down in food smeared ropes and dumping a couple of buckets of rats on him, and hope they didn't gnaw his face off before she got her shot!)
She made films that had some wonderfully exploitable titles. I have no idea what The Little Hunchback (1913), The Monster and the Girl (1914), or What Will People Say? (1916) are about, but I know the images these titles conjure up. (I'm probably way off.)
Written by José-Louis Bocquet and illustrated by Catel Muller, Alice Guy First Lady of Film covers Guy's life from her early days traveling around the world with her family to her final days, when her films were being rediscovered and finally being credited to her for the first time decades after she retired from the business. (They have also collaborated on the graphic novels Josephine Baker and Kiki de Montparnasse.)
It is a wonderful time we live in that graphic biographies like this exist. When I was a kid, I remember comics that told the story of, let's say Abraham Lincoln, or some such figure we studied in school, but never subjects that I would have any interest in. I cannot think of a better introduction to Guy's work to start you on the exploration of her cinematic accomplishments than this graphic. (The documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché was released in 2018 and the French TV documentary Alice Guy - L'inconnue du 7e art was released in 2021.)
If you had asked me who the first woman filmmaker was before I read this graphic novel, I don't know how I would have answered that question. Whatever I would have said would have been wrong. (It should be noted that it is much more than just a graphic, as it includes 70+ pages of text offering a complete timeline of Guy's life, biographies of everyone mentioned in the biography, a far from complete filmography and expansive bibliography.)
As with everything in life, someone has to be the first. Not only was Alice Guy one of the earliest pioneers of cinema, she helped ensure that her voice as a woman was heard, and paved the way for so many amazing female filmmakers that came after her.