Where Were You?
The following article by Bibi Berki was short-listed for the Women and Words prose competition in January 2018.
THE moment Alice Guy dared to disagree with her boss, she made history.
The young secretary had been sitting with her employer and 200 other business leaders at a surprise event in Paris in 1895. It was hosted by the Lumiere brothers and the inventors had pinned a white sheet to the wall and told their guests to keep their eyes on it. Then the lights went off. Suddenly the sheet was alive with people: women, with aprons over their heavy skirts, shawls across their chests, were pouring through a large doorway; a dog trotted among them, a man got on his bike, a cart pushed through the crowd. It was all exactly like reality, like photographs coaxed into life.
Alice’s boss was the engineer and photography magnate Léon Gaumont. Despite having just witnessed one of the world’s first examples of moving pictures (46 bustling seconds of footage of workers leaving the Lumiere factory in Lyon), he was not overly impressed with the brothers’ newly-patented camera. He couldn’t see the point of it, he told Alice as they returned to the office. It was a side-line to photography, maybe practical for demonstrations, but limited in its uses.
His secretary, however, had been transfixed.
Alice Guy was 23 years old, more office manager than secretary, trusted with marketing duties for the company and dealing with prestigious clients. Her take on the Lumiere film was at odds with Gaumont’s: she saw artistic promise where he saw a gimmick. She asked him if she might use the new camera to tell a short story. Gaumont considered the request. Yes, he said, as long as she didn’t neglect her secretarial duties. What a typically feminine idea, he mused aloud.
Alice Guy-Blaché, to give her full professional name, is not widely known now and yet her request to make use of the Lumiere’s projector for narrative purposes puts her literally at the forefront of cinema history. She is its first director, her experiment probably the first ever fictional movie. It was called The Cabbage Fairy (La Fée aux Choux, 1896) and it is a delightful 60 seconds in the company of a wasp-waisted Edwardian fairy, extracting live, squirming babies from behind cabbage-shaped props and laying them on the ground for us to admire. As we watch it now (thanks to Youtube, where we can also find those Lumiere factory workers), we can picture Alice standing just out of shot, overseeing proceedings, a conductor bringing together physical performance and the new mechanics of motion photography. Hers remains the template for the cinematic auteur, the collaborative story-teller, the practical overseer of the dream.
She saw it: the conceptual arriving in the actual. A new way of telling. Within a year, Gaumont made her his head of film production and within ten years she had directed and produced many hundreds of films for him. With each movie, both the process and the concept becomes more sophisticated. In these early days of moving pictures, its champions were leaping from one idea to the next, emboldened by each success, informed by failure. They were opportunists and entrepreneurs. It is at this moment of perfect creative freedom, that so many women could step into a sphere that was perhaps still too young for any overt prejudice.
The template of collaborative working and pooling of expertise – vital in film-making to this day – came from Guy-Blaché’s earliest experiments with the new medium. She hired writers and directors for Gaumont who would go on to excel in French cinema. But her prominence brought with it frustrations. Filming her ambitious Life of Christ (La Vie du Christ, 1906) she ran into trouble when a jealous male colleague destroyed the expensive backdrops, hoping she would get kicked off the job. Her staff rallied around her and saved the film but she came close to getting fired over the extra expense. Undeterred, she moved on to her next project that year, which was shot on location in the South of France. She came back from the adventure with her future husband, the cameraman Herbert Blaché. Together they would move to the States and try and build their own film empire.
At around the time Alice Guy-Blaché was struggling to rectify the sabotage on her Life of Christ, two teenage German sisters were persuaded by their composer father to step in front of a camera and perform a short dance in costume. Their names were Rosa and Henny Porten and their father had been hired to make a movie using an experimental new sound process. The result was a charming vignette called Meissen Porcelain (Meissner Porzellan, 1906) and the two girls played a pair of china figures who come to life as soon as they are unwrapped.
Neither of the sisters had at this stage harboured strong ambitions to work in this newest of industries, but this four-minute presentation was a turning point for both. Henny, the younger, went on to become Germany’s most beloved film star of early cinema. A highly gifted screen entertainer and charismatic presence, she was also an astute businesswoman who founded her own production company. But her sister, Rosa, more or less forgotten today, also deserves to be honoured. Because like Alice Guy-Blaché, Rosa Porten saw in moving pictures the potential to tell stories in a new and thrilling way. While the narrative use of motion pictures seems obvious to us now, it wasn’t necessarily the case at the dawn of movie-making. Moving images were used almost instantly to document real events or as a pedagogical tool. As the technology developed, its potential for cheap, disposable light entertainment became obvious but it was certainly not considered respectable, let alone an art form. In its early years it was deemed a very low, cheap, fairground distraction for the masses.
On her journey to and from the family’s Berlin apartment, Rosa would walk past an institution for the blind. It sparked an idea in her for a romantic story and she set about writing one of German cinema’s first dedicated film scripts. The movie was called Blind Love (Das Liebesglück der Blinden, 1911), and it told the story of a shy doctor infatuated with his beautiful, sightless patient (played by Henny.) As her treatment progresses they fall in love and the doctor, convinced that she will be repelled by the sight of him, becomes torn over whether he should operate on her at all. In the end, he conducts the operation but prepares to kill himself. She stops him from going ahead with his threat and convinces him that her love couldn’t be stronger now that they can see each other.
The film was considered even then a landmark in German cinema, not least because nobody could get enough of Rosa’s sister, Henny. The studio was inundated with letters demanding to know more about her and the studio was happy to cash in on this new form of publicity.
But what really changed the game was the idea of a formal narrative specifically geared to this new medium. Rosa’s script was written with the camera in mind, not theatre stalls. Early screenwriters had to find ways to bring the viewer past the camera and into the sphere of the action, to create a connection between audience and image that we take for granted now but which must have seemed alien to the earliest viewers. Rosa went on to work on at least 35 movies as a screenwriter, though nearly all of these are now lost. In fact, she pioneered the very notion of screenwriting as a career and her work not only matured but consituted an identifiable ouevre. She also directed a good number of films alongside her husband, Franz Eckstein, although curiously, when co-directing with him she insisted on being credited as Dr R. Portegg.
There were others, prominent, admired, high-achieving women who made their mark in the early days of cinema. Often, they entered the industry as an exigency and discovered there exciting opportunities. June Mathis went into acting as a teenager to support her widowed mother but turned her hand to writing. Her first script led to a contract with Metro (eventually MGM) in 1918 and her career progression was stratospheric. Within seven years of her decision to write scripts Samuel Goldwyn had insured her life for a million dollars and she was the highest paid and most powerful woman in Hollywood. One of the first – if not the first – studio department heads, her influence on movie-making was considerable.
Others found in moving pictures the means to express artistic or political views. The French writer and filmmaker, Germaine Dulac, is credited with making the world’s first surrealist film, her extraordinary The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) predating Bunuel and Dali’s An Andalusian Dog by a year. Considered a difficult and controversial figure, Dulac was nonetheless committed to her art and was a prolific and uncompromising film-maker. Her 1923 movie, The Smiling Madame Beudet, as well as being a superbly-told fable of a woman’s monotonous married life, gave Dulac the reputation of being the world’s first feminist filmmaker.
In America, Lois Weber proved just as uncompromising. She made film after controversial film, not shying away from difficult subjects like birth-control, racism, poverty and domestic violence. Although now considered by some film historians as her country’s most important female director, standing alongside D.W Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, her name is still unaccountably more obscure than theirs. She was a genuinely influential figure, experimenting with new camera techniques and fearless in her exploration of pressing social issues, while still producing highly popular, money-making movies. Like Guy-Blaché, like Rosa Porten, like Dulac, she simply seemed driven to tell beautiful and involving stories on screen.
When I was young, I was troubled by a question: where were all the women?
I asked my brother: ‘Why aren’t there famous women artists?’
‘They’re just no good at it,’ he told me.
It was the seventies. We were children. But even so… Answers like that, still prevalent around that time, infuriated me. Over the years I went looking for those women and they were certainly there, but why did I have to search so hard? I am less militant, funnily enough, than my eight-year-old self but still find myself piqued at the necessarily haphazard discovery of women who were of such professional importance at the time. “Where were you?” I want to know of them.
It seems to me that in the cinematic world the number of dominant and influential women deteriorated with time. Why did their numbers dwindle or at any rate never come anywhere near the numbers of men working in the industry? The very earliest days of the cinema were a lawless, Wild West of possibilities. If you had a great idea and the means then there was no reason why you couldn’t embrace the new technology and make something of it. There was no ancient tradition to respect, no blessed route to the top. Everyone who worked in cinema was a pioneer, everyone had the means to turn a new corner or to reveal a novel aspect. Perhaps it’s as this gold rush turned into an industry – an institution – that it became more of a closed shop and the opportunities to make something beautiful with no more than a good idea, a camera and some loyal colleagues, became less possible. Perhaps the institution closed round itself and women started to feel less welcome. Certainly, very talented women continued to make their mark in the industry but how many of them do we know?
Fame in itself will never satisfy an artist. Engaging with her work, will. Although many of the women mentioned in this article were prolific, it is not the size of the output that makes their work so valuable. It is the quality. Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet is mesmerising in its characterisation of a terminally bored wife, Lois Weber’s Where are All My Children? so confident and mature, and Guy-Blaché’s The Consequences of Feminism (considered controversial today solely because of its provocative title) is unnervingly funny.
Although Guy-Blaché went on to great commercial success in America, setting up her own film studios and producing hundreds more well-received movies, she spent the latter years of her life assiduously putting the record straight on her achievements. Her memoirs were an attempt to present historians with a definitive filmography. She felt compelled to do this because by then she was forgotten. Slowly she received some recognition, including the Légion d’honneur in 1955, but the intervening years must have felt like all the glorious innovative moments with the Lumiere brothers’ new contraption had slipped away for good.
They haven’t slipped away. They’re too fascinating a story for us to ignore. I knew, even as a child, that they were there, the great women artists, and now I just want to get on and celebrate them. When we do that, when we extol the achievement of women in the Arts, we play a part in the process of historical recognition. Numbers don’t matter. (It was never going to be a game of numbers.) Individuals do.