Women You Missed in History Class: Alice Guy-Blaché

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Alice Guy-Blache (1873-1968)

Hollywood has an undeniable woman problem, both in front of the camera and behind it.  Only 7% of the top films of 2016 were directed by women, and that percentage has been declining.  Only four female directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar, and Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win Best Director.  The lack of female directors in Hollywood is a pretty well known problem, but what you might not know is that the “French film pioneer who invented the director’s job” was a woman.  Alice Guy-Blaché was born July 1, 1873 in Saint-Mandé, France.  Her father owned a publishing company in Chile, but her mother insisted on traveling to France for Alice’s birth so that “one of her children should be French.”  The family returned to Chile shortly after, but Alice and her sisters were sent back to France to be educated in a convent on the Swiss border.  After her father died in 1893, Alice began working as a typist and stenographer in order to support herself and her mother.  She got a job working as a secretary for Léon Gaumont, one of the earliest filmmakers.

In 1895, Gaumont and Guy-Blaché attended the first demonstration of film projection, some footage shot by the Lumière brothers.  The film shown at the demonstration consisted of just a scene of workers leaving the Lumière factory, but Guy-Blaché could already see that film could be used for much more.  She saw that film didn’t have to be limited to documenting events for “demonstration films;” it could be used to tell stories, too.  She asked her boss for permission to use some of the equipment to make her own film on her own time.  He thought the idea was silly and naive, but he gave her permission anyway.  He certainly never anticipated that his 23-year-old secretary would make the world’s first narrative film.  Guy-Blaché wrote, produced, and directed her first film in 1896 on the back patio of Gaumont’s laboratories using borrowed equipment.  The film, called The Cabbage Fairy, told the story of a woman growing children in a cabbage patch.

From 1896 to 1906, Guy-Blaché was head of production for Gaumont’s film company, and was most likely the only female filmmaker in the world at the time.  During that time, she directed and produced almost six hundred films.  She was one of the first filmmakers to experiment with the use of synchronized sound using Gaumont’s Chronophone system.  She also pioneered the use of early special effects like masking techniques, double exposure, and running film backwards.  The most notable film she made for Gaumont was her 1906 film The Life of Christ.  This was one of the first “big budget” films.  It was 30 minutes long and featured 25 different sets and over 300 extras.  Film was still a relatively new industry, and the job of a director hadn’t really been defined, but during her time with Gaumont, Guy-Blaché essentially invented the role of movie director.

Guy-Blaché left Gaumont’s production company in 1907 and relocated to the United States.  In 1910, she became the first woman to build and run her own film studio.  The Solax Company was the largest pre-Hollywood film studio, located first in Queens, New York and then in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the center of the pre-Hollywood East Coast film industry.  Solax usually released two or three films every week (That was easier to do back when movies were 10 minutes long.), and as artistic director, Guy-Blaché directed or supervised almost all of them.  In 1912, she made a film called A Fool and His Money, which was the first film ever to feature an all-African American cast.  She also made a film called In the Year 2000, When Women Are in Charge.  Oh, Alice, if only you’d been right about that one.

Guy-Blaché directed her last film in 1920 and returned to France, where she continued to write scripts and give lectures on film, but stayed away from production.  By the time she retired, she had made over 1,000 films.  In 1930, Gaumont published a history of his film company and the early film industry, but made no mention whatsoever of Guy-Blaché.  She was extremely troubled by her absence from records of film history, and wrote to Gaumont to demand that he revise his account to give her proper credit for her work.  She saw her contributions to film being erased and began compiling lists of all her films in the hopes that she would be able to get credit for her work.  Until her death in 1968, she feared her life’s work would be lost or forgotten, and for decades, that seemed to be the case.  It’s only in recent years that the remarkable career of the world’s first female film director has started to get some of the attention it deserves.

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