Alice Guy Blache (1873-1968)
Alice Guy was born in 1873 to an upper middle-class family in Paris. After she finished school at a convent in Switzerland, Leon Gaumont of the new Gaumont Studios hired her as a secretary. She began to take on more responsibilities at his studio and soon became part of the new film industry in France; she assisted Gaumont in building a 35mm camera and a pioneering projector.
In 1896, at age 23, Guy became the world’s first female director. She directed La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), which some consider to be the first film with a clear plot line. While still in France, she followed up with films on several different topics. She experimented with one of the first sound machines in the world, and in 1905 and 1906, directed films using this new technology.
Alice Guy met English cameraman Herbert Blaché while filming a movie on location in Europe. The two married in 1906, and soon after their wedding, went to New York to run Gaumont’s American office. The move appears to mean that he followed her established career with Gaumont, not vice versa, but he headed its New York office while she bore their daughter. Simone.
When she returned to the movie scene two years later, Guy-Blaché opened her own studio, Solax, in 1910. Her husband still was running Gaumont, and they moved in a world of exciting innovations and innovators. As president of Solax, she would write, direct, and/or otherwise contribute to the production of more than 700 films. At its height, Solax produced an average of two films a week. Of course they were short, with most running about ten minutes, and like all films of that era, lacked quality sound.
Yet Guy-Blaché was so talented that she managed to develop complex plots in that short, silent time. Alger, the Miner (1912), for example, is the story of an effete urban man who goes West and changes not only himself, but also a man he meets. Critic Bret Wood says, “93 years prior to Brokeback Mountain (2005), a gay cowboy…was already pioneering that cultural frontier in Alice Guy-Blaché’s comedy short.”
A second film in that same year also was notable: The Making of an American Citizen demonstrated the difficulties of a young couple adjusting to the United States -- a subject of personal experience for Guy-Blaché, as well as of national interest in this era of an unprecedented number of newcomers from Europe.
That immigration came to an abrupt halt when World War I, but Blanché continued the creativity she had pioneered in France, especially in plot lines. Some film historians consider her House Divided (1913) to be the first American film with a detailed plot. It featured a couple whose marriage almost broke up because of a series of misunderstandings. Like her films on immigration and on non-stereotypical cowboys, Guy-Blaché used a comedic approach to address more profound issues.
House Divided especially could have had an underlying serious intent, as the director may have been foreshadowing her own experience: the Blachés divorced in 1922. After that, individual success would elude her. Like many female innovators who do well until during the creative phase of an idea, she found herself marginalized as the movie industry institutionalized and bureaucratized under corporate managements during the Roaring Twenties. With Simone, she returned to France, but postwar France was impoverished; its once-budding movie industry was dying; and she unsuccessful in her attempts to continue her innovative career.
Although Alice Guy Blaché has been omitted from most American film histories, her contribution to the industry merits recognition: she was one of the first people to experiment with sound technology in films, and she made “talkies” long before the first “official” talkie in 1927. She also developed distinctive techniques that made her films identifiable as her own. She was one of the first directors to use deep-focus photography, and her movies were highly theatrical, with lush and expensive sets.
The French government belatedly recognized her in 1953, granting its prestigious Legion of Honor in a Paris ceremony. When she died in her 95th year, the cinematic world had moved far beyond anything that might have been imagined when she first experimented with photography and sound.
Although most of Alice Guy-Blache’s films have been lost, some can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art Film Library and the National Archives in Washington, DC. Well-respected Turner Classic Movies calls her “without doubt the first female director in the history of the cinema.”