Alice Guy-Blaché – First Female of Film Direction

 

EARLY YEARS

Alice Guy was born on July 1, 1873. Her French parents were working in Chile, where they owned a chain of bookstores. When Alice’s mother got pregnant, the couple returned to Paris where Alice was born. Soon after, her parents returned to South America and left her to be raised by her grandmother in Switzerland. After eventually moving to Chile to rejoin her parents, the family returned to France and enrolled Alice in school. Once again, her parents returned to Chile. Shortly afterward, her father and brother died.

CAREER


In 1894, Alice was hired by Léon Gaumont as his secretary and still photographer. Whilst working for him, she began experimenting with filmmaking. A couple years later, Gaumont started his own company,Gaumont Film Company and Alice was head of production from 1896 to 1906. In the late 1890s (c. 1898), she directed her first film, La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy). In doing so, Alice Guy became the first female film director. In addition to directing at least 324 films, she contributed as a producer, writer or in some other aspect on many more. Though she made slapstick, fantasy, sci-fi, western and action films as well as many other genres, many of her films were intended for female audiences and bore a deliberate and outspoken feminist sensibility.

PIONEERING EXPERIMENTS

Not only was Guy prodigious, she was an experimenter and pioneer, employing and developing numerous special effects, developing narrative conventions and experimenting with synchronized sound (using Gaumont’s Chronophone system) to produce sound films in 1905 and ’06. She was also one of the first directors to direct fiction. Though she was not originally from America, the Who’s Who in the Motion Picture World of 1915 credits her with being the first American to make a film with more than one reel.

     

In 1907, she married Herbert Blaché-Bolton, the English production director for Gaumont’s British andGerman productions. The two moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1909 to oversee Gaumont’s productions there. In 1910, the Blachés left Gaumont and formed their own company, The Solax Company (partnering withGeorge A. Magie) which became the largest film studio in America in the pre-Hollwyood era, operating out of Flushing, New York on Lemoine Avenue.

Alice Guy Blache article  Alice Guy-Blache in 1907

In the press of the day, though celebrated as “the world’s first and only woman director,” she was treated as something of a curiosity. This was, after all, an era in which women still didn’t have the right to vote. A 1912 issue of Moving Picture World noted “Madame Blache is never ruffled, never agitated, never annoyed by the obtrusive effects of minor characters to thrust themselves into prominence. With a few simple directions, uttered without apparent emotion, she handles the interweaving movements like a military leader might the maneuvers of an army.”

With her husband working as cinematographer and Alice Guy-Blaché directing many one-reelers, within two years they were successful enough to invest over $100,000 dollars in an advanced production facility in Fort Lee, New Jersey, then one of America’s hotbeds of film production. In 1913, their company became Blache Features, Inc. There’s an historical marker at the former Solax site now, at the location of Fort Lee High.

SELECTED DISCOGRAPY

La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) (~ 1898) (one of the first scripted fictional films)
La Esméralda (1905)
Madam Has Her Cravings (1906) (an early film with close-ups about a woman obsessed with phalluses)
La Fee Printemps (1906) (one of the first color films, painstakingly hand-tinted)
The Life of Christ (1906) (a big budget film with over 300 extras)
A Child’s Sacrifice (1910) (the first Solax film, starring Magda “The Solax Kid” Foy)
A Fool and His Money (1912)
Algie the Miner (1912)
Algie Making an American Citizen (1912)
In the Year 2000 (1912) (about a future in which a woman rules the world)
A House Divided (1913)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1913)
Shadows of the Moulin Rouge (1913)
Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913)
The Woman of Mystery (1914)
My Madonna (1915)
House of Cards (1917)
The Great Adventure (1918)
Vampire (1920) (the year of her last directorial efforts)

LATER YEARS

In 1922, the Blachés divorced and Solax closed its doors. Alice Guy-Blaché moved back to France with her two children, Reginald and Simone. She never returned to filmmaking, instead focusing on lecturing, writing novelizations and working to receive proper recognition for her work. In 1951, the Cinematheque Francaishonored her as the world’s first female filmmaker. In 1953, she was honored by the French govermenment with a Legion of Honor. In 1964 she moved back to the US to live with Simone. Alice Guy-Blaché died on March 24, 1968 at a nursing home in Mahwah, New Jersey.

 

As is so often the case, Alice Guy-Blaché died in relative obscurity, despite her irrefutable importance in the development of film. In 1975, Nicole-Lise Bernheim directed a short biography, Qui est Alice Guy? 20 years later, in 1995, The National Board of Canada produced a documentary, The Lost Garden — The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché. In 1997, The Women in Cinema Film Festival was dedicated to her. More recently, in 2002, Alison McMahan published a biography, Alice Guy-Blaché — Lost Visionary of the Cinema.

*****

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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