ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ, QUEEN OF THE PIONEERS

by Kenji
ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ, QUEEN OF THE PIONEERS
Here is a director i have a soft spot for. Gilbert Adair the distinguished writer on cinema was pretty scathing of female directors in his book Flickers but made an exception of Alice Guy- and rightly, for her films are loaded with wit, charm, magic and an explorer’s curiosity and vision. She made hundreds of films in all, many not listed on imb, within a range of genres- social documents, historical and religious dramas, comedies, adventures, romance…. Alice Guy-Blaché (July 1, 1873 – March 24, 1968) was a French pioneer filmmaker who was the first female director in the motion picture industry and is considered to be one of the first directors… Read more

Here is a director i have a soft spot for. Gilbert Adair the distinguished writer on cinema was pretty scathing of female directors in his book Flickers but made an exception of Alice Guy- and rightly, for her films are loaded with wit, charm, magic and an explorer’s curiosity and vision. She made hundreds of films in all, many not listed on imb, within a range of genres- social documents, historical and religious dramas, comedies, adventures, romance….

Alice Guy-Blaché (July 1, 1873 – March 24, 1968) was a French pioneer filmmaker who was the first female director in the motion picture industry and is considered to be one of the first directors of a fiction film.

Early years
Alice Guy (pronounced a-LEES ghee) was born to French parents who were working in Chile where her father owned a chain of bookstores. Her mother returned home to give birth to Alice in Paris. For the first few years of her life she was left in the care of her grandmother in Switzerland until her mother came to take her to Chile where she lived with her family for about two years. She was then sent to study at a boarding school in France and was a young girl entering her teens when her parents returned from Chile. However, shortly thereafter, her father and brother both died.

Gaumont, France
In 1894 Alice Guy was hired by Léon Gaumont to work for a still-photography company as a secretary. The company soon went out of business but Gaumont bought the defunct operations inventory and began his own company that soon became a major force in the fledgling motion picture industry in France. Alice Guy decided to join the new Gaumont Film Company, a decision that led to a pioneering career in filmmaking spanning more than twenty-five years and involving her directing, producing, writing and/or overseeing more than 700 films.

From 1896 to 1906, Alice Guy was Gaumont’s head of production and is generally considered to be the first filmmaker to systematically develop narrative filmmaking. In 1906, she made The Life of Christ, a big budget production for the time, which included 300 extras. As well, she was one of the pioneers in the use of recordings in conjunction with the images on screen in Gaumont’s “Chronophone” system, which used a vertical-cut disc synchronized to the film. An innovator, she employed special effects, using double exposure masking techniques and even running a film backwards.

Solax, USA
In 1907 Alice Guy married Herbert Blaché who was soon appointed the production manager for Gaumont’s operations in the United States. After working with her husband for Gaumont in the USA, the two struck out on their own in 1910, partnering with George A. Magie in the formation of The Solax Company, the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America. With production facilities for their new company in Flushing, New York, her husband served as production manager as well as cinematographer and Alice Guy-Blaché worked as the artistic director, directing many of its releases. Within two years they had become so successful that they were able to invest more than $100,000 into new and technologically advanced production facilities in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a place that was quickly becoming the film capital of America and home to many major film studios. It was commented on in publications of the era that Guy-Blaché placed a large sign in her studio reading “ACT NATURALLY”.

Post-Solax
Alice Guy and her husband divorced several years later, and with the decline of the East Coast film industry in favour of the more hospitable and cost effective climate in Hollywood, their film partnership also ended.

Following her separation, and after Solax ceased production, Alice Guy-Blaché went to work for William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service. She returned to France in 1922 and although she never made another film, for the next 30 years she gave lectures on film and wrote novels from film scripts. All but forgotten for decades, in 1953 the government of France awarded her the Legion of Honor.

Alice Guy-Blaché never remarried and in 1964 she returned to the United States to stay with her daughter. She died in a nursing home in Mahwah, New Jersey.

Selected filmography
La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) (1896)
Little Tich and his Big Boots (1900)
Sage-femme de première classe (First Class Midwife) (1902)
Danses Gitanes (1905)
La Esméralda (1905) (based on the Victor Hugo novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
L’Emeute sur la Barricade (1906)
The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906)
Madame’s Fancies (1907)
La Saucisse (1907)
The Glue (1907)
The Irresistible Piano (1907)
A Fool and His Money (1912)
Algie the Miner (1912)
Making an American Citizen (1912)

Falling Leaves (1912)
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)
The Ocean Waif (1916)
House of Cards (1917)
The Great Adventure (1918)
Vampire (1920)

Posthumous tributes
The Fort Lee Film Commission of Fort Lee, New Jersey, has worked with Alice Guy Blaché biographer Alison McMahan to create one of the only existing historic markers dedicated to the role Alice Guy Blaché played as the first woman film director and studio owner. The marker is located on Lemoine Avenue adjacent to the Fort Lee High School and on the site of Solax Studio. The Fort Lee Film Commission is currently at work with other organizations to gain Alice Guy Blaché entry in the Directors Guild of America and to also secure a star for her on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Finally, the Fort Lee Film Commission will work to get a proper marker on the Bergen County, New Jersey, grave of Alice Guy Blaché to signify her role as a pioneer in world cinema history

In 1995, a National Film Board of Canada documentary The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché told her pioneering story. In 2002, film scholar Alison McMahan published Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema. Along with the director’s own memoirs, another book, edited by Joan Simon, is Alice Guy-Blaché, Cinema Pioneer. Good to see a review of the book in Sight & Sound (March 11 edition), with Bryony Dixon encouraging the study of her career as a “key part of an ongoing international effort to examine the role of women in film, past and present”.


Thanks to wikipedia.

Still, so few of her films are on Mubi! You will find quite a few of them on youtube- though sadly some like the delightful Little Tich and La Saucisse have been removed-, and elsewhere. Her great great grand-daughter from Spain, who i felt very honoured to converse with online- such are the wonders of the net, and what a link to cinema history!-, has done sterling work in promoting her.
~


L’Opéra a l’Envers (The Opera in Paris Backwards)


Pantomime Lesbienne (1st lesbian film?)


Miss Dundee, Dog Trainer


Danses Gitanes (when i see the little girl in the first 2 dances i wonder at the dehumanising treatment of romanies and how such children as well as adults ended up in the concentration camps.)


Spain, filmed by Alice in 1905


Langue Collante/Sticky Tongue, (1st screen kiss with tongue)


L’Emeute sur la Barricade


The Consequences of Feminism (for a boundary buster, a reactionary take on absurdities of gender role reversal)


The Irresistible Piano


Madame’s Fancies


Heroine

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