On this International Women’s Day, 2017, we’re spending time talking about great women, and focusing on women that were or still are pioneers in their field. For cinema, one of the greatest, and groundbreaking pioneers, was Alice Guy-Blaché.
She was born July 1st, 1873, in Paris, France, and lived until March 24, 1968, and is arguably the first female director, working mostly for Gaumont Chronophone. Not only did she direct more than 1,000 films, she also experimented with tinting, special effects and used interracial casting. While most of her films were during the silent film era, over 100 were done with sound. She was well known for her large, extravagant films, one of them, a film called, “Vie du Christ” made in 1906, was only thirty minutes long, but featured twenty-five separate sets, over 300 extras and a variety of outdoor locations.
While her father owned a publishing house in Chile, and a chain of book stores, and during her youth her family was able to travel, by the time she was in her teens, her older brother died, and after financial woes, her father died soon after. To support her mother, she had to learn a skill, and she trained as a stenographer and typist, and later took factory work to try and support her family, and multiple siblings. Just a year later however, she started working with Leon Gaumont at ‘Comptoir General de la Photoraphie”, and he later became the head of the company.
She originally started at the company as a secretary, but quickly learned, from watching other film makers, how to make her own film. After about a year of working there, she asked Leon Gaumont if she could use the new camera he had secured to make a film, and he agreed, launching her ground breaking cinematic career. Describing herself as having a “fertile imagination” she later credited it with her ability to make so many unique films.
Her marriage to another employee of Gaumont Chronophone caused her to step down from head of film production in 1907. However, in 1910, they started their own film company, Solax, in New Jersey, and were allowed to use the Gaumont studio in the United States, for producing the films. They then distributed the films through Gaumont. Even after having her second child, she could still produce 1-3 short films a week.
A lot of the films made during the Solax era were social critiques, and while she did quite a few “cross dressing” films, she made a film in 1912, called “In the Year 2000” which features typical “male and female” roles being reversed. After financial troubles several years later though, her husband started his own film company, and they took turns directing films.
The couple divorced in 1920, and in 1922, she returned to France where she dedicated most of her time to lecture on film, and write novelizations of film scripts, but never directed more films. In the 1940’s she realized that history was leaving her out, because she was a woman, causing her to write her memoirs, and have a series of speaking engagements talking about her effects on cinematic history. She returned to the US by the 60’s, and died in New Jersey in 1968.
Alice Guy-Blaché was a revolutionary and prolific film maker, multi-talented and paving the way for women film makers of the future. Not only did she direct, she was the producer, screen writer, and made many of the artistic ideals behind these films. Her hard work and skill also proved you can have a fulfiling career and be a parent, and your career doesn’t always need to take the backseat. She was and still is #iconic.