Director, producer, studio boss… impressive accomplishments for anyone in the film industry today. Alice Guy-Blaché, however, achieved it all at the turn of the 20th century.
The native Parisian who became the godmother of cinema was born Alice Guy in 1873. At 21, she took a job as a secretary for Léon Gaumont, owner of a photographic studio. After attending the first screening of a projected motion picture – held in Paris on 22 March 1895 by the Lumière brothers – Guy decided she should give filmmaking a whirl.
At the time, motion pictures were mostly documentary-style clips of nothing much in particular – the novelty of the moving image being enough. The fact that Guy’s first film – 1896’s delightfully titled La Fée Aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) – had a script and told a story made it the first real movie as we know them today. (You can watch it on YouTube: it’s a strange, silent short involving a very happy woman in a gown laying babies on the floor.)
Guy was made head of production at Gaumont and went on to make many more films, experimenting with newly emerging techniques including double exposure and hand tinting.
In 1907, Guy married cameraman Herbert Blaché and they moved to New York. By 1910, she had founded her own company, Solax Studios, and built a state-of-the-art studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She put out several movies a week, including a self-directed short called A Fool And His Money in 1912, believed to be the first film to feature an all African-American cast.
It was all going swimmingly until Herbert did a runner and the business collapsed. Guy-Blaché returned to France in 1922 and never made a film again. When histories of the movie industry began to appear, Guy-Blaché found her name absent and began doing public talks and writing a memoir (published in 1986) to claim her well-deserved recognition. Finally, in 1953, the French government awarded her the Legion d’Honneur.
Why was she a trailblazer?
The definition of a pioneer in the filmmaking industry, Guy-Blaché was one of very few people working in the newly emerging movie industry at the time – one of even fewer film directors.
She was also the first woman to do many things including directing, screenwriting, producing, setting up her own film studio and being an all-round entrepreneur in the field of cinema – in addition to directing hundreds of movies during her cinematic career.
Between the years 1896 and 1906, Guy-Blaché seems to have been the only known woman working as a professional filmmaker in the entire world. Which is pretty amazing.
What is her legacy?
It’s at a cinema near you right now, quite simply. The movie industry as we know it – and every fiction film ever made – is directly descended from Guy-Blaché’s quirky little 19th-century production.
Illustration: Bijou Karman