Alice Guy-Blaché – A forgotten pioneer of Hollywood

Since time immemorial, women have been considered beneath men. It has been believed that women can’t do what men can. However, time and again many courageous women have proved this notion wrong.

Alice Guy-Blaché was one of them. She was born on July 1st, 1873 into a French family. She stayed in countries such as France, Switzerland and Chile until finally settling in Gaumont, France after her father died in 1891. She was trained as a typist and stenographer.

Her first step into film making was working at Comptoir général de la photographie (a French camera manufacturer) in 1894. The company was owned by Felix-Max Richard who later handed it over to Léon Gaumont due to a court decision. It was here that she learned about show business. In those days, short films were made showing the happenings in real life situations. That was because as cameras were being invented, the captured scenes were used as a promotional tactic. Alice, becoming bored with this asked Gaumont for permission to make her own film, which he granted in 1895.

It was during this period when people making movies and Alice was the first female director in history. She made the world’s first narrative film calledLa Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896. She was ahead of her time, combining many elements of fiction such as comedy, sound film and social films. She also made The Life of Christ in 1906 which was considered a big budget film at that time.

Film director, Pamela B. Green made a documentary called Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché which has already been featured in the Cannes and New York film festivals.

“She’s the mother of cinema. She did the work, took the trail, climbed the mountain,” Green said.

Later Alice married Herbert Blanché who moved to the US to continue working for Gaumont’s company. However, the couple later made their own studio named The Solax Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The studio was the largest production house in the US before film makers moved to Hollywood. Around the studio were signboards with the words Be Natural, hence the name of the documentary. This was a way of motivating actors to perform naturally as they would behave in everyday life and not overact.

Tom Meyers, executive director of the Fort Lee Film Commission who’s also part of the documentary said “She gave film the gift of storytelling. In America, the first narrative film was ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903). But Alice was making narrative films well before that.”

She made many movies of different genres. Drama movies such as Esmeralda (1905), an early version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and The Pit and the Pendulum (1913). Comedies like Canned Harmony (1912) and Wild West movies like Two Little Rangers (1912). Also in 1912, she made A Fool and His Money, the first film with a complete cast of African-American actors. She made her last film in 1919.

Although she was popular, taking interviews and writing for magazines, she wasn’t given much credit. With time the studio had to be shut down due to the financial mismanagement of her husband and they eventually got divorced in 1922.

During the 1940’s Alice wrote her autobiography in an attempt to let the world know of her contributions to cinema. It was first published in French in 1976, almost a decade after her death in 1968. She had made up to 1000 films between 1896 and 1922. Before her death, she had received Légion d’honneur, the highest civilian award from France in 1953. It was in 2004 when she was honoured with a historic marker at the location of Solax Studio by the Fort Lee Commission.

Today, Alice Guy-Blaché is a role model for women struggling in the film industry.

“She was an artist and an entrepreneur, and that makes her significant,” Green says. “She was a mogul.”

Garima Nabh is the founder of New Age Magazine.

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