In 1879 Ms Guy-Blaché returned to France to attend a convent school with her elder sisters. Soon after, her father’s business failed and she was unable to complete her education. Instead, Ms Guy-Blaché trained as a stenographer and typist, and began working to support her family.
At the age of 21, Ms Guy-Blaché joined a still photography firm under the employ of Léon Gaumont. This business also soon went under, but Mr Gaumont bought the stock inventory and started working in the nascent film industry blossoming in France. Ms Guy-Blaché continued to work under Mr Gaumont, developing a keen interest in the filming process. She accompanied Mr Gaumont to many screenings, and to meetings with other luminaries of the new industry from whom she was to learn many skills which would become essential in her career. Mr Gaumont had confidence in her work, and she moved job titles from Secretary to Director in 1902, although had been directing before this date.
After witnessing a demonstration of a new 35mm film camera, she requested permission from her boss to write and direct a short film, and in 1896 her first production La Fée aux choux (the Cabbage Fairy) was released. She is widely accepted to be the first film Director to release a narrative film, although this claim is contentious as the dates of release between this and the Lumiere brothers film are unclear.
Ms Guy-Blaché’s first films were created on the patio of Gaumont Productions and featured special effects learned from the still photography business which she applied to the moving picture. She also created one of the first films using close-ups cinematography, and another in 1902 which synchonized sound with image.
Ms Guy-Blaché was made Head of Production in 1905, and whilst she worked with and over many male colleagues, she faced down the discrimination attempts made against her. One Director to sabotage her work in order to take her job, but she was supported in her position by Mr Gaumont and no attempt to usurp her position succeeded.
Ms Guy-Blaché was prolific, and pioneered location filming. On one of her earlier location productions she hired an English Camera Operator named Herbert Blaché. The two fell in love and married in 1906. Shortly afterwards, the couple relocated to New York where her husband headed the Gaumont Productions US office whilst Ms Guy-Blaché took time off to have their daughter Simone. Because of her marriage, Ms Guy-Blaché had been unable to continue working for Mr Gaumont. By this time, Ms Guy-Blaché had over 1000 film productions to her name. In the IMDb database she has 415 film credits both under her married name of Alice Blaché and her post-divorce name of Alice Guy-Blaché.
In 1910 Ms Guy-Blaché opened her own film production studio named Solax, in Flushing, NYC, and worked in partnership with her husband and George A. Magie, making her the first woman to open a film studio. She took on the role of Artistic Director, and directed many of the company’s releases. During this time she and her husband had a son Reginald, yet Ms Guy-Blaché would still produce and direct up to three films per week. Mr Blaché would resign a year into Solax’ life to start his own rival company, but the two would continue to collaborate.
Solax was extremely successful, so much so that two years later they were able to open state-of-the-art production facilities in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many other film production companies would create their own work having leased the premises for a time from Solax. Ms Guy-Blaché was an innovative producer, and would promote interracial castings, innovative scripts and technical advances, which were costly but meant Solax led the field in the new arena of film.
Ms Guy-Blaché and her husband separated by 1918 and Solax as a company was dissolved soon afterwards, as the warmer and more temperate climate of the West Coast of the United States became a more popular venue for filming. Her now ex-husband left for Hollywood. Ms Guy-Blaché worked for William Randolph Hearst’s company International Film Service for a while, but by 1920 she directed her final film. In 1922, her divorce final and bankruptcy forcing the sale of Solax she retired from the film industry and returned to France to be supported by her daughters.
Ms Guy-Blaché did not retire from work, however, and became a lecturer and teacher in film technique and direction, and created novelisations of film scripts. In 1953 she was awarded the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honour) by the French government for contributions to the arts. In 1967 she was honoured by Cinématheque Française, the largest archive of French film in the world.
In 1964 Ms Guy-Blaché returned to the United States to live with her daughter in Mahwah, New Jersey but eventually ill-health meant she had to move into a nursing home where she passed away on 24th March 1968, at the age of 94.
Ms Guy-Blaché received two further posthumous honours from the residents and local council of Fort Lee, New Jersey; the first a historic marker at the site of the Solax studios erected in 2004, and the second an annual award in her honour instigated in 2007, honouring pioneering women in film. In 2013 a Kickstarter project was successfully funded to produce a documentary about Ms Guy-Blaché.
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson