Filmmakers Unearthed

The following are great blog articles about women filmmakers by Katie Langenfeld.

Filmmaker Unearthed:

The Fairy in the Cabbage Patch

Published on Dec. 16, 2010 – As I throw another log on the fire (I’m cold) my thoughts turn to filmmaking and fiery stars in the industry. You know, those women filmmakers who blazed (right, my thoughts are on warm things) the way for the rest of us. I’m trying to remember who the first woman filmmaker was. Okay, I’d even settle for being able to name 5 important women directors. But as embarrassing as this is to admit, I don’t know much about earlier, or even modern, female filmmakers.

Which brings me to this post, the embarking post for Filmmaker Unearthed where I delve into history and share my findings with you. I’ll do the digging and then you can sit back, cozy up with your computer and learn all about some neat people.

The first filmmaker I’d like to introduce you to (if you haven’t heard of her already) is French, born in 1873, credited as the first woman director, owned her own studio in the U.S. and has a claim to the title of first narrative film director.

What? I know, right. Turns out filmmaking has been a woman’s thing from its inception.

Alice Guy-Blaché (a-LEES ghee)


Alice Guy-BlacheImagine you’re a secretary at a still-photography studio in late 19th century France and your boss, Leon Gaumont, has his hands on a fancy dancy filmmaking apparatus. What do you do? Why, convince him to let you make a film of course! Alice’s film career was longer than a quarter of a century (I’m making you do math now) and she directed, wrote screenplays and produced for hundreds of films.

Her first of hundreds was “The Cabbage Fairy.” The 60-second film was created by Alice Guy in 1896 and launched her film career. Around this time the photography studio she worked for closed and Alice’s boss Gaumont formed his own production company. Gaumont put Alice in charge of film production where she remained from 1896-1906. Alice became a pioneer in using sound recordings with images, special effects, and even playing film backwards.

After 1906, Alice moved to New York to manage Gaumont’s studio in the U.S. And then in 1910, Alice and her husband, Herbert Blaché, formed The Solax Studio in New Jersey. They were very successful and within two years were able to build a $100,000 glass studio in Fort Lee. She was the first woman to own her own studio. Sadly, the company only lasted four years. Guy continued to work in film and directed her last film in 1919 before retiring to giving film lectures and writing novels from screenplays. She was honored in 1953 with the Legion of Honor award by the French government. Alice Guy died in 1968.

Currently, the Fort Lee Film Commission is at work trying to gain her posthumous admittance to the Director’s Guild of America.

And so the first woman director set the bar high. Pretty cool, huh?

And look “The Cabbage Fairy” is online!

Question: If Alice made hundreds of films, created her own studio and did innovative and creative films at the very beginning of cinema, why haven’t I heard of her?

Answer: It wasn’t until 1976 with the publishing of her memoir that she was remembered for all the incredible work she accomplished. How do you think Alice’s work was forgotten? Or why might it have been overlooked?

“Alice Guy-Blache.” Wikipedia. Dec. 8 2010. 12-15-10.é.
Brightwell, Eric. “Alice Guy-Blache – First Female of Film Direction.” Amoeblog. March 3 2009. 12-15-10. blog/alice-guy-blach-first-female-of-film-direction.html.
McKernan, Luke. “Alice Guy.” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema. 12-15-10.
McMahan, Alison. “Inventing the Movies.” Alice Guy-Blache. 2009. Homunculus Productions, LLC and Alison McMahan. 12-15-10.
Richards, Andrea. Girl Director A How-To Guide for the First-Time, Flat-Broke Film and Video Maker. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.
White, Penny. “Alice Guy Blache, First Woman Film Director Succeeding in a Burgeoning Film Industry.” Sept. 24, 2009. 12-15-10. a150877.

Filmmaker Unearthed:

A Style Of Her Own

Published on Dec. 31, 2010 – Since we started off with a filmmaker you’ve probably never heard of, I figured we would continue this week with one you may know. Sound good? Excellent. We begin.

Hint: This filmmaker is an excellent role model if you are a dabbler in many things. She once went to her father to ask if she should focus on one area and he advised her to keep doing all the things she was interested in and that one day they would come together on their own.

Did you guess right? It’s…

Sofia Coppola

(1971- )

sofia coppolaSofia Coppola is a director, screenwriter, designer, photographer and has acted, modeled, and studied painting. (I wasn’t kidding about the dabbling.) Her first appearance in a film was as an infant in her father’s film The Godfather. From there she did a few small acting parts, but wasn’t fond of being in front of the camera. Critics bashed her performance in The Godfather III and she shied away from acting even more. She explored other venues like painting, modeling, photography and designing. Sophia created her own clothing line called Milkfed which is sold in Japan. (But what about filmmaking you ask?)

Coppola soon tried her hand at filmmaking and found a niche for herself. Sofia is known for her films, The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006) and Somewhere (2010). She wrote original screenplays (except for The Virgin Suicides, which she adapted from a book) and directed each of these films. Besides that, she is a producer for most of these films, and helped fund them, which gave her more creative control over the films. (Imagine what you would make if you had complete control over your film.)

Ms. Coppola is descended from a line of filmmakers. Her father is Francis Ford Coppola who is the director of films like The Godfather, and her grandfather was a composer who wrote music for films, while a couple of cousins and aunt are well-known actors. Some criticism of her work is aimed at her family connections. They claim her work is only made possible because of her family and not because of her talent. (That’s heated, isn’t it?)

She has won a few awards for her films which include being the first American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award (and the third woman overall) for Best Director for her film Lost in Translation. She won an Oscar for her original screenplay for Lost in Translation.Somewhere won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival making her the first American woman to receive the award.

There you have it. Meet Sofia Coppola.

Questions: I’m a wee bit shocked that it’s just recently that women are winning some filmmaking awards. What reasons can you think of for women to be winning awards now? (Maybe there aren’t many women in film…?) What inspires or makes you cringe when watching Coppola’s films?

Photo of Sofia Coppola by Valerie Enriquez

Filmmaker Unearthed:

Who’s Got Gumption?

Published on Jan. 8, 2011 – I curled up on the couch this weekend and watched The Holiday and have had one word stuck in my mind since then. Gumption. If you’ve seen the film you know that the retired screenwriter teaches one of the protagonists about what it means to have gumption. My handy dictionary describes gumption as initiative, resourcefulness, courage, spunk, or guts. It’s a strong word that, I think, is a good summary word to describe our next filmmaker star.

Hint: Today’s filmmaker invented the boom mike (a device that’s like a pole with a mike attached to the end).

Dorothy Arzner


dorothy-arzner“My philosophy is that to be a director you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio. I threatened to quit each time I didn’t get my way, but no one ever let me walk out.”

–Dorothy Arzner

Gumption, don’t you think?

Dorothy was a Hollywood studio era film director in the 1920s and ‘30s and the only female director for some time. Arzner has one of, if not the, largest body of work in the studio system for a woman.

She started off her career by studying to be a doctor at University of Southern California (like all filmmakers do). During World War I, she worked in the ambulance corps. Once the war ended she forwent a medical career and, after a visit to a movie studio, decided to become a director (talk about an early life career change). Dorothy had a contact in Hollywood who helped her secure a job as a typist. She quickly was promoted to screenwriter and then to editor. As an editor she made a name for herself and worked on over 50 films before threatening to move to another studio if she wasn’t given a directorial position.

Paramount gave into her demand and she was made director of the silent film Fashions for Women. This became a hit and she went on to direct more films. (I don’t have enough time to delve into her work but you should explore for yourself…it involves films made before the Hayes Code and some more risqué, for the time, material. And she was also a lesbian, which accounts for some excellent film theory). She made eleven features forParamount in five years and then became an independent director.

She stopped working for studios in 1943 for unrecorded reasons but continued to make some training videos, commercials and produced plays before settling in as a professor at the UCLA film school until she passed on in 1979.

Check out the trailer for one of her films Christopher Strong (1933)!

Questions: Thoughts on Dorothy? Why do you think she was able to be so successful in the Hollywood studios of the 1930s?

Filmmaker Unearthed:

Caribbean Waves

Published on Jan. 13, 2011 – Do you know who the first black female filmmaker to direct a Hollywood studio film was?

“…Our job is to bring things on screen, to make people laugh, to entertain them, but also to make them think and to inform them about what is going on in the world. They won’t be able to say we didn’t know what was going on.”

– Euzhan Palcy

Euzhan Palcy

(1958- )

Euzhan-PalcyPalcy was born in 1958 in Martinique, French West Indies. Since she was a tween, Euzhan knew she wanted to be a filmmaker in order to give blacks a voice in media. She remembers watching movies from Hollywood that made her angry because blacks were depicted negatively. So she took matters into her own hands and decided to make films. Euzhan published poetry and mystery in a monthly publication in Martinique and wrote, directed and acted in a drama for the television station before going to get her masters in Paris.

There in France she met her “French Godfather,” the famous director Francois Truffaut, and he encouraged her with her endeavors to make her first feature Sugar Cane Alley (1983) (it was also the first feature made in Martinique). To raise money for the film Palcy received a grant from the French government and went to Martinique to promote the project. Mayors from different cities in Martinique gave money as well as individual people who gave what they could to help fund the film. Sugar Cane Alley (1983) won awards and so did her next filmA Dry White Season (1989) which was about the South African apartheid. This film concerned a heated topic that was hot enough to make Euzhan have a bodyguard during the filming. The project took seven years to raise money and finish. She was the only female director to work with Marlon Brando and was able to get him to come out of partial retirement to act in the film.

From there Palcy broadened her to include other genres and types of projects. She enjoys making films that make viewers think and have a point to share with the audience.

Questions: Palcy works toward giving a voice to blacks in media, which brings me to my question. Do you think a filmmaker can accurately portray a gender/race/culture different from her or his own in a film? Why do you think what you think and how is it possible or not?

Image of Palcy from Images of Black Women
Collins, Glenn. “A Black Director Views Apartheid.” September 25, 1989. 1.13.11.
Euzhan Palcy. November 2010. 1.13.11.
“Images of Black Women Film Festival.” International Patron: Euzhan Palcy. 1.13.11.
Paddington, Bruce. “Making Waves.” Caribbean Beat. Issue No. 1 (1992). 1.13.11.
Rickards, Colin. “Caribbean People: Filmmaker Euzhan Palcy gives back.” July 15, 2009. 1.13.11.

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