March 9, 2017

Alice Guy-Blaché, the World's First Female Filmmaker, Wrote, Directed, and Produced Over 700 Films

Alice Guy-Blaché
A pioneer filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blaché started making films at the birth of cinema and built the largest pre-Hollywood studio.

From 1896 to 1906, Alice Guy-Blachè was "probably the only woman filmmaker in the world," and, in a decades-long career that saw both the birth of motion pictures and the ascendance of cinema as a global powerhouse, she wrote, directed, produced, or, supervised the production of between 750 and 1,000 films (silent and talkie). 22 were feature length, but only 350 of her films survive. 

Alice Guy was born in France in 1873, and began her career as secretary to one of cinema's technological pioneers, Léon Gaumont, a French inventor and early film distributor, whose Chromophone was one of the first widely-used sync sound systems (during motion picture sound's "wild west" period). She attended meetings with pioneers such as the Lumière Bros. (who exhibited some of the first ever motion pictures in 1895, an event at which she and Gaumont were present) and was a quick study. At the time, films such as those of the Lumières were defiantly non-narrative, instead documenting everyday events—the aforementioned screening featured a short consisting of a single shot of workers leaving the Brothers' factory at the end of the day, as well as one of a train arriving

"My youth, my lack of experience, my sex all conspired against me."

Guy realized film's potential as a storytelling medium, and, according to her autobiography, approached her employer: "I thought I could do better…Gathering up my courage, I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I would write one or two short plays and make them for the amusement of my friends. If the developments which evolved from this proposal [the global success of the motion picture business] could have been foreseen, then I probably never would have obtained his agreement. My youth, my lack of experience, my sex all conspired against me."

Her first film, 1896's La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), is a fantastical, humorous short about a woman growing up in a cabbage patch; along with some of Georges Méliès' shorts of the same year, it vies for the title of first narrative film in history. Guy was 23.

Filmed at a small house supplied by Gaumont with a minimal cast that included her friends, Guy later recounted the production: "In this place, I made my debut as a director. A sheet painted by a neighbourhood painter who specialised primarily in scarecrows and the like; a vague set—rows of cabbages constructed by a carpenter; costumes rented around the Porte St Martin. The cast: my friends, a crying baby, a worried mother. My first film thus saw the light."

"My first film thus saw the light."

As the world's only female director for the next decade, Guy's films shared many elements with those of Méliès and the Lumière Bros.—the Fandor video notes that many of her films contained extensive experimentation with early visual effects techniques like double exposure and hand-tinting, and, like the latter, many were also travelogues and scenes from everyday life. She also consistently made ground in her quest to develop an aesthetic of narrative filmmaking at a time when filmmaking was still deciding what it was going to be. In 1906, Guy released her most ambitious production to date, La Vie du Christa thirty-minute extravaganza "that featured twenty-five sets as well as numerous exterior locations and over three hundred extras." 

The following year, Guy married the British-born director Herbert Blaché (who worked for Gaumont, too), and moved to the U.S. In 1910, the two founded Solax, the largest pre-Hollywood studio, first in Flushing, Queens, and two years later in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the "original" Hollywood, where the rest of the early motion picture business was located (a few years later, Thomas Edison's monopoly would drive the industry west.)

From 1910 to 1914, Guy-Blaché oversaw the production of 325 films, editing all scripts and directing 35-50 of them herself (including A Fool and his Money, the first ever film to feature an all African-American cast), all while raising two children and building "a $100,000 state-of-the-art studio replete with carpentry shops, prop rooms, dressing rooms, five stage sets, labs, dark rooms, and projection rooms. The studio’s grounds were sculpted to accommodate an abundance of landscapes, which [she] patrolled on horseback." 

Alice Guy Blaché woman filmmaker director fandor keyframe hollywood no film school history women's day
Guy-Blachè on set at Solax

In 1914, Solax switched exclusively to features, but the outbreak of World War I and Gaumont's withdrawal to France forced the studio to seek outside funding, putting Alice and Herbert in a tenuous business position. Solax would go through numerous name changes before its eventual sale in 1922, and the two spent time during working as directors for hire.

The couple divorced in 1922, with Herbert remaining in Hollywood and Alice returning to France, where she lectured on film and wrote fiction, though never directed another film. Decades later, she returned to the U.S. to live with her daughter, and died at the age of 94, in 1968. She is buried in New Jersey, near the site of her greatest cinematic successes. 

Though many of her films have not survived, having been shot on obsolete formats, or lost to highly flammable nitrate stock, Guy-Blaché's memoir was among the means she used to retrospectively claim rightful credit for her place in the film industry as a pioneer. Recognition has come to her slowly, trickling outwards from the academic community.

A few years ago, our own V. Reneé conducted an interview with the filmmakers behind Be Natural (the slogan Guy-Blaché kept on prominent display at Solax), a documentary on her life and career that's still in post, and which you can donate to by clicking here. As more and more people learn about Alice Guy-Blachè and her contributions to early cinema, she will no doubt take her rightful place in history for the tremendously important role she played in the birth of the movies.

Your Comment

13 Comments

This is great stuff! Alice deserves to be studies more by young filmmakers to understand just how big a name she was in the early days. That said, the pic above of the woman standing against the camera is Mary Pickford and not Alice, I'm fairly certain. Those two were both titans of their time!

March 9, 2017 at 1:28PM

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Scott Napolitano
Screenwriter/Video Production Instructor
74

Thanks, Scott. We appreciate you pointing this out via our Twitter feed so we could correct it! Maybe we should write up a post about Mary Pickford next.

March 9, 2017 at 6:43PM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

I find the pioneer period of film to be fascinating to look at. It's so different in many ways from the way Hollywood is set up now, with women having a lot more power as producers and creators. And as a filmmaker in NJ, I love seeing how much early work was shot here in the backyard. I had no idea Alice set up shop in Fort Lee and is even buried here! I'll have to take a trip up there some time, see if I can find where the old Solax Studio was.

And yes! Pickford's story is one worth sharing- definitely worth a write-up.

March 11, 2017 at 12:28PM

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Scott Napolitano
Screenwriter/Video Production Instructor
74

Hello Christopher. Thank you posting the video I made for Fandor. As I mention above regarding Scott's comment, it is Alice Guy Blache in the video. Not a mistake. I got the clip from a documentary on Youtube, produced by the University of Nebraska - UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon. I kind of doubt an expert would have gotten this wrong. Next time it will be awesome to check it out before you agree that the video needs a correction. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqlD7RLoNAI

April 1, 2017 at 10:53AM

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Catherine Stratton
Filmmaker
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As the author of this post as well as the source of the erroneous picture, I'd like to extend my sincere thanks as well; that was a bone-headed move on my part, and Chris fixed it quick, but you pointed it out, and I'm glad you did. Thank you, sir.

March 20, 2017 at 4:22PM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

Justin - thank you for including the video I made for Fandor in your post. It would have been wonderful if you had given me credit and a link to my site - www.strattonfilms.com. I hope you can add this now, or at the very least, do this for other freelancers like me in the future. It would have also been wonderful if you had mentioned that the video received a Staff Pick from Vimeo. I'm having a lot of trouble replying properly on these comments to the right people - :P - but as I say in my comments to Scott and Christopher - that IS Alice Guy Blache in the clip which i got from a doc on YouTube made by a Film Studies professor at the University of Nebraska. Mary Pickford may have acted in one of Alice's films but, as far as I know, she never worked with Alice on set. So you are not boneheaded! :) Thank you again, and I'd love to get a response. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqlD7RLoNAI

April 1, 2017 at 11:16AM

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Catherine Stratton
Filmmaker
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Sorry Here's the link to 'Frame by Frame: Alice Guy Blache: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqlD7RLoNAI

April 1, 2017 at 10:41AM, Edited April 1, 10:49AM

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Catherine Stratton
Filmmaker
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Hi Scott Thank you for enjoying the video you made for Fandor. That is Alice Guy by the camera however, she is recording the sound on the Chronophone system - as I point out in the video. Here is the link to the documentary on Guy that I got the clip from. I didn't find anything in my research that Mary Pickford worked on - crew wise - on any film with Alice. If you find anything different, please let me know. Thanks again.

April 1, 2017 at 10:47AM

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Catherine Stratton
Filmmaker
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Great story, I'd never heard of her before. Thank you!

March 9, 2017 at 4:42PM, Edited March 9, 4:42PM

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Vincent Galiano
Filmmaker / Screenwriter / Photographer
225

Thank you vincent. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I loved making it for Fandor.

April 1, 2017 at 10:56AM

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Catherine Stratton
Filmmaker
8

Another great historical piece.

Salud,

A.S.

March 9, 2017 at 6:03PM, Edited March 9, 6:03PM

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Thank you for enjoying the video I made for Fandor!! It was a joy to make!

April 1, 2017 at 10:56AM

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Catherine Stratton
Filmmaker
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Hello, I want to thank you so much for posting the film I made for Fandor. It would be great if you could have included my name though. Catherine Stratton www.strattonfilms.com. Us freelancers need all the support we can get as when we make these films, the credit and hits benefit the company, not us. Thanks so much again for posting it. It was a revelation to me that Alice Guy even existed and a joy to make it.

March 27, 2017 at 10:53AM, Edited March 27, 10:53AM

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Catherine Stratton
Filmmaker
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