Alice Guy-Blaché, (b. 1873 – d. 1968) is considered to be the first female director of film. In 1894, she was hired as a secretary by Léon Gaumont, who owned a camera company in Paris, France. Working together, they transformed photography into a novel art form which we would come to know as film.
Her first film, The Cabbage Fairy (1896) (French: La Fée aux Choux) is considered to be the first narrative, fiction film. The film consists of a single scene whereby a fairy plucks babies out of cabbages. The purpose of the film was to be used as a demonstration to potential customers of Gaumont to show the capabilities of motion picture cameras.
After The Cabbage Fairy, Alice would go on to work on an estimated 1,000 more films, ranging in genre from comedies to war films, romances to Westerns. Moreover, Alice worked not only as a director, but as a writer, producer, cinematographer, set designer, and casting director.
Some of these one thousand films would be made at Léon’s own company, The Gaumont Film Company, where Alice would direct every single film the company made for the next eleven years. It was at this company Alice would meet Herbert Blaché-Bolton, when he was employed as a replacement camera operator. They married and moved to the US, where they would run The Gaumont Film Company in New York. In 1910, Alice would establish her own production company, Solax Studios, in New Jersey. At this point, Alice was the first ever woman to start her own motion picture company.
At Solax Studios, Alice produced over three-hundred pictures, around fifty of which she also directed. Alice was a pioneer of film technology, for instance, in 1913 she experimented with split screen in Beasts of the Jungle. She also pioneered filmic performance, urging cast members to be more natural and realistic in their roles, a standard which would become the default mode for performers.
Alice was unafraid to break rules and social conventions in her films, exploring subjects like gender roles and prostitution as in The Lure (1914). Furthermore, she produced A Fool and His Money (1912), the first ever picture to feature an all black cast.
Alice returned to her native France in 1922, after Solax Studios failed to compete with major Hollywood studios, and her relationship with Herbert came to an end too. In 1927, Alice travelled back to the US to retrieve copes of her films to use as a portfolio back in France where she was trying to find work as a director. Unfortunately, Alice was unable to find a single copy of any one of her 1,000+ films.
During the silent era of film, negatives were frequently destroyed after being played in theatres. This was due to (1) film was seen as a new fad, and wasn’t predicted to reach such cultural significance that early works would be preserved as historic artefacts, and (2) negatives were highly difficult to store due to the combustible nature of celluloid (you can read more about celluloid in my article here).
Alice Guy-Blaché’s accolades in film went unrecognised for decades. This was not only due to the erasure of her physical work, but also at the hands of her previous employer Léon, and her ex-husband, Herbert. Herbert Blaché-Bolton turned Solax Studios in the Blaché Features, and claimed it as his own despite Alice doing most of the work. Furthermore, in 1930, Léon Gaumont published a history of the Gaumont Film Company which completely omitted Alice and her work.
It wasn’t until 1953, the government in France became aware of Alice Guy-Blaché’s accomplishments and awarded her with the Legion of Honour. In 1954, Léon Gaumont’s son gave a public speech where he said Alice had been unjustly forgotten. In more recent years, Alice was awarded with a Director’s Guild of America award posthumous by Martin Scorsese who addressed her lost history as a tragedy.
Today, Alice Guy-Blaché is a celebrated figure in film, yet it is with a great sense of loss to know she spent so many years unrecognised for her pioneering work and almost impoverished. Nevertheless, Alice’s legacy as the first female filmmaker and serves as an inspiration to women in film.
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