Alice Guy-Blaché, Forgotten Film Pioneer

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the art and industry of the movies was being created by people who were basically making it up as they went along. The pioneers of film—the people who figured out how to project a moving image and then what to do with those flickering shadows—included the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès, and Thomas Edison.

And Alice Guy-Blaché.

Who was Alice Guy-Blaché? She was a director, producer, and screenwriter who was one of the first people—if not the first—to look at those flickers and realize they could be used to tell entire stories. She made hundreds of movies from 1896 or so until 1920. She worked with special effects, filmed on location, and shot movies that had synchronized audio recordings. At one point, she owned and operated her own movie studio. So why has she been forgotten?

Alice Guy was born in France in 1873 and educated in convent schools. At the age of 21, in 1894, she got a job as a secretary for a photography company run by Léon Gaumont. A year later, she attended the first demonstration of a projected film by Auguste and Louis Lumière. Soon afterward, she asked Gaumont for permission to use his cameras to make a film of her own on her own time.

At the time, movies usually consisted of shots depicting a crowd of people leaving a factory or of a moving train; fascinating curiosities, but not much more. Guy wrote a script and produced and directed her narrative film, The Cabbage Fairy (La Fée aux Choux), on the Gaumont property. It may have been the first film to tell a fictional story—in this case, of a fairy growing babies in a cabbage patch.

From there, Guy was off and running. She became head of production for Gaumont’s film studio, which grew out of the still photography business. She made longer films and started using special effects such as hand tinting and double exposures. At Gaumont, her biggest picture was The Life of Christ, shot in 1906, which has scenes that featured hundreds of extras.

In 1907, Alice Guy married Herbert Blaché, a cameraman with Gaumont, and resigned from the company. The company sent Herbert to the United States to promote Gaumont’s synchronized audio and film system, and to head up Gaumont’s U.S. branch. Alice went with him, and in 1910, she set up her own film studio based in Flushing, Queens: the Solax Company. Solax made so many successful films that Alice was able to build a state-of-the-art film production studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a town that essentially functioned as Hollywood before the movies moved west.  

At Solax, Alice Blaché continued her work as a director, completing movies at the rate of up to three a week. It was here that she hung a sign on the wall instructing her actors to “Be Natural.” In 1913, she made her husband, who had stayed with Gaumont, the president of Solax so that she could do more hands-on movie-making.

Around this time, Herbert Blaché also started his own film studio, naming Alice as vice president. But the marriage was getting rocky. The movie industry was moving west to California and, in 1918, Herbert left Alice and their children to move with it. Her studio went into bankruptcy and was sold off.


The Moving Picture World // Public Domain

Guy-Blaché made her last movie in 1920 and moved back to France with her children in 1922. In the 1940s, she discovered that the first histories of the film industry—even of the Gaumont Studio—were being written without mentioning her. She started giving public talks about her work and wrote her memoirs. But recognition was slow in coming. Alice moved back to the United States permanently in the 1960s to live with her daughter. She died in 1968, at the age of 94, and is buried in Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah, New Jersey.

So why was she forgotten?

"Alice's story is very complex. She is there at the birth of cinema. She is there at the birth of Hollywood in Fort Lee. She was a business woman, entrepreneur, and a creator," says Pamela Green, co-director of a documentary about Guy-Blaché called Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, alongside co-director Jarik van Sluijs.

It doesn’t help Guy-Blaché’s story that most of her work has been lost. Only about 140 or so of the more than 1000 films she wrote, directed, or produced have survived, sometimes only in fragments, according to Green.

"What is interesting about Alice is that it was kind of her destiny. She got into cinema right at the right time when she had the background of growing up, reading stories, and loving literature, music, and theater,” Green told mental_floss.

Now, Guy-Blaché’s story is starting to get attention. In 2004, a historic marker for her was placed at the site of the Solax studio in Fort Lee. Green and her colleagues also hope to screen their documentary at the Cannes Film Festival next year—and maybe then Guy-Blaché will start to be appreciated as the pioneer she was.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.