Born on July 1, 1873, in Paris, France, Alice Guy-Blaché was a pioneer in early filmmaking and one of the first to make a narrative fiction film. She made more than 1,000 films by 1907 and ran her own film studio in New Jersey. She experimented with sound syncing, color tinting, interracial casting and special effects long before the recognized giants of early cinema had even begun to, and is finally beginning to get some of the recognition she deserves.
Early Life and Career
Alice Ida Antoinette Guy was born outside Paris, France, on July 1, 1873, after her mother, Mariette, had sailed back to France expressly to make sure that her fifth child was born on French soil. Alice's father, Emile Guy, remained in Chile, where he ran a successful publishing company. After spending several years with her maternal grandmother, Alice moved to Chile with the rest of the family but was there only briefly before joining her sisters at a convent school on the French border. When her father's business failed and he died soon after, makeshift schooling was arranged, and Alice eventually trained as a typist and stenographer.
At 21, she joined a still-photography company as secretary to Léon Gaumont, but the business was evolving at the end of the 19th century—she was witness to a demonstration of an early 60mm motion-picture camera, to which Gaumont subsequently secured rights. Guy assisted luminaries like Emile Zola, Gustave Eiffel, and aviator Santos Dumont in using the equipment to record their work, notes Guy-Blaché's biographer, Alison McMahan.
When Gaumont and Guy attended a private screening—the screen being a piece of paper—of some footage shot by the Lumière brothers on their new 35mm camera, Guy was inspired to ask Gaumont if she could use their camera to film a story.
In 1896, Guy wrote, produced and directed her first film, The Cabbage Fairy (La Fée aux choux), on the back patio of the Gaumont laboratories, incorporating special-effects techniques she learned from still photographer Frédéric Dillaye. Several of her other films from around this time have been identified, according to McMahon, due to the patio locale.
Guy took to filming like a duck to water, enthusiastically embracing the medium to churn out hundreds of short films while working with Gaumont, who made her head of production. She produced films with color tinting and with Gaumont's Chronophone , an early device for sound syncing. She also kept up with early advances in the field through Louis Lumière, whose work had been her introduction to the technology, as well as Thomas Edison and Pathé.
She hired a male assistant from Pathé, and others, many of whom went on to have recognized careers in early French cinema. There was occasional resistance, with one assistant sabotaging her work so she would be fired and he could take her job, but Gustave Eiffel defended Guy.
Guy was a pioneering force in multiple aspects of the burgeoning film industry, including the concept of going on location, and hired English cameraman Herbert Blaché on her first venture. They eventually fell in love, married in 1906, and a year later relocated to the United States, where her husband headed up Gaumont's New York office while Guy-Blaché was pregnant with daughter Simone.
But with more than 1,000 films already under her bustle (while early filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith were just getting their feet wet), Guy-Blaché opened her own film studio, Solax, producing a film a week. The studio was located first in Flushing, Queens, and then moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey, while the filmmaker was pregnant with son Reginald.
At Solax, Guy-Blaché continued her innovative filmmaking with technical experimentation, interracial casting and clever scripts. She made her husband president of Solax so she could concentrate on her strengths, but he resigned in a year and began a rival company, although they continued to work together until World War I slowed production.
Herbert Blaché eventually followed the film industry, and a young actress, to California. Guy-Blaché got intermittent work but directed her last film—Tarnished Reputations—in 1920. After she and Herbert divorced, she moved back to France with her children, relying heavily on her daughter for financial support.
Death and Legacy
Barbra Streisand is credited with calling Alice Guy-Blaché "a French film pioneer who invented the director's job." And indeed that is true, because in the early days of moviemaking, long before there was a film industry, everyone was just making it up as they went along, experimenting with the new technology. Because Guy-Blaché crafted stories, she shaped what it meant to be a director as the role is defined today.
In the late 1940s, when she noticed that the historical record of the film industry didn't include her, she began speaking engagements—with Gaumont's son Louis as her champion—and embarked on her memoirs. The unpublished manuscript was found by her daughter after her death, and Simone and Anthony Slide translated and published it.
Alice Guy-Blaché returned with her daughter Simone to Mahwah, New Jersey, in 1965 and died there in a nursing home on March 24, 1968.
The French government presented her with the Legion of Honor, its highest civilian honor, in 1953. The Fort Lee Film Commission has been working hard to have Alice Guy-Blaché instated in the New Jersey Hall of Fame as well as have a star for her on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. In 2012, Martin Scorsese accorded her the Director's Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award, saying: "It is the hope and intention of the DGA that by presenting this posthumous special directorial award for lifetime achievement, the Guild can both raise awareness of an exceptional director and bring greater recognition to the role of women in film history."
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