Alice Guy Blache, First Woman Film Director


REEL Jersey Girl

Alice Guy portraitAlice Guy Blache was the first woman film director of the first narrative film in 1896.  She built and wholly owned Solax Studio, Fort Lee, New Jersey in 1912 and accomplished things no one was doing at the time– special effects, super imposition, synchronized sound, colorization, cut mattes on film, developing fiction films as a narrative at a time when it did not exist. She made about a thousand films before women had the right to vote.

Born July 1, 1873 to French parents, her father owned a chain of bookstores in Chile and her mother returned home to give birth to Alice in Paris. They returned to Chile for her early years and then was sent to a boarding school for a strict Catholic education. Her father encouraged Alice to learn a practical skill so she can always support herself. She took up typing and stenography. In 1894, Alice Guy was hired as a secretary by Léon Gaumont, manager for Felix Richard’s still-photography company. Soon after, Richard loses a patent suit and is forced to go out of business. Leon Gaumont buys the inventory and starts his own company, taking Alice with him. Alice Guy is present when Georges Demenÿ demonstrates his phonoscope and offers Gaumont the patent for his biographe, a 60mm motion picture camera. In her spare time, Alice Guy experiments using the inventions and techniques for still photography and early moving pictures.

March 22, 1895 — Gaumont and Alice Guy are invited by the Lumière brothers to witness a demonstration of their cinématographe, a 35mm motion picture camera, at the Société d’encouragement ˆ l’industrie nationale. She persuades Gaumont to let her use the Gaumont camera to direct a story film on the condition that it would not interfere with her secretarial duties. After 1the success of the Lumière films, France was a hive of invention and film projects. In 1896, Gaumont founded the Gaumont Film Company with Alice head of production where she directed her first film in 1896, La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy). In doing so, Alice Guy Blache became the first woman filmmaker in the world directing at least 324 films by 1906, contributing her skills and efforts as director, writer and producer.

In 1906, Herbert Blaché, a Gaumont manager, is assigned to serve as Guy’s cameraman on Mireille. Later, Guy is sent to Berlin to oversee demonstrations of the chronophone and assist Blaché with sales. In 1907, Alice Guy and Herbert Blaché marry. Gaumont sends Blaché to the U.S. to promote a chronophone franchise, Alice Guy resigns her post and goes to America with her husband. The Gaumont studio in Flushing, New York is underused, so she creates her own company, Solax, and rents the Gaumont studio space. Her early films are melodramas and westerns. By 1911, Alice Guy has two children, Simone and Reginald.

Solax StudioBy 1912, the Solax Company is so successful that Guy builds a studio in Fort Lee New Jersey, said to cost over $100,000. Solax produces two one-reelers (10-15 minute films) a week and develops a stable of stars. Guy writes and directs at least half of these films and oversees all production. Her rate of production equals that of D.W. Griffith, working at Biograph just a few miles away. Blaché’s contract with Gaumont expired in 1913 and Alice Guy makes him president of Solax so that she can concentrate on writing and directing. After three months, he resigns and starts his own film company, Blaché Features. Blaché Features uses Solax’s plant, inventory and actors, making the two companies hardly distinguishable for a few months. Blaché Features’ production eventually supersedes Solax production, so that by 1914 Solax is virtually defunct.

During the war years (1917), the former Solax studio is now rented out to other companies. At age 44, Alice Guy has an excellent reputation as a film director but her last few films have not been commercially successful. She lectured at a journalism seminar two times at Columbia University on the nuances of a woman’s skill in a director’s position. Blaché, who is 35, is enjoying the attention of young actresses. He moves to Hollywood with Catrine Calvert, an actress who has starred in four films directed by Alice Guy who gives up her house in Fort Lee and moves into an apartment in New York City. In 1919 she contracts Spanish influenza, which kills four of her colleagues. Blaché, passing through New York, is alarmed by her condition and invites her to join him in California. Alice Guy moves into a small bungalow in Los Angeles with her children and while Blaché does not live with them, he hires her as his directing assistant.

In 1920, Alice Guy is called back to Fort Lee to oversee the auction of the Solax properties and by 1922 the bankruptcy proceedings are finished and the Blachés are divorced. Alice Guy (now calling herself Alice Guy-Blaché) returns with her children to France. She is 49 years old. Léon Gaumont publishes a history of the Gaumont company (1930) which does not mention any of the film production before 1907. Alice Guy embarks on a letter writing campaign to correct his omissions. Gaumont agrees to add to his document and corrects the manuscript himself, but it remains unpublished even after his death in 1946.

Simone Blaché begins her career working for U.S. embassies in Europe. Alice Guy follows her daughter on various assignments, first in Vichy (1940) then Geneva (1941-1947). From 1947-1952, Simone and Alice Guy live in Washington D.C. In Georgetown she began to seriously work on her memoirs and filmography, and renewed the search for her films at the Library of Congress. In 1953, Guy is awarded the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest non-military honor.

By 1965, Alice Guy and Simone are living in Mahwah, New Jersey. She died in a nursing home in Mahwah on March 24, 1968 at the age of 95.

For more information read the book Alice Guy Blache: Lost Visionary of the Cinema (Continuum, 2002) by Alison McMahan and see the documentary, Lost Garden, The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy Blache (1992) by Marquise Lepage.

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