Women of the Silent Film Era: Alice Guy Blaché
By Sherri Rabinowitz:
The story of women directors in early cinema begins with Alice Guy Blaché—the first female film director.
Guy Blaché pioneered the art of narrative filmmaking—taking a written story and bringing it to life through film. Up until then, “street scene” films or shots depicting crowds of people leaving factories were the only cinema ever shot.
At twenty-two years old, Guy Blaché was a secretary for Léon Gaumont, an inventor at the time who had been manufacturing motion picture cameras. Convinced that she could make better films than the sample fare Gaumont projected for his potential clients, she convinced her boss to allow her to make a film based on an actual story. Gaumont told her that, “It seems like a silly, girlish thing to do,” but he agreed to let her do it as long her secretarial work was completed each day.
She did exactly that.
Her first foray into filmmaking was in 1896 with The Cabbage Fairy, a one-minute film based on a fairy tale. Gaumont was pleased with the result, and Guy Blaché soon became his most important director. Her largest production for Gaumont, The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ, featured more than 300 extras and 25 sets.
As with many of the first female directors in motion picture history, Guy Blaché wrote, directed, and produced her films and was one of the first women to own her own studio, making close to 1,000 films in her career—including the oldest-surviving film with an entirely African American cast.
An innovator of narrative filmmaking, Guy Blaché had a flair for comedy but worked in many genres and styles, her films focusing on women and children as active characters. She was not interested in the pantomime acting that became the norm for silent films and even posted a “Be Natural” sign in her studio to remind her actors to react naturally. She experimented with close-ups and synchronized sound, and she produced black-and-white prints along with experimenting with color-tinted frames.
In 1907, she married Herbert Blaché, who was soon appointed the production manager for Gaumont's operations in the United States. After working with her husband for Gaumont in the U.S., the two struck out on their own in 1910, partnering with George A. Magie to form the Solax Film Company—the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America.
With production facilities for their new studio in Flushing, New York, her husband served as production manager as well as cinematographer, and Guy Blaché worked as the artistic director and director for many of the company’s releases. Within two years, they were successful enough to invest more than $100,000 into new and more technologically advanced production facilities in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many early film studios were based at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In 1918, with the rise of the more cost-effective climate in Hollywood, her husband left for the West Coast. After a near-death battle with the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919, Guy Blaché joined her husband in Hollywood to direct more films for his new company, but soon worked as an assistant on larger Hollywood productions before ending her professional partnerships and eventually divorcing her husband. She directed her last film in 1920.
Guy Blaché had a difficult time in Hollywood, saying, “You could still see signs that said no dogs or filmmakers.”
Returning to France with her children, she was unable to find work in the film industry there, and she soon realized that her earlier work as a pioneer in the field had been forgotten or credited to her male colleagues. As the years went by, Guy Blaché became tremendously concerned with her unexplained absence from the historical record of the film industry. In constant communication with colleagues and film historians, she dedicated her time to correcting the “facts” about her career and life. She crafted lengthy lists of her films, as she remembered them with the hope of being credited with their creative ownership. In 1953, she was awarded the Legion D’honneur, the highest non-military award France offers, for her work in the motion picture industry.
“She wasn’t a French Filmmaker or an American Filmmaker, and she was a woman, so she fell through the cracks,” said John Baily, President of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. “We see how sophisticated, magical and emotionally engaging her films were.”
Of the some 1,000 films made by Guy Blaché, only 140 or so have survived. But her forgotten star as a pioneer of the industry is once again on the rise as historians recognize her significant contributions to the art and business of filmmaking. Despite the absence of Guy Blaché and many women filmmakers like her from standard film histories, her work and innovative approach to narrative filmmaking is back in the spotlight with the work of the Women Film Pioneers Project and documentaries such as 2018 film Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, directed by Pamela B. Green and narrated by Jodie Foster from Turner Classic Movies.
Alice Guy Blaché later returned to the United States with her daughter to live in Wayne, NJ, and died in 1968 at the age of 94.
Guy Blaché was inducted into the Director’s Guild of America in 2011, some one hundred years after she produced her films out of Solax Studios.
Inspired by Ray Bradbury and Agatha Christie, Sherri Rabinowitz has been writing since she was a small child. She has always loved writing but has made a living as an actress, travel agent, and in several forms of customer service. However, her passion has always been reading and writing fan fiction. Her book, Different is Beautiful, won Gold in the The Global Ebook Awards.
Sherri's book are available on Amazon.com