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(Last year's documentary about her was outstanding. Only $3.99 on
NY Times, Sept. 6, 2019
Overlooked No More: Alice Guy Blaché, the World’s First Female Filmmaker
By Manohla Dargis
In 1911, The Moving Picture News wrote that Alice Guy Blaché, the first
female filmmaker in history, was a “fine example of what a woman can do
if given a square chance in life.”
Blaché had already founded a successful film company in the United
States by the time the article was published, announcing a new studio
she was opening in New Jersey. She soon built that studio, adding to her
triumphs. Cinema was Blaché’s passion — she called it her Prince
Charming — and it took her across continents and centuries in a life
shaped both by soaring achievements and by some of the same struggles
that women moviemakers face today.
She was aware of her singularity.
“I have produced some of the biggest productions ever released by a
motion picture company,” Blaché told the entertainment weekly The New
York Clipper in 1912. “I am the only woman who is directing companies
before the camera.”
She made — directed, produced or supervised (often doing triple duty) —
about 1,000 films, many of them short, the standard at the time.
She would later leave the industry at a time when her life was marred by
personal and professional disappointments, then spend years trying to
claim her place in the very history that she had helped make.
Like other trailblazing women from cinema’s formative years, Blaché has
been discovered, somehow overlooked and rediscovered anew. Only now,
largely because of the feminist film scholars who are writing women back
into history, does her place seem secure.
Blaché got her start in films when she was 22 and working as a secretary
in Paris for Léon Gaumont, an inventor who had begun manufacturing
motion-picture cameras. To demonstrate them to clients, his company made
short films that Blaché thought could be better.
“I had read a good deal,” she wrote in “The Memoirs of Alice Guy
Blaché,” which was ushered into publication posthumously in 1976 by the
historian Anthony Slide. And she had done some “amateur theatricals.”
Blaché, center, in a scene from “Sage-Femme de Premiére Classe” (“First
Class Midwife”), from 1902, about a young couple who go shopping for a
baby. (Blaché played the husband.)CreditPhotograph Collections of the
Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
She asked Gaumont if she could film a few scenes.
“It seems like a silly, girlish thing to do,” Gaumont told her, Blaché
recalled many decades later in a French television interview, “but you
can try if you want. On one condition: that your office work does not
Armed with a cameraman, an actress and a painted backdrop, she made “La
Fée aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”) in 1896, her first film. A
pantomimed one-minute charmer, it shows a young woman who, with a smile
and a bosom wreathed in flowers, plucks squalling naked babies from a
cabbage patch constructed out of wood. Some historians believe that
Blaché’s inaugural effort was “Sage-Femme de Premiére Classe” (“First
Class Midwife”) her 1902 remake about a young couple who go shopping for
a baby. (Blaché played the husband.)
Gaumont soon made Blaché the head of film production at his company,
where she produced and supervised hundreds of films, helped create an
organized studio system years before Hollywood was a company town and
trained luminaries of the art like Louis Feuillade. When she moved to
the United States, where she resumed her film career, her time at
Gaumont was touted in profiles. In 1912, the trade journal The Movie
Picture World, wrote: “She inaugurated the presentation of little plays
on the screen by that company some 16 or 17 years ago.”
Alice Ida Antoinette Guy was born in Saint-Mandé, on the eastern edge of
Paris, on July 1, 1873. Her parents, Marie and Émile Guy, were French
but lived in Chile, where her father was a bookseller; Marie returned to
France for Alice’s birth and then left the child with a grandmother.
Three years later, Marie returned for Alice, and they sailed to Chile.
While passing through the Strait of Magellan, near Chile’s southern tip,
as she recalled in her memoir, she conjured up fairies and beasts on
walls of ice — an early, whimsical prelude to her screen reveries.
Assorted tragedies in Chile followed, and the Guys eventually returned
to France, but over time the family disintegrated, leaving Alice to
support her mother.
Much of Alice’s early years seemed to prepare her for a life in cinema,
filled as they were with adventures, deprivations and moments of
fortitude. In her first secretarial position, in an all-male factory,
she recalled, she boldly stood up to a sexual harasser.
“My youth, my inexperience, my sex,” Blaché wrote of her entrance into
moviemaking, “all conspired against me.” But she was hardworking and
tenacious, and would prove to be prolific.
In 1894, she talked Gaumont, then the second-in-command at a photography
company, into hiring her. Not long after, Gaumont formed his own company
and Blaché became a pioneer, making films that were colored by hand and
others that used a pioneering sound system, which synced visuals with
prerecorded wax cylinders. Blaché can be seen in one clip starting a
phonograph while she directs both the cast and the crew. Among her
Gaumont titles are “La Femme Collante,” a risqué charmer about a maid
with an amusingly sticky tongue, and “Le Matelas Alcoolique” about a
peripatetic mattress with a drunken man sewn into it.
In 1907, she married Herbert Blaché, another Gaumont employee, and
resigned as head of film production to accompany him to the United
States, where he was sent to promote Gaumont’s sync-sound film system.
The undertaking was a bust. But in 1910, two years after giving birth to
their daughter, Simone, Alice Blaché formed the Solax Company and began
making her own movies. She was so successful that in 1912 — the year she
gave birth to their son, Reginald — Blaché built her own
state-of-the-art studio in Fort Lee, N.J., then a bustling film town.
She kept up a heroic pace at Solax. She would jump in her car or on a
horse to scout locations, including an orphanage, an opium parlor, night
court and Sing Sing prison, where she declined the invitation to witness
an execution. She supervised other directors and assistants, oversaw a
stock company of adult and child actors, and corralled a menagerie of
animal performers, among them rats, lions, panthers and a 600-pound
tiger named Princess. On one studio wall she hung a sign that read, “Be
Her interest in realism as well as performance dovetailed with what her
biographer Alison McMahan said was Blaché’s greatest achievement. Her
films, McMahan said in a phone interview, “focused on the psychological
perspective of the central characters.
Blaché told The Clipper in 1912: “I have always impressed upon my
associate directors that success comes only to those who give the public
what it wants, plus something else. That something else I would call our
individuality, if you please.”
Blaché expanded her repertoire at Solax with cowboy films like “Two
Little Rangers,” which features a pair of gun-toting heroines, one of
them a girl with long curls who backs a villain off a cliff. Whether or
not it was feminist by design, the film is feminist by default. Blaché
wondered if women were ready for the right to vote, but in her actions
and in her films she expressed female drives, desires and
At Solax, she successfully made the transition to feature filmmaking,
creating longer, more narratively complex titles that were
well-received, though they also entailed higher production costs and
longer preparations. Yet while Blaché navigated the shift to features
creatively, she didn’t weather the seismic changes affecting the
fast-growing movie world, including monopolistic distribution practices.
By 1914, she and Herbert Blaché had joined forces with another
enterprise for which they both directed.
The last chapter of Blaché’s filmmaking career was marred by setbacks
and disappointments both in her new ventures with her husband and as a
director for hire. She made “The Ocean Waif,” a touching romance about
an abused young woman and a writer that gives (almost) equal weight to both.
Other films followed, but by the time she directed the well-regarded
“Her Great Adventure,” Blaché was struggling with her health, financial
difficulties, a broken marriage and continued industry upheaval. She
declined to direct a “Tarzan” movie. In 1922, the Solax studio was
auctioned off, and Blaché, now divorced, returned to France with her two
In France she tried to find film work with no luck. It’s unclear why she
didn’t succeed, although by the 1920s, the movies were a big business
and no longer as hospitable to women who wanted to make their own films.
She sold her books, paintings and other possessions and wrote articles
and children’s stories.
She and her daughter, who worked for the American Foreign Service, spent
the last years of World War II in Switzerland, where Blaché began
writing her memoir. She also tried to find her films, but most were
unavailable and presumed lost. She nevertheless persevered, gave
interviews and in time gained some recognition for her pioneering role
Blaché wrote of her life: “It is a failure; is it a success? I don’t
know.” She died on March, 24, 1968, in a nursing home in New Jersey. She
In 2012, the Fort Lee Film Commission installed a new gravestone for
Blaché. The original one had noted only her name and the dates of her
birth and death. The new memorial states that Alice Guy Blaché was
“first woman motion picture director,” the “first woman studio head” and
the “president of the Solax Company, Fort Lee, N.J.”
The memorial is also adorned with the Solax logo: an image of the sun
rising on a new day.
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