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The First Woman Director and the Beginning of Cinema

Kim Tomadjoglou is an audio-visual curator-archivist specializing in rights clearances, preservation, collections management, and museum programming and has curated retrospectives at museums and festivals internationally. She has served as director of the American Film Institute’s National Collection and as principal liaison to the Library of Congress, where she was a 2019 Kluge Fellow.

Still from “Madame’s Cravings,” 1907, unknown actress.

First, can you give me a brief summary of who Alice Guy-Blaché is and why she is significant?

Alice Guy-Blaché is world cinema’s first woman director, and although her legacy remains defined by that title, she was a multi-dimensional figure—writing, producing, and supervising films, instructing players and other directors, and also making costumes.

She began her career in 1894 in France as a secretary to Léon Gaumont at Le Comptoir Général de Photographie, a still-photography and optical equipment company. When the business failed a year later, Alice convinced Gaumont to purchase the business and establish a firm of his own, Gaumont et Cie. The company began motion picture production in 1897 and quickly became one of France’s leading film studios.

The turn of the century in Paris was a time of innovation and invention, particularly of precision instruments that captured motion and sound. New technologies and business opportunities fostered competition and collaboration between engineers, scientists and financiers, most of whom were male.

Young Alice, as she was called, was indispensable to Leon Gaumont and soon became a manager supervising talking pictures utilizing his latest invention, the Chronophone synchronized sound system. She also made her own films and collaborated on others made by the company. In 1907, Alice married the younger Herbert Blaché, also employed by Gaumont, and the couple immigrated to the U.S. where Herbert was to market the Chronophone.

But early sound-on-disc motion picture for public exhibition presented technological and financial challenges. Synchronized sound films would not be widely diffused until the 1930’s. Silent motion pictures projected in nickelodeons or storefront theaters for five cents were a viable business opportunity. From approximately 1905 to 1915 these exhibition sites flourished in the United States and created a demand for motion pictures.

The Blachés, like many others, thus ventured into the film business. As part-owners of the American motion picture company Solax, Alice served as President, while Herbert assumed the role of President of the New Jersey Studio Company that owned Solax’s real estate. It was first located in Flushing, New York, and then in Fort Lee, New Jersey (1910 to 1914). Historian Richard Koszarski suggests that while some historians ascribe the creative side of Solax to Alice and the business side to Herbert, the “peculiarities of American contract law of the time” were likely a contributing factor. Married women were still treated as a distinct class with regards to property ownership.

In 1913, the Blachés formed Blaché Features in order to distribute the films they produced, but they faced competition and financial problems due to the rising cost of producing feature-length films. Solax was gradually absorbed into the new company and ceased production one year later. Thereafter the Blachés became independent directors working for other companies. The couple separated after Herbert left Alice and their two children and went to work in Hollywood with other female stars. He and Alice finally divorced in 1922. Despite a promising career as an independent director, Alice thereafter became a full-time single mother and returned to France, never to work in the cinema again. Recent research resulting in the discovery and preservation of her films and their public exhibition has repositioned her significance within this era as a multi-dimensional, innovative figure who had enormous potential and realized so much in her career.

Still from “Falling Leaves,” 1912, L-R: Mace Greenleaf, Magda Foyand.

Can you tell me about this new DVD set of her films, and your involvement in it?

I was invited to curate the DVD set, Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, Alice Guy Blaché, because I worked on a number of large-scale access projects that featured acquisition and preservation of world-wide holdings of her films and those she may have collaborated on while working at Gaumont. In 2008-2009, I served as preservation director for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Alice Guy Cinema Pioneer Exhibition, the first major international film retrospective mounted by an American art museum, and I believe the first to honor a woman who worked during the silent era. My collaborator Frank Wylie, now at the Library of Congress Packard Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia, and I digitally restored five to six Solax films held at the Library for this exhibition, and 26 international archives provided 35mm prints.

Thereafter, I curated a number of Alice Guy programs for international festivals, such as Recovered and Restored in Bologna, Italy, 2011, Kinothek Asta Nielsen in Frankfurt, Germany, 2012, and Transatlantic Sites of Cinema Nouveau 1896-1920 – a series of events sponsored by the National Gallery of Art, the University of Maryland and Alliance Francais in DC. More recently, I was a contributing consultant to filmmaker Pamela Green’s documentary Be Natural (2018) which features beautiful clips of the Library’s preserved Gaumont and Solax films.

As a historian of international silent film, I understand the particular milieu in which Guy’s career emerged and also ended. France was an international center of early motion picture technology and the first public exhibition of motion pictures took place in Paris in 1895. In the early 1910s, Fort Lee was an American center of early motion picture production. Though we typically think of Hollywood and the west coast as the center of film production, this was not the case until the latter 1910s. Before that many of the first American producers, including Biograph, Edison Manufacturing, and American Vitagraph worked in the east: in New York City, in New Jersey and on the Hudson River Valley. French film pioneers and their families settled in the area after the outbreak of the First World War and became part of the Fort Lee film community. The cinema was never so international as it was in those years.

In curating the DVD, I wanted to showcase recent digital preservations, as well as titles rarely screened to the public. She is recognized for making single-reel comedies and melodramas set in the domestic sphere in which women, their husbands or preferred suitors, alongside babies and young children, are the characters. But when Alice had her own company, she actually directed and produced a range of genres, including westerns shot in Fort Lee, social dramas and military subjects, and the feature-length Dick Whittington and His Cat (1913), based on a popular British children’s story. The latter film combines stage sets with location shooting, including the actual burning and capsizing of a ship. According to Alice, Herbert Blaché was injured while filming the scene. Many Solax productions combine genres and stories set in locales such as a Jewish ghetto, a factory, an underground sewer, a labor meeting, a wharf suggestive of Ellis Island, and urban city streets. For this reason, I selected a sampling of films produced during her early career at Gaumont in conversation with a broad representative selection of Solax productions.

But I also wanted the DVD to reflect aspects of film preservation that are important to historians as much as to preservationists and the general public. By this I refer to the quality of the extant copies and how to make them more accessible to contemporary viewers who are not accustomed to looking at lines, dirt, and projection oil on screen.

Since Solax initially sold its films outright to distributors, no original negatives are known to exist, and the majority of extant Solax prints found are damaged as a result of repeated projection. The likelihood of their survival is far less than that of prints distributed by companies who generated many copies and controlled their distribution. Preservation and digital technology make this high definition Blu-ray set and others possible by providing greater access to the sparse number of extant film print copies of the work of women pioneers and independent producers like Alice Guy-Blaché.

This is part one of a two-part interview. Check back for part two, coming soon.

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