Before beginning this anecdotal history of my life as a film director, permit me to present to you the one who has filled my life entirely … My own Prince Charming. The Cinema. – Alice Guy
Alice Guy-Blaché is widely acknowledged to be the world’s first female film director and one of the pioneers of narrative cinema. Of all the pioneering female filmmakers, Guy-Blaché is by far the most well-known. In her time, she was one of the most successful and respected filmmakers and played a major role in the establishment of classical cinema practices and the studio system. While never given as much weight, she is mentioned in film history along side historically established greats such as D.W Griffith and Cecile B. DeMille. Guy-Blaché was not only an influential director, but was also one of the first to own her own production studio. Throughout her career that spanned almost three decades and two continents, Guy-Blaché produced almost a century’s worth of films and mentored many filmmakers, including Lois Weber, who was her American protégée. Her work has continued to influence filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock long after she stopped producing work.
Alice Guy was born on July 1, 1873, the only one of the five Guy children to be born in France. Even though her family was based in Chile, Guy was raised by her grandmother in Switzerland until the age of four, when her mother returned to Europe to bring her to Chile. At the age of eight, she returned to Switzerland to attend boarding school with her two elder sisters. Guy was trained as a typist and stenography and in 1894 got a job as Léon Gaumont’s secretary at his photography company, Le Comptoir général de photography, in Paris. The next year, Gaumont obtained a motion picture camera company and retained Guy as his office manager.
In 1895, Guy attended a demonstration of the Lumière Brother’s early films. She was fascinated, and convinced Gaumont to let her use one of his cameras to make her own film. In 1896, at the age of 23, Guy wrote, produced and directed her first film, La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy). Not only was this her first, but it was also among the first narrative fiction films ever produced.
In the beginning, everyone was always shooting street scenes, parades or moving trains, which I did not find terribly interesting. So one day I said to Monsieur Gaumont: ‘It seems to be we could do something better.’ Gaumont and Lumiere were both inventors, and they were not interested in developing new possibilities. They were content with their technical achievement. – Alice Guy
In 1897, Gaumont made Guy the head of film production, a position she would hold until she left the company in 1907. In these ten years, she directed and produced more than 1000 films. In 1902, Gaumont unveiled the Chronophone, an early sound film device and Guy began directing (very) early sound films, making 150 before leaving Gaumont. Guy’s Gaumont films pushed the boundaries of the medium. She often shot on location and made progressive films that tackled subject as diverse as feminism, race and religion, while making many comedies as well.
Guy was very involved in supporting and mentoring young aspiring filmmakers. In 1904, she began to hire assistants, training them as writer/directors. All of them went on to successful film careers after working with her and included the likes of Etienne Arnaud, Louis Feuillade and Victorin Jasset. In 1906, when her usual cameraman took ill, she hired a young cinematographer namerd Herbert Blaché. By Christmas of the same year the two were engaged, even though Blaché was ten years her junior. In March of 1907, the two were married and Gaumont sent Blaché to the States to promote his sound film technology. By this time, Guy had become Gaumont’s head of production and one of the world’s first studio executives. She resigned her position with Gaumont to follow her husband to the United States.
In 1908, Gaumont hired Blaché to manage his studio in Flushing, New York. Between 1908 and 1910, Guy had taken time off from film making to have her first child. However, the underused Flushing studio called to her. In 1910, she founded her own production company, Solax, and rented the studio from Gaumont. The first film released was called A Child’s Sacrifice and she continued to produce a film a week for six months. Solax gained a reputation for developing stars and Guy wrote and directed half of all the productions and oversees the rest. By 1912, Solax had become so successful that Guy decided to build her own studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, costing more than $100,000 (over $2 million in modern currency). Guy owned 50% of the studio in New Jersey, making her the first woman to own her own physical studio plant.
There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art – Alice Blaché, 1914
Guy’s work in the States continued to be as eclectic as her work in France. Under the Solax banner, she made domestic comedies focusing on marriage as an equal partnership (A House Divided, 1913), melodramatic critiques on the social system (A Man’s a Man, 1912), and also made action films (Dick Wittington and His Cat, 1913 for which she blew up a boat), including many that starred women who did their own stunts (Two Little Rangers, 1912). Guy was also a huge fan of cross-dressing, frequently using gender swapping as a staple in her comedic films (In the Year 2000, 1912).
By the end of 1912, however, Gaumont had a falling out with the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) and began operating as an independent in the States. This forced Solax to also join the ranks of the independents as their films where distributed by Gaumont. A year later, when her husband’s contract with Gaumont expired, Guy made him president of Solax so she could focus on writing and directing. This arrangement was short lived, however, as Blaché started his own production company, Blaché Features. Blaché Features continued to rent Solax’s studio space, inventory and actors, and eventually absorbed Solax in 1914. This was the same year that Gaumont and many other French companies pulled out of the United States, which put financial pressure on the studio.
From 1915 to 1920, Guy worked in the United States as an independent director. Solax was in trouble and had to borrow money from the Seligmans, who took a controlling interest in the company. Part of the agreement was that the Blaché’s make their protégée Catherine Calvert into a star. Herbert became smitten with Calvert, beginning a long string of infidelities with young starlets which would eventually end the Blaché’s marriage. By 1917, Solax declared bankruptcy. In 1922, Guy sued for divorce and took back her maiden name becoming Alice Guy-Blanché.
Guy released her last film, Tarnished Reputations in 1920. The next two years saw her occupied with the bankruptcy proceedings of Solax and her divorce. Once both were finalized in 1922, Guy-Blaché returned to France with her children. After such a long absence, she was unable to find work making films. In 1927, Guy-Blaché returned to the States in an attempt to find copies of her work as proof of her abilities. She was unable to find any, and with the beginning of the sound era, it was clear her career as a filmmaker was over.
For the rest of her life, Guy-Blacehé was supported by her daughter Simone. While she never made another film, she did continue to write, publishing children’s stories and novelizations of films for women’s magazines. She began to compose her memoirs in 1947, which lead to a renewed search for copies of her works. She began corresponding with Louis Gaumont, the son of Léon Gaumont, who by 1954 was campaigning for the work of Guy-Blaché to be reentered into the silent era film cannon and given equal importance to her male colleagues. In 1955, she was recognized with the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest nonmilitary honour.
Guy-Blaché died in New Jersey in 1968 at the age of 95. She left behind over 1000 films and her memoir which was published in 1976 and is still in print. Autobiographie d’une pionniere du cinema led to many silent films without directors being attributed to Guy-Blaché and as a result, she has managed to more or less regain her historical importance to the art of film. To date, she is by far the most researched and studied female film pioneer, with numerous books and films being produced on her work. Hopefully the interest in her work will lead to renewed interest in the work of other trailblazing women.
Films You Should See
The Cabbage-Patch Fairy (1896 or 1900) is notable for being one of, if not the, first fictional narrative film.
The Consequences of Feminism (1906) is interesting for its gender dynamics and refersal, as well as its progressive politics.
La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (1960) is by far the most ambitious and lavish film that Guy produced at Gaumont. It combined lavish sets with location shooting and featured over 300 extras.
Want to Know More?
Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, Ed. by Joan Simon, 2010
Alice Guy Blaché: Women Film Pioneers Project
Inventing the Movies by Alison McMahan
The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché, directed by Marquise Lepage (1995)
The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché, translated by Roberta and Simone Blaché