The Films of Alice Guy-Blaché: The First Female Director & the Cinematic Trailblazer

Alice Guy-Blaché  (1873 –1968) is the great trail­blaz­er of ear­ly cin­e­ma you prob­a­bly nev­er heard of. She was film’s first female direc­tor. She made one of the first nar­ra­tive movies ever at age 23. She wrote, direct­ed and pro­duced over 700 films. And she remains the only woman ever to build and run a movie stu­dio. Even more remark­ably, she did all of this before she had the legal right to vote, and when con­ven­tion dic­tat­ed that she wear a corset. Yet Alice Guy-Blaché‘s name doesn’t appear along­side oth­er cin­e­mat­ic pio­neers like George Méliès, Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Grif­fith in film school his­to­ry books. Some­how, she has fall­en out of the canon of great ear­ly film­mak­ers.

For­tu­nate­ly, there’s a move­ment to cor­rect this griev­ous error. In 2009, the Whit­ney Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art pro­grammed a rare screen­ing of 80 of her works. After a long cam­paign, the Direc­tors Guild of Amer­i­ca award­ed Guy-Blaché with a Life­time Achieve­ment Award. And most recent­ly, film­mak­ers Pamela Green and Jarik van Slui­js raised over $200,000 on Kick­starter for their upcom­ing doc­u­men­tary on Guy-Blaché called Be Nat­ur­al, which is being exec­u­tive pro­duced by Robert Red­ford and nar­rat­ed by Jodie Fos­ter. See a trail­er for the film below.

Born in 1873 in Paris to a book­seller, Alice Guy found work in 1894 as a sec­re­tary for Leon Gau­mont, a still pho­tog­ra­ph­er who found­ed one of the first movie stu­dios. Guy was imme­di­ate­ly tak­en with the pos­si­bil­i­ties of film and asked her boss if she could exper­i­ment with their brand new movie cam­era. Her first film was The Cab­bage Fairy (top), which shows a woman pluck­ing infants from a cab­bage patch in a sin­gle, unmov­ing shot. To a mod­ern eye, The Cab­bage Fairy might seem mere­ly like a cute film that nice­ly cap­tures Vic­to­ri­an whim­sy. But this film was made in 1896, one year after the Lumière Broth­ers screened the first films ever made. In 1896, the Lumières were still mak­ing their Actu­al­ités – doc­u­men­taries in their most basic form. Their most famous film was sim­ply of a train roar­ing into the sta­tion. Guy’s film, by con­trast, looks strik­ing­ly orig­i­nal.

Ten years lat­er, she direct­ed the big-bud­get film The Birth, Life and Death of Christ for Gau­mont Stu­dios. It was one of the first bible epics made for the sil­ver screen, requir­ing over 300 extras. You can watch it above.

By 1907, Guy mar­ried cam­era­man Her­bert Blaché and soon moved to New York. The film­mak­er, now called Alice Guy-Blaché, found­ed The Solax Com­pa­ny with her hus­band in Fort Lee, New Jer­sey. There she con­tin­ued to make ground­break­ing movies. A Fool and his Mon­ey (1912), for instance, is the first movie ever with an all African-Amer­i­can cast. It was made three years before D. W. Grif­fith direct­ed his cin­e­mat­ic landmark/racist embar­rass­ment The Birth of a Nation.

True to film indus­try con­ven­tion, her hus­band left her for an actress in the ear­ly 1920s.  Soon there­after Solax fold­ed and Guy-Blaché returned to France. She nev­er made anoth­er movie. In 1953, she was award­ed the Légion d’hon­neur by the French gov­ern­ment but, by then, most of her movies had been lost and her rep­u­ta­tion as an ear­ly cin­e­mat­ic inno­va­tor was large­ly for­got­ten by the pub­lic.

Guy-Blaché’s films will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

40 Great Film­mak­ers Go Old School, Shoot Short Films with 100 Year Old Cam­era

What David Lynch Can Do With a 100-Year-Old Cam­era and 52 Sec­onds of Film

A Trip to the Moon (and Five Oth­er Free Films) by Georges Méliès, the Father of Spe­cial Effects

Watch The Hitch-Hik­er by Ida Lupino (the Only Female Direc­tor of a 1950s Noir Film)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • sfemet says:

    I first heard about Alice Guy Blache in a “Women in Film” class taught by Lin­da Moore at Moor­park Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege in 1977.

    One of the required books was “Women and the Cin­e­ma: A Crit­i­cal Anthol­o­gy” by Karyn Kay and Ger­ald Peary. It includ­ed Ger­ald Peary’s essay “Alice Guy Blache: Cza­ri­na of the Silent Screen”. He gives a sim­ple expla­na­tion for her suc­cess: “Alice Blache’s secret was to make her mark in film before the bar­ri­ers against women came into exis­tence, indeed before there was such a thing as a film indus­try.”

    Also includ­ed in the anthol­o­gy is “Wom­en’s Place in Pho­to­play Pro­duc­tion” writ­ten by Alice and pub­lished in Mov­ing Pic­ture World on July 11, 1914. In it she writes: “There is noth­ing con­nect­ed to the stag­ing of a motion pic­ture that a woman can­not do as eas­i­ly as a man, and there is no rea­son why she can­not com­plete­ly mas­ter every tech­ni­cal­i­ty of the art.”

    Thanks to the Inter­net Archive, you can read it here:

    I’m not sur­prised that most actors haven’t heard of Alice, but schol­ars should.

  • Kate Del Toro says:

    I heard about Alice Guy Blache on my own and once I found out who she was I became com­pelet­ly obsessed. I was sur­prised to hear that film stu­dents did­n’t learn about such an impor­tant woman in film his­to­ry. I am only 19 years old and I’m learn­ing about film on my own and even though my par­ents don’t like it and don’t approve of it I am enjoy­ing learn­ing about inspi­ra­tional woman in his­to­ry. Oh and hel­lo.

    Kate Del Toro

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.