Alice's Wonderlands: On Alice Guy Blaché
As if life were imitating art, a relatively collaborative culture thrived in Hollywood during these years. Perhaps no director starred more convincingly in the serial of her own life than Gene Gauntier, whose career was long finished by the time she wrote her memoir Blazing the Trail in 1928. Gauntier was the writer and star of The Girl Spy, whose popularity as a feature in 1909 led to its two-year run as a serial and ultimately to A Hitherto Unrelated Incident of the Girl Spy in 1911. Little in Gauntier's movies can compare with the moment she describes in Blazing the Trail as her initial "plunge" into filmmaking: not knowing how to swim, she accepted a friend's offer to join him on location, on Long Island, where a woman was needed to fall forty feet into a river. "I was afraid--horribly so. But I was going through with it if it killed me."
No single thing led to the demise of this relatively egalitarian era in Hollywood. The serials had a naturally short life span, and meanwhile film was under the scrutiny of that other icon of early twentieth-century female power--the reformer. Agitation by women's groups to clean up motion pictures, together with a brief dip in attendance during the recession that followed World War I, was enough to scare the industry into regulating itself and scrapping all those unnatural girl heroes. What became of the female directors who worked in other genres is more ambiguous, having to do with the precarious perch they occupied and the industry's rapid stratification. Most women who rose to prominence behind the camera were partnered, domestically and professionally, with a man. Though the women dominated as directors, they relied on their partners to handle the finances. The arrangement proved disastrous.
In her memoir, Alice Guy Blaché notes with gratitude that her husband, Herbert, insisted on making the deals, freeing her to focus on directing: "I would have embarrassed the men, said Herbert, who wanted to smoke their cigars and to spit at their ease while discussing business." But when he decamped for California with a younger actress in 1918, Alice's career took a nose dive. In misfortune, too, she was a trailblazer: the collaborative, upstart, let's-put-on-a-show business in which she had thrived was coming to resemble every other major industry, streamlined and hierarchical. By the late 1910s clubs and trade associations formed across the country to lubricate the flow of money between powerful executives, and women were locked out of the process of creating new realities. In this climate, if your marriage to a producer husband ended, whom could you approach about your next project? Irving Thalberg?
Guy Blaché gambled on a fellow creative. Alighting in Hollywood in 1920 in hopes of a reconciliation with Herbert (which was not to be), Alice still had enough clout to get a meeting with the world's biggest superstar. At 31, Charlie Chaplin was in the middle of shooting The Kid, a film that would deepen and refine the possibilities of silent comedy. Guy Blaché, then 47 with hundreds of films to her credit, proposed making Un Chapeau de paille d'Italie, a nineteenth-century French farce, "which I had Americanized as well as I could." His reply was nonnegotiable. "No," he told her, "I intend to make films of more feeling." You might say that a new generation, with subtler tastes, couldn't help but sideline women like Guy Blaché, whose most innovative work lay a decade in the past. Yet Un Chapeau de paille d'Italie did get made. René Clair directed it in 1927. In a final twist, Clair decided to shift the action of the mid-century play to 1895--partly from a wish to spoof the earliest years of film, which by then had passed into nostalgia. Two years ago the comedy was screened at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, amid a bewitching retrospective of Clair's silent work. It got a lot of laughs.