Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Alice Guy-Blaché

This blog is named after Alice Guy-Blaché - a pioneer in filmmaking who has not only been forgotten, but was forgotten during her own lifetime. By taking a look at her life, I hope in a small way to help restore her reputation as a groundbreaking filmmaker whose influence is still felt today.


-         Born on 1 July 1873 near Paris, France, Alice Guy-Blaché was definitively the 1st Woman Filmmaker in the World - and for 17 years she was the only woman filmmaker in the world.

-         After spending her childhood in Switzerland, Chile and France, she learned typing and shorthand to become a secretary. In 1894, she was hired by Léon Gaumont in his photographic company.

-         In 1895, Gaumont and Guy-Blaché were invited by the Lumière brothers to witness a demonstration of their 35mm film camera. At that time, people were still filming street scenes, not narrative films. The daughter of a bookseller and an avid reader - who had dabbled in amateur theatre - Guy-Blaché thought "something better can be done".

She asked Gaumont if she could shoot a few scenes with his camera. He agreed, "so long as your office work doesn't suffer".

-         In 1896 Guy-Blaché became the first person to ever write, produce and direct a film. (She is credited for being the second person - after her colleagues the Lumière brothers - to make a narrative film.) The Cabbage Fairy was such a success - selling 80 copies - that Gaumont appointed her Head of All Moving Picture Production.

Still from The Cabbage Fairy
-         For 10 years, Guy-Blaché was head of production for Gaumont - one of the world's major film studios - supervising script preparation, set design and costumes, and overseeing the work of all of the company's film directors. This, in addition to the films she wrote and directed.

-         Between 1900 - 1907, Guy-Blaché directed more than 100 phonoscènes (short films made for Gaumont's chronophone.)

-         In 1906, her film The Life of Christ was a huge hit in France, noted for its groundbreaking creativity and technical advances.

She's one of the most important figures in the history
of French cinema.
- Alan Williams, author of Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking

-         In 1906, Alice Guy met Herbert Blaché, a Gaumont manager. They married in the spring of 1907.

-         In 1907 Guy-Blaché reluctantly left France to follow her husband to the United States. (Gaumont hired Herbert Blaché to manage his studio in Flushing, NY for the production of English phonoscènes)

-         In 1908, Guy-Blaché gave birth to her daughter Simone. She took two years off before getting back into film production.

-         On 7 Sept. 1910 Guy-Blaché founded her own studio, Solax. She created melodramas, westerns, and slapstick comedies - years before Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

-         In 1911, rich, famous, and happily married, Alice gave birth to her son, Reginald.

-         In 1912, Guy-Blaché was the only woman in the United States earning over $25,000 a year. Her films were so successful that she relocated to Fort Lee, New Jersey where her film studio was the largest in the United States. Her rate of production equaled that of D.W. Griffith, who worked just a few miles away at Biograph.

from newspapers of the time:

"Idea" Woman is Efficient Head of Big Film Company

"Solax owes the success it has enjoyed since its early days entirely to one major asset: Madame Blaché's mastery of cinematic techniques. The result has been excellent production standards."

"The leading figure in the world of cinema could one day be a woman, and that woman will be Alice Guy-Blaché."


-         After Herbert Blaché's contract with Gaumont expired in 1913, Guy-Blaché made her husband president of Solax. After three months, Herbert Blaché resigned to start his own company, Blaché Features. By 1914 Blaché Features effectively took over Solax.

It has long been a source of wonder to me that many women have not seized upon the wonderful opportunities offered to them by the motion picture art, to make their own fame and fortune as producers of photodramas. Of all of the arts there is probably none in which they can make such splendid use of talents so much more natural to a woman than to a man and so necessary to its perfection.
- Alice Guy-Blaché in the film journal Moving Picture World, 1914

-         1914 - 1916: As films became longer, Alice Guy-Blaché began directing features for a number of companies. Guy-Blaché directed 7 features, shot in the studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey (which still belonged to the Blachés).

-         During this time, smaller film companies were being bought by larger conglomerates, and Guy-Blaché's husband began making poor business decisions, including handing over the rights to Guy-Blaché's The Lure for almost no money, after being convinced the film was worthless. The Lure went on to become one of the biggest box office hits of its day.

I put signs all around my studio that said BE NATURAL - that is all I wanted from my actors.
- Alice Guy-Blaché

With those two simple words [BE NATURAL] Alice Guy-Blaché transformed the art of screenacting for all time.
- Anthony Slide, film historian

-         1917: The former Solax studio was rented out to another company. Now 44, Guy-Blaché had the reputation of being an excellent director - much loved by the people she worked with, and always willing to share her technical expertise - but her last few films had not been commercially successful.

-         In 1917, after both of his children became seriously ill, Herbert Blaché sent his wife and children to North Carolina to recuperate. While there, Guy-Blaché served the war effort by volunteering for the Red Cross. Herbert Blaché stayed behind in New Jersey to manage business in Fort Lee.

-         In 1918, Herbert Blaché moved to Hollywood with one of his leading ladies, leaving Alice and his two children behind. Guy-Blaché moved to New York City with her children.

-         In 1919, Guy-Blaché was hired to write and direct what would be her last film, Tarnished Reputations. Guy-Blaché contracted Spanish Influenza during production, which killed four of her colleagues. Herbert Blaché, passing through New York, was so alarmed by Alice's poor health that he invited her to California.

-         In 1920 Alice moved to Los Angeles with her children, hoping to repair her marriage. She worked on two films with her husband - though they did not live together.

-         In 1921, with her marriage and her business in ruins, Guy-Blaché was forced back east to deal with the auctioning off of all of her possessions at the former Solax studio, which had been seized to cover back taxes that the new tenants had neglected to pay. Alice Guy-Blaché watched as everything she owned was sold for a pittance.

They say that America takes back whatever it gives you.
- Alice Guy-Blaché

-         Hopeless, penniless, and divorced, Guy-Blaché returned to France with her children in 1922, having lost her husband, her studio, and her career. She lived with her sister in Nice.

-         1922 - 1930: Guy-Blaché tried to get back into film, but France had forgotten about her. Even her former boss, Gaumont, neglected to mention her in his history of the Gaumont company.

Still from Falling Leaves
-         In an effort to support her children, she wrote children's stories and magazine articles - all under masculine pen names. Alice Guy-Blaché would only sign her real name to her screenplays - but during the difficult years between the wars in Europe, she couldn't find a producer for any of her scripts.

-         One of the most prolific filmmakers of her day, as writer, director, or producer (or all three) she made an estimated 700 films. She worked in every style, format and genre.

-         On 8 December 1954, Louis Gaumont - Léon Gaumont's son - gave a speech in Paris about The First Woman Filmmaker in which he said that Guy-Blaché "has been unjustly forgotten". Film historians begin to take interest in her.

-         In 1955 Alice Guy-Blaché was awarded the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest non-military honor.

-         Alice Guy-Blaché made extensive efforts to find her films - both in the U.S. and France. Only 50 were ever found.

-         Alice Guy-Blaché was unable to find a publisher for her autobiography during her lifetime.

-         She moved with her daughter to New Jersey in 1965 (after having lived with Simone for nearly three decades), where she died in a nursing home in 1968, at the age of 94.

-         Alice Guy-Blaché's Mémoires were finally published in French in 1976, and in English in 1986.

Early film reviewers and commentators were lavish in their praise of Alice Guy-Blaché's artistic accomplishments. They praised her sets, her use of natural locations... There seemed to be no challenge that this extraordinary woman would not take up... Alice Guy-Blaché strived for increasingly spectacular scenes, for more difficult stunts - she knew that was what audiences wanted, what the early reviewers appreciated in her films. It's very hard for a contemporary audience to understand just how sophisticated these films appeared to audiences back then... Pioneers such as Alice Guy-Blaché were discovering cinema, they were discovering the potential of filmmaking.
- Anthony Slide, film historian

The information here is gathered from two sources: the documentary The Lost Garden by Marquise Lepage, and the book Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alison McMahan.

Near the end of the documentary, the narrator utters these chilling words:

"...the collective amnesia that shrouded her work..."

Please take a moment to ponder how someone with such a brilliant reputation and heralded accomplishments could be erased from history - first by the very community in which she worked, and subsequently by the world at large. Guy-Blaché became the world's first auteur filmmaker - 50 years before women in France were given the vote, and 70 years before the French New Wave.

She may have been forgotten because she was a woman, but Alice Guy-Blaché should be remembered for her important contributions as a trailblazing filmmaker.

7 comments:

  1. Hi!

    I really enjoyed reading this, so you've spread the word to at least one person who had never heard of Alice Guy-Blache :)

    I had a thought--why not put this into a short essay and submit it to a feminist or filmmaking blog? One that comes to mind is Gender Across Borders (I interned there). One subsection of the blog is just on TV and film. Seems like this or the "chick flick" post would make a natural addition there. There are a lot of other blogs that would be interested too, like Ms. Magazine and Bitch Blogs. They do a lot of media criticism. If you're feeling especially ranty, Tiger Beatdown is a good place too.

    Best! Kate

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  2. Thanks, Kate!
    I am brand new to blogging, so there's a whole world out there that I'm unfamiliar with. I checked out GAB - and they re-open for submissions in February, so I might give that a try. For now, I posted the link to this piece on Ms. Magazine's Facebook page (so far, I've mostly been using Facebook to promote my blog). Another blogger I consulted said it takes months to develop a following... There's so much stuff out there for people to read, I think I must consider myself lucky to have any followers at all, lol.

    As I mentioned in a previous blog (The Boy's Club), Sweden is making a serious effort to correct the gender imbalance in their film industry, with a goal of having 40% of their films with a woman in a key position (writer, director, or producer). I've only seen one small article about this (in relation to a film grant) -- do you know anything else about it? Just curious.

    Thanks again! Zoje

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  3. No, I don't know much about that, but I'll definitely ask!

    As far as submitting goes... read through some blogs, see what kind of tone they adopt, and then be bold :) You never know what will happen!

    So when are you getting on Twitter? :)

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  4. Came here from Bitch - great post! I cannot believe I didn't know anything about this woman! She sounds incredible, thanks so much. Where could I find her films?

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  5. Thanks, Nat! Every once in awhile a film organization or museum will show a retrospective of her work. There are a few short films available on YouTube (just search on her name). The documentary "The Lost Garden" is available through Netflix, and it includes some clips of her films. Thanks again! :-)

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  6. P.S. "The Lost Garden" includes a lot of footage of Guy-Blache herself, which is also quite interesting!

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