Inventing the Movies - Excerpt

Inventing the Movies: The Life of Alice Guy Blaché,
the First Woman Filmmaker

By Alison McMahan
Prologue

The air was sharp, needles of cold reaching under her collar and her hat. At any other time the seaside would be refreshing, it would clear her head. A day at the beach should be about pleasure, about playing with the children, about tasting the salt spray on Herbert's lips.

But not today. Although she did not look at them, she was acutely aware of the crowds around her: at a distance, the cast. Some, like Vinnie and the man who was playing the Sultan, were still in the costumes they had worn for the morning's shoot. The Sultan was vamping around in his turban and robes. Vinnie was doing ballet steps in her pageboy wig, doublet, and tights. The journalists stared at her legs admiringly. Let them stare at Vinnie. Alice needed all of her concentration and it was impossible to concentrate with them always pestering her, their pencils scratching away.

On her left was the still photographer, humped over his camera, his black drape flapping around him. The film cameraman stood at her right, everything ready, with that cavalier air of being completely relaxed that only a cameraman could affect. It used to annoy her with its implication that she, the director, was slowing things down by not being ready when they were, when everyone well knew it was usually the camera that was the source of a pause.

They were waiting for Herbert, her husband, to blow up the sailboat they had outfitted as a seventeenth century caravelle. He had rowed out, anchored the rowboat and climbed up a rope ladder to board the ship. She couldn't see him anymore, so she closed her eyes and pictured him, holding onto the jib line and then pushing the bottom of the mainsail out of his way, until he found the open barrel of powder. He found the fuse coming out of the barrel. He kneeled down and lit a match. The fuse was burning, burning… now he should be rushing down the ladder to the rowboat.

She opened her eyes. The ladder was free of any encumbrance. She pursed her lips. She could sense the journalists shuffling their feet in the sand. A breeze had come up and rustled the pages in their notebooks. That was it. The breeze had blown out the fuse, and he had to re-light it. Again, she closed her eyes.

She imagine him, willed him even, to kneel by the fuse once more, and it was shorter – how far had it burned before going out? Three centimeters, or maybe six? She imagined him re-lighting the fuse.

She opened her eyes. The ladder was still empty, flapping against the side of the boat. The boat was only fifty meters out to sea, but the wind seemed stronger there. It made the sail billow plausibly, an effect she and the photographer had found pleasing, but now she wished it would die down. What good was having a full sail if they couldn't blow up the boat?

She became aware that the journalists had torn their eyes away from Vinnie's shapely legs and were now watching herself closely. One of them was scribbling. She should have lit the fuse herself. That would have given them something to write about.

She smiled, remembering one of the more blatant headlines, "Little Woman Runs Moving Picture Company All By Herself." Although the journalists had improved, and now reported on productions fairly even-handedly, they still couldn't stop themselves from commenting on her uniqueness: a woman film director, married, with two children…. She had copied the opening words of the latest article into a few letters back to France, and ended up memorizing them:

The time has arrived, so it would seem, when woman must take her place beside man in the majority of arts and professions in the business world. In women of the calibre of Madame Alice Blaché it has also been demonstrated that there is a possibility of their doing so without being shorn of that most desirable of womanly qualities, femininity. … Madame Blaché is an exemplification of a successful wifehood, motherhood and professional ability and practice. [1]

What would they have said if she had been the one to set fire to this boat? But Herbert had refused to let her; he said it was a job for a man, that women lacked the sang-froid.

How many gusts of breeze had they had? Had the wind blown out his fuse three times already, maybe four? She knew Herbert. Three times would be three times too many for his patience. Either he would make it work now, or he would give up.

"Get ready," she said to her cameramen. He grunted assent. The cameraman immediately lost his debonair posture and jumped into action. She raised the gun over her head. Just as she put her finger to the trigger she saw Herbert's silhouette. He raised his arms and waved them. Ah, she thought. He wants to give up. He cannot get the fuse to work. He cannot give up in front of all these journalists. She pressed the trigger. The flare shot into the air with a thunderous hiss; her arm buckled from the recoil. She recovered quickly. Herbert got the message; he lowered his arms, pausing for a quick, ironic salute, then he turned sharply and disappeared from view again. She wanted to close her eyes again, to pray this time, but she couldn't allow herself; and anyway, she couldn't stop staring at the boat now even if she wanted to.

Herbert's silhouette appeared again. He was hurrying backward and seemed about to topple over the side. There was a tremendous explosion in front of him. At the first sound of the echoing boom the cast applauded, then stopped. She could see Herbert covering his head with his arms as he was blown bodily off the boat, over the rowboat, and into the water well beyond it.

Alice felt like the wind had been knocked out of her. She could not breathe. She was going to faint. She had to get to Herbert. Why had she insisted that he try again? Why had she not sent someone to consult with him?

She turned to face her cameramen, her cast, her crew. They were all staring at the boat, their faces filled with horror.

But the journalists were staring at her. Some were scribbling. This is what the vultures fed on.

The cameraman had stopped rolling. The boat was burning and he was not rolling. If this film did not work it would cost them everything – they had invested all they had into it. And her cameraman was not rolling. Her husband might have just died and he was not rolling. She tried to make words come out of her mouth but all she could manage was a screech. She tried to remember the words in English but in the end all that came out was French.

"Roulez! Roulez, Monsieur! Ne vous oubliez pas! Roulez!"

Although he only spoke English, her meaning was clear, and he started cranking the camera handle again. She turned to check on the photographer, but he had kept his composure, exposed a plate and was now quickly switching to another. She whirled back around, her anxiety about Herbert overwhelming her. A huge cloud of black smoke was rising from the middle of the ship, the proud sail in tatters. Herbert was nowhere to be seen.

She prayed silently, Mon Dieu, don't let him be dead.

As if in answer a cheer went up, and there he was, swimming to the rowboat. He seemed to be swimming in slow motion. Twenty frames a second, she thought automatically, the relief pooling in her stomach, her breath coming out in rasps. He dragged himself into the boat and reached out for the oars. Now the cast did applaud, enthusiastically. Even a couple of the journalists cheered. She turned to look at them and spotted her assistant, his mouth hanging open. For the life of her, she could not remember his name.

"Here, you!" she snapped at him. He shut his mouth and came loping over to her, his feet dragging in the sand.

"Go meet him, wherever he pulls in," she said, "help him!" The young man ran away along the surf's edge, his head still turned toward the burning boat. As an afterthought Alice called after him, "and send me word!"

She was not sure if he had heard her.

Alice stayed by her cameramen, who kept rolling and changing their plates as the boat slowly burned down to a charred, floating, ruin.

Once she was sure they had the footage, it was time for the interminable interviews. The questions were always the same: was she really the only woman film director in the world? Yes, as far as she knew; she hoped her American sisters would profit from her example and take up film directing. How long had she been directing? Since 1896, that is, for sixteen years. How had she gotten started? She told the story yet again, of how she had been Léon Gaumont's secretary in Paris when he had developed a moving picture camera and had started by directing films for him. They were all taken aback by the fact that she owned her own film studio, the Solax Company plant in Fort Lee, even though this was a matter of public knowledge and she had been extensively written about in the press already. She wondered how they never tired, these journalists, of asking the same questions over and over again. Finally one of them asked something new: how did her husband feel about working for his wife? Alice was ready to reply, "he does not work for me, he works with me," but another journalist answered for her: "Bet he doesn't feel so good about it today!" There was a general eruption of laughter; another journalist joked that Mr. Blaché should have let her light the fuse; another that she probably didn't want to risk her skirts catching on fire… the jokes continued in this vein, as if she weren't there, as if they thought she couldn't understand them, and the question was forgotten.

They photographed her posed in front of the burning boat, with her cast and without it. Herbert should have been here for this part, she thought. It wasn't fair…she was choking on her fear, but tried not to let them see. Anxiety gnawed at her entrails; it was all she could do to concentrate on wooing the press.

Finally she could stand it no longer. She sent the cameramen home and gave instructions to the crew to pull in what was left of the burning boat. And then she set off down the beach, looking for her husband, ignoring the journalists that followed close behind.

 


1. M.I. MacDonald, "Madame Blaché's Production of Auber's Fra Diavolo," The Moving Picture News, Vol. V, No. 24, June 15, 1912, p. 18.