Nineteenth century filmmaker Alice Ida Antoinette Guy was born in Saint-Mandé, France, on July 1, 1873. Her parents and four older siblings were of Chilean descent. After a harsh smallpox outbreak in 1872, her family moved to France, where Guy-Blaché was born. Famously known as Alice Guy-Blaché, the film director became a trailblazer in the industry.
Guy-Blaché’s father died when she was in her late teens. In order to support herself and her mother, she trained as a typist and stenographer. Not long after, she landed a secretarial position at the “Comptoir Général de la Photographie” in Fance. This was a major camera manufacturing and photography supply company. During this time, she worked directly under manager Léon Gaumont. She quickly learned about the company’s range of products and large client-base; she also picked up marketing strategies in the fields of photography and film.
Alice Guy-Blaché Changed Film
In the late nineteenth century, film was exclusively used for two purposes; to create “demonstrative films” for scientific studies and for the promotional purpose of selling cameras. Alice Guy-Blaché became bored of this practice and asked Gaumont for permission to make her own film; she intended to incorporate fictional storytelling. Gaumont granted her permission, and in 1896, Guy-Blaché released the world’s first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux. (The name translates to The Fairy of Cabbages, and is also known by the title The Birth of Infants.)
During the following decade, Guy-Blaché worked as Gaumont’s head of production. Many credit her as the first person to develop narrative filmmaking. She was also the only known female director during this time. Most of Guy-Blaché’s films depict travel and dancing, and she would even combine the two into single films. Her early dance films were especially popular in music-hall attractions.
Guy-Blaché made what could be considered the first big-budget film, The Life of Christ, in 1906. The film incorporated 300 extras and even used audio recordings in conjunction with images playing on screen. She used Gaumont’s “Chronophone” (“sound-on-disc”) system, which played a vertical-cut disc synchronized with the motion picture. She also harnessed techniques such as double exposure and running the film backwards; this was considered the first use of special effects.
Making History in New Jersey
Alice Guy-Blaché married Herbert Blaché the following year. Herbert was soon appointed to production manager of the film company’s operations in the United States. Several years later, Guy-Blaché and her husband – now living in the U.S. – left Gaumont’s company. The two helped form The Solax Company, the largest pre-Hollywood studio in the nation, and became extremely successful. The couple invested $100,000 into a brand new, technologically superior production facility in Fort Lee; the town was the filming capital of the U.S. during that time. Guy-Blaché became the first woman to run her own film studio. She produced one to three films every week.
In 1918, Hollywood was on the rise. As Herbert pursued a career in Tinseltown, Alice stayed with the couple’s two children in New Jersey. She directed her final film the following year, then moved back to France three years after. In the early 1960s, she returned to the U.S. to live with one of her daughters. Several years later, at 94 years old, Alice Guy-Blaché died in the state where she made filmmaking history. She will forever be a pioneer in the film industry; not just because of her gender, but because of her determination and innovation in cinematography.