In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the art and industry of the movies was being created by people who were basically making it up as they went along. The pioneers of film—the people who figured out how to project a moving image and then what to do with those flickering shadows—included the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès, and Thomas Edison.
And Alice Guy-Blaché.
Who was Alice Guy-Blaché? She was a director, producer, and screenwriter who was one of the first people—if not the first—to look at those flickers and realize they could be used to tell entire stories. She made hundreds of movies from 1896 or so until 1920. She worked with special effects, filmed on location, and shot movies that had synchronized audio recordings. At one point, she owned and operated her own movie studio. So why has she been forgotten?
Alice Guy was born in France in 1873 and educated in convent schools. At the age of 21, in 1894, she got a job as a secretary for a photography company run by Léon Gaumont. A year later, she attended the first demonstration of a projected film by Auguste and Louis Lumière. Soon afterward, she asked Gaumont for permission to use his cameras to make a film of her own on her own time.
At the time, movies usually consisted of shots depicting a crowd of people leaving a factory or of a moving train; fascinating curiosities, but not much more. Guy wrote a script and produced and directed her narrative film, The Cabbage Fairy (La Fée aux Choux), on the Gaumont property. It may have been the first film to tell a fictional story—in this case, of a fairy growing babies in a cabbage patch.
From there, Guy was off and running. She became head of production for Gaumont’s film studio, which grew out of the still photography business. She made longer films and started using special effects such as hand tinting and double exposures. At Gaumont, her biggest picture was The Life of Christ, shot in 1906, which has scenes that featured hundreds of extras.
In 1907, Alice Guy married Herbert Blaché, a cameraman with Gaumont, and resigned from the company. The company sent Herbert to the United States to promote Gaumont’s synchronized audio and film system, and to head up Gaumont’s U.S. branch. Alice went with him, and in 1910, she set up her own film studio based in Flushing, Queens: the Solax Company. Solax made so many successful films that Alice was able to build a state-of-the-art film production studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a town that essentially functioned as Hollywood before the movies moved west.
At Solax, Alice Blaché continued her work as a director, completing movies at the rate of up to three a week. It was here that she hung a sign on the wall instructing her actors to “Be Natural.” In 1913, she made her husband, who had stayed with Gaumont, the president of Solax so that she could do more hands-on movie-making.
Around this time, Herbert Blaché also started his own film studio, naming Alice as vice president. But the marriage was getting rocky. The movie industry was moving west to California and, in 1918, Herbert left Alice and their children to move with it. Her studio went into bankruptcy and was sold off.
Guy-Blaché made her last movie in 1920 and moved back to France with her children in 1922. In the 1940s, she discovered that the first histories of the film industry—even of the Gaumont Studio—were being written without mentioning her. She started giving public talks about her work and wrote her memoirs. But recognition was slow in coming. Alice moved back to the United States permanently in the 1960s to live with her daughter. She died in 1968, at the age of 94, and is buried in Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah, New Jersey.
So why was she forgotten?
"Alice's story is very complex. She is there at the birth of cinema. She is there at the birth of Hollywood in Fort Lee. She was a business woman, entrepreneur, and a creator," says Pamela Green, co-director of a documentary about Guy-Blaché called Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, alongside co-director Jarik van Sluijs.
It doesn’t help Guy-Blaché’s story that most of her work has been lost. Only about 140 or so of the more than 1000 films she wrote, directed, or produced have survived, sometimes only in fragments, according to Green.
"What is interesting about Alice is that it was kind of her destiny. She got into cinema right at the right time when she had the background of growing up, reading stories, and loving literature, music, and theater,” Green told mental_floss.
Now, Guy-Blaché’s story is starting to get attention. In 2004, a historic marker for her was placed at the site of the Solax studio in Fort Lee. Green and her colleagues also hope to screen their documentary at the Cannes Film Festival next year—and maybe then Guy-Blaché will start to be appreciated as the pioneer she was.