Art History, Artists, Film Director

First woman to be a film director

Alice Guy-Blanché was the first woman to be a film director and writer of narrative fiction films. She experimented with Gaumont’s Chronophone sound syncing system, colour tinting, interracial casting and special effects.

Her parents were living in Chile when she was born, but as they wish at least one of their child to be French, they travelled to France before Alice birth. She was left in Switzerland with her grandparents until the age of 3 or 4, when she went to Chile to live with her parents and siblings.

Alice Guy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the age of 6 she was sent to France to attend the school. All her siblings were sent too when they were old enough to travel. Her father’s chain of bookstore went bankrupt and she moved to a more affordable school. Soon after this her father and her eldest brother died.

She trained as typist and stenographer to support herself and her mother. In 1894, she began working with Léon Gaumont at “Comptoir général de la photographie” as his secretary. She found very quick the advantageous aspects of her job, one of them was the possibility to meet some of the pioneering film engineers such as George Demenÿ and Lumière brothers.

She was invited to the first ever demonstration of film projection in 1895 by Lumière brothers. It was then when she realized the true potential of film. By that time, films only were used for the scientific and/or promotional purpose of selling cameras, in the form of “demonstration films”. She was confident that she could incorporate fictional story-telling elements into film. She asked Gaumont for permission to make her own film in her own time and he grated it.

Alice Guy’s first film and possibly the first narrative film was called La Fée aux Choux (The cabbage fairy) in 1896. And it is about a woman growing children in a cabbage patch. There is speculation surrounding the actual date of the film and different historians have argued about the dating and labelling of it as “the first narrative film” because of its extremely close release to another catalogued Gaumont film and other narrative film by Méliès.

Her earliest films share many characteristics and themes with her contemporaries (brothers Lumière, Méliès). She explored dance and travel in her films, often she combined the two, for example in Le Bolero (1905) performed by Miss Saharet or Tango (1905). In 1906, she made The life of Christ, it was a big budget production for the time, which included 300 extras.

Still from “Le Tango” 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to this she was one of the pioneers in the use of audio recordings in conjunction with the images on screen in Gaumont’s “cronophone” system.

In 1907 Alice married Herbert Blanché, they worked together in Gaumont’s operations in the USA. In 1910, they decided to found the Solax Studio, the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America. Her husband was the production manager and the cinematographer while she worked as the artistic director. When they divorced years later, the film partnership also ended. In 1922, after the divorce she returned to France and stop making films, but in 1927 she went back to United States in an attempt to retrieve some of her old work but was unsuccessful.

She died on March 24, 1968 at the age of 94 while living at a nursing home.

Curiosities

  • In 1953, Guy was awarded the Légion d’honneur, the highest non-military award France offers. On March 16, 1957, she was honoured in a Cinématheque Française ceremony that went unnoticed by the press.
  • She was the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché by director Marquise Lepage, which received Quebec’s Gemeaux Award for Best Documentary.
  • In 2002, film scholar Alison McMahan published Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema.
  • In 2013, Alice Guy-Blaché was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
  • In 2013, documentarians Pamela Green and Jarik van Slujis ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a documentary on Blaché. The Kickstarter was successful and as of 2014, the documentary is moving forward.
  • In 2013, Reel Women Media is in post-production with Reel Herstory: The REAL Story of Reel Women based on the book by Ally Acker. The film covers the significant contribution of Alice Guy-Blaché.
  • In 2014, film podcast “Hell Is For Hyphenates” devoted a segment to exploring the career of Alice Guy-Blaché

 References:

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