Alice Guy-Blaché: Cinema’s First Woman Director in Newspapers

Alice Guy-Blaché is a name you likely have never heard. She was a pioneer of the French and American film industries during the silent era and the first woman to have a career as a director, yet her work and career have largely been overlooked throughout history.

She was among the very first to use film to tell a narrative story, although for years she was largely uncredited as compared to Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers. Only recently, has she been acknowledged for influencing many directors that came after her. Let’s take a look at articles on her life and career in our historic newspaper collection, Chronicling America.*

Detail of a newspaper photograph of a woman with a half smile photographed from the side. Caption reads, "Madam Alice Blache."

“HOW A WOMAN MAKES A FORTUNE OUT OF ‘MOVIES’,” New-York Tribune (New York, NY), November 24, 1912.

Alice Ida Antoinette Guy was born in Saint-Mandé, in Paris, France on July 1, 1873, to French parents Marie and Emile Guy. During her childhood, the Guy family moved between Chile and France. After the family was struck by multiple tragedies in her adolescent life, Alice sought employment outside the home in order to support her family.

In 1894, she worked as a stenographer (or, secretary) to French inventor, engineer, and industrialist, Léon Gaumont. Gaumont is considered a premier film producer who established the Gaumont Company, the first and oldest film company in the world. Guy was inspired by the premiere of the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe motion picture system, combining camera, printer and projector, which was patented in 1895.

Motion pictures companies at the time “were chiefly engaged in merely photographing moving objects–a train speeding along and the ever-changing panorama of scenery, a parade passing, a boat race, etc.,” but Guy thought the movie-going public was interested in films with a “cast of characters, dramatic plot, and frequent changes of scene.

Newspaper advertisement for a film. Visible text reads, "The Unrivalled Emotional Actress, Mme. Petrova In a Five-Part Picturization of MY MADONNA Adatped for the screen by Mme. Alice Blache, and based upon the poem of the same name from 'THE SPELL OF THE YUKON,' and other verses , by Robert W. Service." Text below reads, Tuesday Open Feb. 15th ORPHEUM THEATRE It's a Metro Picture."

Advertisement for “My Madonna,” Bismarck Daily Tribune (Bismarck, ND), February 12, 1916.

”I thought that one might do better than these demonstration films,” Guy-Blaché wrote in her witty autobiography which was translated by her daughter, Roberta, and granddaughter, Simone, The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché. ”Gathering my courage, I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform in them.” She directed her first film, “La Fée aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”), which debuted in 1896 when she was just 23. She was Gaumont’s Head of Production from 1896 to 1906.

In 1907, Guy married Herbert Blaché, a British-born film director, producer, and screenwriter who also worked for Gaumont. They left Paris for the United States and along with a third partner George A. Magie, established the Solax Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey. At the time, Fort Lee, located across the river from New York City, was the center of American filmmaking prior to the establishment of Hollywood.

Detail of a newspaper article featuring Alice Blache. Visible text reads: "Only Woman That Runs A 'Movie' Business." Below the headline is a photograph with the caption "MME. ALICE BLACHE" and an illustration of a female behind a standing camera.

“Only Woman that Runs A ‘Movie’ Business,” The Tacoma Times, (Tacoma, WA), February 27, 1913.

Guy-Blaché believed in the economic independence of women. In a newspaper interview with the New-York Tribune in 1912, she stated, “we are today living in woman’s era and business is no more man’s exclusive sphere.” She took the role of president of the Solax Company and participated in the film industry as a director, scenarist (i.e., scriptwriter), and producer. During each workday at Solax, she came “into direct personal contact with all phases of the work carried on there” and behind the camera, she directed with a “voluble, pleasant voice.”

Page of article from "The Moving Picture World" by Louis Reeves Harrison, with picture showing Alice Guy-Blach ́e seated outdoors on an elevated platform, directing the cast of the comic opera "Fra Diavolo" who are standing on an elevated stage.

“Studio Saunterings–Madame Blache Rehearsing Cast in ‘Fra Diavolo.'” Illus. in: The Moving Picture World. New York: Chalmers Publishing Company, June 12, 1915, p. 1007. ////hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.02978

Even before the “talkies,” she directed the first sound films. She also used special effects, such as playing the film backward to create the illusion of going back in time. She was one of the first filmmakers to feature diversity in casting and comment on controversial topics. In 1912, she directed the comedy, “A Fool and His Money,” which was one of the earliest, if not the first, narrative films with an all-Black cast. Her film “A Man’s a Man” (1912) featured a Jewish protagonist and “The Making of an American Citizen” (1913) touched on difficult subjects, such as immigration and marital abuse. “My Madonna” (1915) was likely the first film by a female director to feature a female lead. Guy-Blaché directed, wrote, or oversaw upwards of 700 films throughout her remarkable career. “Tarnished Reputations” (1920) is said to be the last film she directed.

As more motion-picture facilities opened in Hollywood, California, the Solax Company along with other East Coast film companies lost revenue and faced bankruptcy. When her husband moved to Hollywood with an actress and the Solax Company was auctioned off, Guy-Blaché divorced and moved to France with her two children in 1922. Later in her life, she moved back to the United States and at one point, lived in Washington, DC. In 2003, her film, “Matrimony’s Speed Limit” was added to the National Film Registry. Read more about the addition of the film here.

For more, check out this guide to the moving image materials of filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché, which are held in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. Additional suggested online guides include Moving Image Research at the Library of Congress and American Women: Resources from the Moving Image Collections. Read more about the significance of her work in these two blog posts: The First Woman Director and the Beginning of Cinema, Part 1 and Part 2.

A detail from a newspaper of a smiling woman seated appearing to read scrapbook pages with the text "GOOD OLD DAYS--Mme. Alice Guy-Blache looks over scrapbook memories of the early cinema days.""

“First Woman Director Lives Quietly in D.C.,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), June 26, 1955.

Additional resources:

McMahan, Alison. “Alice Guy Blaché.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013.  <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-5a4c-yq24>

Books:

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*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC.

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