A pioneer and visionary of the early days of cinema. Her history forgotten and ignored.
Most film makers have never heard of her but they should have. Alice Ida Antoinette Guy-Blaché was the first woman film director and possibly the first person to ever make a fiction narrative film. She experimented with visionary effects, colour and even sound years before anyone else did. The year was 1895 and Alice was working as a secretary in France forthe inventor Leon Gaumont. Motion picture at that time was predicted to be the next big thing, however the only way you could watch pictures in motion was through Thomas Edisons Kinetoscope (as amazing as it was it was not very practical considering the size, cost and that only one person could view it at a time). Then one day Gaumont and his secretary were invited to a private demonstration by his good friends the Lumière brothers.This demonstration was for their new invention The Cinematograph, a motion picture camera that could also project the image onto a big screen. It was the beginning of cinema as we know it and Alice was there to witness it all.
The films made at the time were mainly for documenting daily life in the 1890's; workers leaving a factory, a tram going through a town or a train pulling into a station. Alice's boss Leon Gaumont would go on to manufacture his own camera system and he began to film everyday activities as well. Alice Guy-Blaché had a different idea and asked Gaumont if she could film a scene herself, but a fictional one. He thought it was a silly juvenile idea but as long it didn't interfere with her work she could have a go. Her 60-second debut was born 'The Cabbage Fairy' (a story of a couple who longed for children and a fairy who conjures up babies from cabbages). Without knowing it she had made history, the first woman to ever direct a film and the first fiction film to ever be made.
Gaumont was so pleased with it that he decided to enter the movie making business and appoint Alice as the head of production at Gaumont Pictures. Over the next decade she worked on hundreds of films for the company where it seems she did everything from producing, writing, directing, casting to set design and more. She experimented with now-standard techniques such as editing, early special effects and hand-tinted colour. Among her films were comedies, dramas, romance and dance films. She even invented the music video with her use of Gaumonts invention of the chronophone (by which actors were filmed lip-syncing to a prerecorded playback). Unfortunately her success in a male dominated industry, rubbed people up the wrong way and they tried to sabotage her. On her biggest movie to date someone purposely burned down sets and forced her to go over budget, luckily there were people who greatly admired Alice including the engineer Gustave Eiffel (yes the Effiel Tower) who vouched for her and she was allowed to continue and finish the film.
In 1908 she married Herbert Blaché and they moved to the United States. After working with her husband for Gaumont in the U.S., the two struck out on their own in 1910, partnering with George A. Magie. They rented a small part of Gaumonts studio and began The Solax Company.
Within a few years Solax was so successful that they were able to invest $100,000in a state of the art studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was the centre of filmmaking before Hollywood. Their neighbours were 20th Century Fox, Universal and other film giants. Her films challenged social norms and often featured women in important roles. One of her films 'A fool and his money' was the first film to feature an all African American cast. The plot focuses on people becoming wealthy and taking on an aristocratic lifestyle. The film was only rediscovered by California engineer David Navone, who found four reels of early 1910s films in a trunk he purchased at an estate sale. He gave them to the American Film Institute. Despite her wild success her work was forgotten to the history books.There are a few reasons for this, one being in 1914 WW1 had broken out which of course affected a lot of things including the motion picture industry. Another was the new fees imposed by Thomas Edison who owned many patents on the movie making process. This forced the major studios to move elsewhere. In search of a more consistent climate for all year round filming, they chose California as their new base. Alice's husband decides to make the move himself though not with Alice but a young actress. Alice stays in New Jersey and continues to make films but Solax struggles and in 1919 a fire breaks out and burns the studio down. Alice doesn't give up and begins a new film 'Tarnished Reputations'.But, in the process she contracts The Spanish Flu and almost dies. The business doesn't recover and everything that wasn't destroyed in the fire, has to be auctioned off. During the middle of this terribleordeal, a polio epidemic sweeps through the northeast. Alice is forced to flee with her children to Canada. After her divorce is finalised they return to France.
Guy's efforts to work in the French Film Industry including The Gaumont Studio in Nice do not come to fruition. She said "nobody wants to hire a white-haired woman as a director". She returns to the US in 1927 to get the copies of her films totry and find work, but finds none. When the silent movie era ends two years later she resigns to the fact her movie career is over.The industry moved on so fast that everyone forgot about her. In 1930 Leon Gaumont published a book about the history of Gaumont Company but mentions nothing before 1907 which subsequently leaves out any mention of Alice. Newspapers and documentaries often gave the wrong information, any mention of Solax and herfilms were credited to her husband or the wrong Directors. Thiswas probably due both thefact she was a woman and sheer incompetence. In the 1940's she began to write her memoirs and beginsa correspondence with Leon Gaumont's son, Louis. In 1954 Louis gives a speech on 'Madame Alice Guy-Blaché, The First Woman Filmmaker' and says she has been "unjustly forgotten'. Film historians begin to take notice and she slowly starts appearing back in the history books and finally allowing for her story to be told. In 1955 Alice is awarded the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honour.