Saturday, 4 August 2012

Alice Guy-Blache

Alice Guy-Blache is one of my all-time SHEROES.

There are many, many reasons for this, but mainly because between 1896 and 1920 she directed 400 films.

You read that correctly. 

In a time when women in film were thin on the ground (to say the least) Alice Guy-Blache was directing film after film after film & leading the way in the development of the medium as we know it.  She started out in France for the Gaumont Company and was their first film director, then she moved to the U.S. where in 1910 she set up her own production company, SOLAX, in New York and went on to build a studio in New Jersey.

So, to start at the beginning (it's as good a place as any), it was in 1894 that Alice Guy was employed by Leon Gaumont - about a year later he took Alice with him to witness a Lumiere Brothers demonstration of their cinematographe (35mm Film Camera). Alice persuaded Leon to let her try out the camera & direct a film - in 1896 Alice wrote, produced and directed "The Cabbage Fairy".  Following this, Leon Gaumont asked Alice to become Head of Film Production for Gaumont.  She remained in that post until 1906.

"The Cabbage Fairy"

By 1907 Alice was working in New York and in 1910 she launched SOLAX - her own production company - to do this she rented space from the Gaumont Company in New York.  Her early films were a huge success, so much so that she was able to build her own studio on the proceeds.

At Solax, Alice produced TWO short films EVERY WEEK!  Prolific or what?!  Solax was doing very well - and then she employed her husband (whose contract with Gaumont had expired) - she took him on as Head of Production, so that she could concentrate more on her writing and directing.  Herbert Blache used Solax to further his own film-making career and to develop his own production company, running Solax into the ground in the process. 

By 1913, Alice was producing and directing films for Blache Features (Herberts Production Company!).  She'd also joined a production coalition 'Popular Plays & Players' - all of whose films were shot in the former Solax studio.  In 1916 Alice Guy-Blache directed SEVEN features including "The Ocean Waif" and then for Pathe "The Great Adventure" a comedy which enjoyed huge commercial success. 

Alice Guy Blache

Shortly after this Herbert Blache moved to Hollywood with one of his actresses leaving Alice with their two children - she moved to an apartment in New York City. 

In 1919, whist working on the feature film "Tarnished Reputations" Alice caught Spanish Influenza, it was a lethal outbreak which sadly killed four of her colleagues on the movie.  Following this, she and her two children moved to a small bungalow in Hollywood to recouperate and in 1920 she returned to New York to oversee the auction of her Solax Studio, due to bankrupcy.

In March 1920, "Tarnished Reputations" opened - it was to be Alice Guy-Blache's last film. 

In 1922, a now divorced Alice returned to France for a fresh start with her children.  She was unable to find work despite her great achievements and her film-making record, so in 1927, she went back to the U.S. to seek out copies of her work but couldn't find one of her films - even at the Library of Congress where her work had been copyrighted - by 1929 it became clear that she would not make another film and she was forced to become dependent on her children. 

In 1930, Leon Gaumont wrote a history of his company, omitting any work before 1907.

"A Sticky Woman"

In 1947 Alice was writing her memoirs in Georgetown U.S. where she'd moved with her daughter Simone - it was here that she began a correspondance with Louis Gaumont, Leon's son, which lead to Louis making a speech about Alice and her contribution to cinema in Paris in 1954, where he referred to her as "The first woman film-maker who has been unjustly forgotten"

By1955, Alice was awarded the Legion d'Honneur - France's highest award. 

Alice died in 1968, aged 95 in a nursing home in New Jersey - the place she'd run her studio SOLAX.  Her memoirs were published in French in 1976 and in English in 1986.

Alice Guy-Blach√© was indeed the first female film maker - she was also responsible for creating one of the first ever narrative films.  She was a director, producer and writer for 24 years - the longest career of any of the cinema pioneers and 22 of her 400 films were feature-length. She was and still is the only woman to ever solely manage and own her own studio, The Solax Company. 

It seems incredible to me that until very recently the story of Alice Guy-Blache, of her contribution to the craft of film-making, her talent and inspriation to others has remained lost (or hidden, depending upon your perspective) As one of the first directors to ever make a film and most certainly the first woman she is an inspiration to female film-makers.  She was a spirited, prolific & awesomely talented woman. 

There is only one question that remains: Why don't we all know about her contribution?  At the very least, her name should resound through the lecture halls of every film school - after all Leni Riefenstahl gets this honour - and frankly as a Nazi propagandist - this baffles me, despite her obvious abilities.  The fact that the story of the achievements and life of Alice Guy-Blache remains hidden is a total mystery to me, and it's time that was changed.  Somebody should create a biopic of her life and work. 

A film Alice Guy-Blache made in 1897

INFORMATION ON THIS BLOG POSTING HAS LARGELY BEEN TAKEN FROM THE BRILLIANT "Alice Guy-Blache - Lost Visionary of the Cinema" by ALISON MCMAHAN.  A book which holds far more information about Alice's life and work and which I thoroughly recommend as an inspiring read for any female film-maker.  Or anybody interested in hidden herstories!  And from internet sources including 'Wikipedia and the IMDB'


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