Spotlight On Alice Guy-Blaché

Alice Guy in 1896 (Wikimedia ~ Public Domain)

First Female Director

·      The first woman director

·      One of the first fiction filmmakers.

·      The first director to film a narrative story.

·      She was probably the first female filmmaker in the world.

·      One of the first filmmakers to have a cast of all African American actors. 

·      She was a French pioneer filmmaker.

·      Years Active from the late 19th century‎: ‎1894–1922

Alice Guy-Blaché (also known as Alice Guy

(July 1, 1873 – March 24, 1968)

The first time I had ever heard her name was when Amy Harrison asked me, “Do you know who Alice Guy is?”  I said no. Amy replied, “She’s the very first female film director and one of the first filmmakers.”  I had no idea. 

I was intrigued to learn who she was, but embarrassed that I did not know about Alice Guy-Blaché. I sat down, turned on Netflix, and watched the documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy- Blaché (2018). 

Synopsis of the Film on Netflix:  Be Natural : The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is a two-hour feature documentary, narrated by Jodie Foster, investigating the full scope of the life and work of cinema's first female director, screenwriter, producer, and studio owner Alice Guy-Blaché.   

After watching the documentary, I realized that women directors/filmmakers coming before us have opened the door to this brilliant, magical, powerful world of filmmaking. Alice Guy didn’t ask if it was okay to be a female director, she never thought to knock on the door, she just walked through it, picked up a camera and made movies. I am grateful that she took that first step for all of us. She truly is an inspiration and I appreciate knowing who she is. Thank you, Amy Harrison, for the introduction.

She was artistic director and a co-founder of Solax Studios in Flushing, New York.  In 1912, Solax invested $100,000 for a new studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the center of American filmmaking prior to the establishment of Hollywood.  That year, she made the film A Fool and His Money; probably the first film to have an all-African-American cast.  The film is now at the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute

Encyclopedia Britannica
Hired as Léon Gaumont’s secretary, Guy directed her first moving picture, La Fée aux choux (“The Cabbage Fairy”), in 1896 to demonstrate the entertainment possibilities of the motion-picture camera manufactured by her employer. (Many historians support Guy’s claim that her fairy tale preceded the story films of Georges Méliès, but a few date her film to as late as 1900.) She soon thereafter became the Gaumont film company’s head of production, directing nearly all the Gaumont films made until 1905, when the company’s growth necessitated her hiring additional directors.

Most of the early Gaumont films were inexpensively produced and ran for only a minute or two, but about 1901 Guy began working on slightly longer, more elaborate projects, notably Esmeralda (1905), based on Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and La Vie du Christ (1906; “The Life of Christ”). She experimented with cinematic tricks and learned through experience to mask off parts of the film picture, use double exposures, and run film backward to achieve certain desired effects. From 1906 to 1907 she directed about 100 short “sound” pictures, using Gaumont’s Chronophone, which synchronized the filmed image with sound recorded on a wax cylinder.

In 1907 Guy married cameraman Herbert Blaché and followed him to the United States, where in 1910 she established the financially and critically successful Solax Company. As president of Solax, she directed 40 to 50 films and supervised nearly 300 other productions. By 1912 the company had outgrown its original site in Flushing, New York, so she built a new, state-of-the-art studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. In 1913, however, she and her husband established a new company, and Solax closed the next year. Guy-Blaché continued to direct for her husband’s companies, and when changes in the industry put the Blachés and other independents out of business, she worked briefly for some of the bigger studios.

Guy-Blaché moved to France with her two children in 1922 after her marriage failed. She was unable to find work in the film industry there, however. Indeed, as time passed, she discovered that many of her accomplishments had been forgotten or, worse, had been credited to one of her male colleagues. The French government belatedly awarded her the Legion of Honour in 1953. In 1964 she returned to the United States, where she remained until her death. Her memoirs, Autobiographie d’une pionnière du cinéma, 1873–1968 (The Memoires of Alice Guy Blaché; 1986) were published in 1976, but only a handful of the hundreds of films she made survive.

If you know about Alice Guy-Blaché, I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. If you don't know about her, I highly suggest you watch the documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy- Blaché (2018).

Julie Rubio

Director, Business

Women In Film
San Francisco Bay Area