Out of oblivion: Alice Guy-Blaché

In our Summer 1971 issue, Francis Lacassin spoke to and recounted the career of the pioneering female filmmaker.

Updated: 9 February 2024

By Francis Lacassin

Alice Guy-Blaché
Sight and Sound
This feature first appeared in the Summer 1971 issue of Sight and Sound

There are enough women filmmakers now for it to be easy to forget just how recent a phenomenon they are. Yet it was only in the Fifties, with the growth of television and the decline of the big studio monopolies, that they began to come into their own. Until 1939, there were only a dozen women directors in the world. From 1915 to 1925, you could count them on the fingers of one hand. In 1914 there were two of them. And before that there was only one: a Frenchwoman named Alice Guy.

Still very much alive – at the age of 97, she lives quietly in an American nursing-home – Alice Guy was not only the doyenne of women filmmakers. She was also the only one to have been in at the birth of the cinema. Her career, which ended in 1920 in the United States, began in the 19th century in Paris, at Buttes-Chaumont, where she built the first Gaumont studio; today the site is occupied by the ORTF television studios.

Her work was also the most prolific: approximately two hundred reels between 20 and 680 metres long (in terms of contemporary projection speeds, between one and forty minutes) up to 1906; more than 70 two-reelers and features between 1910 and 1920. She founded and directed, or contributed to the founding in the United States, of four production companies and one distribution company. She took on the Edison Trust, by braving their ban on productions over two reels long.

But, as far as posterity is concerned, it is better to come second or third than first. Inaugurated in the prehistoric period and over before the history of the cinema was born, Alice Guy’s career on both sides of the Atlantic has been either forgotten or attributed to other people. But a meeting with her, our subsequent correspondence, and research in New York and Los Angeles, have enabled me to reconstruct her story.

Alice Guy was born in Paris on July 1 1873, in a comfortable bourgeois family which was bankrupted on three separate occasions, once as a result of an earthquake. At the age of four, she went with her family to Santiago (a long journey: there was still no Panama Canal), left Chile again at the age of six, and was later educated at a convent in Paris. On her father’s death, determined to ensure her independence, she learned shorthand-typing, still a rare accomplishment. Her mother ran various charity committees and at one of them she met some of Leon Gaumont’s family. Alice was hired by Gaumont as a secretary.

In 1885 the Gaumont organisation had taken over the Comptoir de Photographie. They manufactured films and cameras, and the Lumiere Brothers’ invention led them to take an interest in the cinema. In 1896, with the collaboration of the engineer Demeny, Gaumont launched a 6omm. camera. In 1897, with the collaboration of Decaux, he marketed a 35mm. combined camera-projector. This was followed in 1898 by an inexpensive machine designed solely for projection: the ‘Gaumont Chronophotographe’, mass-produced and aimed at film exhibitors. As an accessory for demonstration purposes, Gaumont had hitherto produced a few reels of factual or news footage. The success of his new machine obliged him to provide customers with fiction films along the lines of those made by Pathe. He entrusted his active secretary with the organisation of this new branch. With no resources and no qualified staff, Mademoiselle Alice decided to tackle the job herself.

Le Fée aux Choux (1900)

In the small garden of her boss’s house in the factory grounds, she set up a few backdrops and with the help of a much amused friend, Yvonne Mugnier-Serand, she shot La Fée aux Choux (later retitled Sage-femme de l’ere Classe). In a picture postcard vein of humour, it tells the story of a woman who grows children in a cabbage patch. This first effort was well received, and as she’d enjoyed the experience its author decided to continue her new career. She had plenty of time for it: it was only a question of producing a total of anything from twelve to twenty very short films a year. When I spoke to her, Alice Guy claimed that she had started making films before Méliès. It seems unlikely, however, that Gaumont would have envisaged producing fiction films before they started mass-producing their projectors in 1898; or, at the very earliest, their combined camera-projector in 1897.

For her next films, Alice Guy managed to obtain a few professional performers. The only people willing to risk appearing in films and ready to work for the fees Gaumont offered were acrobats, vaudeville actors like Henri Gallet, or chansonniers like Roullet-Plessis. Occasionally, in exceptional circumstances, she was able to hire some of the famous clowns of the age: the O’ners in La Voiture Cellulaire, Déménagement a la Cloche de Bois, Ballet de Singes, La Crinoline and (1905) Une Noce au Lac Saint-Fargeau. She tackled every genre. Fairytales and fantasies: Faust et Méphisto, La Fève Enchantée, Lui, La Légende de Saint-Nicolas, La Fée Printemps (1906, in colour). Saucy comedies: Les Fredaines de Pierrette, Charmant Froufrou, J’ai un Hanneton dans mon Pantalon! Trick comedies: Le Cake-walk de la Pendule, Le Fiancé Ensorcelé. Religious subjects: La Messe de Minuit, Le Noël de Pierrot.

For the comedies she sometimes concentrated on a single actor. La Première Cigarette (60 metres, August 1904) shows in semi-close-up the reactions, as observed by his terrified sister, of a boy sneakily smoking a cigarette. (This film has been wrongly attributed to Emile Cohl who, in fact, only started at Gaumont after Alice Guy had left.) She advanced to longer and longer films with larger and larger casts. From Les Apaches pas Veinards (20 metres, March 1903) she went on to L’Assassinat du Courrier de Lyon (122 metres, April 1904) and from there to Rapt d’Enfants par les Romanichels (six scenes and 225 metres; October 1904). 1904 was her year for children, who provided the inspiration for Le Baptême de la Poupée, Les Petits Peintres and especially Les Petits Coupeurs de Bois Vert, a delightfully naive melodrama. Two children, whose sick mother has fallen asleep in front of the dying fire in their humble cottage, go to gather wood in a nearby forest. They are caught by the gamekeepers and brought before a magistrate. On hearing of their plight, the latter cannot hold back his tears and lets them go after slipping a coin into the hand of the older child.

Alice Guy told me that all the films produced by Gaumont up to the autumn of 1905 can be attributed to her, except for a few films made in 1904 and 1905. It was in 1904, in fact, that she was surprised to come across Ferdinand Zecca in the streets of La Villette selling soap from door to door: formerly Charles Pathé’s right-hand man and the head of his production section, a sudden fall from favour had reduced him to this extremity. One detail moved Alice Guy more than all the rest : ‘Zecca was wetting the soap to make it weigh more.’ She immediately offered her former rival a job; and although Zecca was in fact reinstated with Pathé a few weeks later, during his short time at Gaumont he acted as assistant and also directed a few films himself – most notably Les Méfaits d’une Tête de Veau, one of the big successes of the Gaumont repertoire. For a long time, this was the only film actually attributed to Alice Guy, although by her own account it was one of the few Gaumont pictures that she didn’t make. The source of this historical error lies with the reminiscences of Etienne Arnaud, who began work at La Villette two years after this film was made.

La Vie du Christ (1906)

Working with Zecca brought home to her the need for an assistant. It was difficult for her to deal single-handed with the ever-increasing demand for films. Moreover, she wanted to devote herself to longer, more elaborate pictures. Rélubilitation, ‘a dramatic scene’ made in 1904, attained the then considerable length of 250 metres. Under the title of Esmeralda, she was planning an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame; and of course she had to bring out a Life of Christ to compete with the one Pathé had just released. These two films – both ‘superproductions’ in their day – were released in December 1905 and January 1906 and were respectively 290 and 680 metres long: they both involved extensive casts, particularly the second – 300 extras and 25 wooden sets designed by Henri Ménessier. The engineer Decaux personally helped cut them out and mount them on mobile platforms, for some decors were set up out of doors in the forest of Fontainebleau. Handling these three hundred extras, scraped from the bottom of the barrel and reluctant to be bossed around by a woman, led Alice Guy to hire a kind of production manager who would be part assistant and part director. Her choice fell on Victorin Jasset (1862-1913), producer at the Hippodrome (now the Gaumont-Palace) of popular historical reconstructions – Vercingetorix, Joan of Arc, etc. Which is how Esmeralda and La Vie du Christ came to be wrongly attributed to Jasset, who was merely the directress’ assistant. In 1963, while comparing it to stills which she had kept from the film, Alice Guy showed me the collection of chromos which had provided her visual inspiration: namely, La Vie de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ by James Tissot, published in Tours by Alfred Marne.

Jasset also assisted Alice Guy on a film shot in his native district, Descente dans les Mines à Fumay. Finally, Alice Guy confirmed that he himself directed two or three films including the bizarre Rêves d’un Fumeur d’Opium. Although she was satisfied with him both as an assistant and a director, she did not keep him because Leon Gaumont thought that the interest he showed in the young female extras was more than strictly professional. He thereby deprived himself of an exceptional collaborator. Jasset later became one of the founders of the Eclair Company and remained its artistic director until his death. It was at Eclair that he created the thriller genre (later perfected by Feuillade) with his serials Nick Carter (1907-1910), Zigomar and two masterpieces, Balaco, based on Gaston Leroux, and Protéa.

In the autumn of 1905, Gaumont deposited a pile of scripts on the desk of his artistic directress. They had been sent him by Michel Coissac of La Maison de la Bonne Presse, publishers of La Croix and Le Pèlerin, and were written by one of Coissac’s former colleagues: Louis Feuillade. Alice Guy liked the scripts, sent for their author and asked if he’d like to direct the films himself. But Feuillade, who had just become a father, was reluctant to give up the security of his job with the Revue Mondiale. He suggested that she might instead try Etienne Arnaud (1879-1955), a friend from L’Hérault with whom he had written a one-act verse play, Le Clos, and founded the Toro-Club of Paris. A law graduate, a former chansonnier, and currently out of work, Arnaud made his debut as director by shooting Feuillade’s first script, Attrapez mon Chapeau!, which came out in January 1906. He continued working for Gaumont, with historical films his particular speciality, until 1911. Then he went to America as director of the Eclair Company’s new studios at Fort Lee on the Hudson. In 1922 he published his book of reminiscences, Le Cinéma pour Tous.

Feuillade’s energy and cheerfulness usually infected everyone who worked with him, and he got on very well with Alice Guy. Promoted to being the company screenwriter, he brought her three scenarios regularly every week until – not many months after, according to Alice Guy – he gave up journalism for film direction. His invention was so prolific that for the next year or so he continued to provide plots for most of the films made by his colleagues – in particular Roméo Bosetti, originally the actor in the Roméo serials and then director of the Calino serials (starring Mégé) until they were taken over in 1910 by Jean Durand.

Alice Guy-Blaché

With Arnaud, Feuillade, Bosetti and J. Roullet-Plessis, another actor turned director, to meet most of Gaumont’s needs, Alice Guy could spend more time on her own films; and on the Company’s new department. Gaumont had always believed in talking pictures. In 1905 he marketed the ‘Chronophone’, which combined sound recorded on a wax cylinder with the filmed image, and throughout 1906 and until the spring of 1907, Alice Guy was kept busy directing some hundred films for the Chronophone. Rarely more than a minute or two long, they mostly featured singers in performance or tableaux accompanied by choral singing. After Les Ballets de l’Opéra (with Gaillard) and Les Soeurs Mante Danseuses Mondaines, she recorded Rose Caron’s class at the Conservatoire in Carmen, Mignon, Manon, Les Dragons de Villars, Les Cloches de Corneville, Madame Angot, La Vivandière, Fanfan la Tulipe, and Théodore Botrel’s Le Couteau. Among those who came to perform in front of her camera and her recording machines were Mayol, Dranem and Polin.

She didn’t meanwhile lose interest in the silent film. In 1906, eager to film the bullfights at Nîmes, she decided to take advantage of the trip to film adaptations from Provençal literature. Feuillade, co-opted into the party as scriptwriter, was allowed to work on the direction of certain films (among them Mireille, after Frédéric Mistral) whenever the shooting involved practical difficulties for a woman. Such as? ‘Climbing up into a tree, for instance,’ Alice Guy explains. Although the first negative of Mireille was damaged, the month-long trip was both productive and agreeable. It was during this expedition that Alice Guy fell in love with the party’s English cameraman, Herbert Blaché, and soon after she married him.

In 1907 Blaché was put in charge of Gaumont’s New York office. Intending to accompany him, his wife gave up directing films and also had to resign from her post as artistic director for the Gaumont Company. Léon Gaumont thought he might find a replacement by enticing someone away from Pathé; specifically, he had Albert Cappellani in mind. But Alice Guy assured him that the man he needed was already working in his own company: Louis Feuillade. Gaumont took her advice, and the future director of Les Vampires took up his new position on April 1, 1907.

Gaumont’s New York branch was on Congress Avenue, a long way from Manhattan in the suburb of Flushing. Just outside its doors there was open countryside: wild woods and lakes that seemed made for location shooting. But, unlike Pathé, Gaumont’s foreign branches were not supposed to engage in production. The New York branch was set up to function as an agency and print laboratory, and Blaché’s job was to show Gaumont productions to American exhibitors and to take orders for them. Paris would then send him the negatives, he would make however many copies he needed for the American market, title them in English, and return the negatives to La Villette.

A Child’s Sacrifice (1910)

After two years, during which she gave birth to a daughter and adapted to her new life, Alice Guy began to feel bored with life as a mere wife and mother. Nostalgic for her former profession, she had the idea of making for the American public films designed to its tastes and performed by American actors. Since Gaumont was unwilling to take the risks involved in foreign production, and her husband was under exclusive contract, she had to venture into business on her own. She did, in theory, have an outlet for her films: the clients her husband had contacted on Gaumont’s behalf.

On September 7, 1910, the Solax Company was registered: president, Alice Blaché; business director, George A. Magie. Although the company had an office in Manhattan –147 Fourth Avenue, on the corner of 14th Street – it actually operated from the Gaumont building in Flushing, where Alice Guy used the print lab and commandeered a space for shooting interiors. The countryside around Flushing provided her locations. She engaged a cameraman, John Haas, who photographed most of her films; she got her chief designer and former collaborator on La Vie de Jésus, Henri Menessier, to come over from Paris. From October 21, 1910 until June 1914, under its trademark of a blazing sun, the Solax Company produced some 325 films of assorted lengths and types. At least 35 of them were directed by the company’s lady president, the rest being made by Edward Warren, the company’s principal director, and by Harry Schenk. Throughout Solax’s existence, Alice Guy personally directed an average of one film a month.

Released on October 21, Solax’s first production A Child’s Sacrifice was made by Alice Guy, who would appear to have been thinking back to the good old days of Les Petits Coupeurs de Bois Vert. A Child’s Sacrifice is the story of an 8-year-old girl (played by Magda Foy, the ‘Solax Kid’). Her father is a worker out on strike and her mother is ill, so she tries to sell her doll to a junk-dealer. Seeing her distress, he buys the toy and then gives it back to her as a present. The little girl does not content herself with bringing a few pennies into the starving household; she also intervenes to prevent bloodshed in a quarrel provoked by the strike. Another of Alice Guy’s successful melodramas, Falling Leaves, was distributed in France. It’s the touching story of a little girl who believes she can stop her big sister dying of TB by going out into the garden at night and putting fallen leaves back on the branches: the doctor hints that the sister will die at the end of the autumn.

Alice Guy-Blaché with Sarah, star of The Beasts of the Jungle. Fort Lee, 1914

The director did not forget her recordings for the Chronophone: in 1912 she filmed two operas, Mignon and Fra Diavolo, both three-reelers with orchestral accompaniment. Nor did she lose interest in tougher subjects. Making good use of a trip to Washington, she shot a series of ‘military scenes’, most of which were really cowboy pictures. The woman who had directed Les Apaches de Paris and Le Crime de la Rue du Temple turned out for Solax such thrillers as The Rogues of Paris, The Million Dollar Robbery and The Sewer. The script for this last film was by her designer, Ménessier, who had no hesitation in digging trenches and pools in the undeveloped land around Flushing. One of the film’s main attractions was an attack on the hero by genuine sewer rats, specially trained by an expert. The directress spared no effort or expense to achieve realism or sensational effects. To the great surprise of critics, who were not yet used to this type of thing, in March 1912 she set fire to a car in the studio yard (‘a Darracq only three years old’) for a crime story entitled Mickey’s Pal. This scene was directed by Edward Warren at the express request of Herbert Blaché, who was somewhat alarmed at the prospect of his wife filming fires and acrobatics on the struts of the Brooklyn Bridge, using wild animals and setting off explosions. He did allow her to have animals on the set in The Beasts of the Jungle, but he strictly forbade her to use dynamite, standing in for her as director on scenes of The Yellow Traffic which he considered too dangerous.

Alice Guy made two further excursions into the realm of the fantastic: The Pit and the Pendulum and The Shadows of the Moulin Rouge, both made in 1913. Looking back for the last time to the trick comedies of the heroic age of Gaumont, she introduced – with the collaboration of the indispensable Ménessier – a short animation sequence into a 1912 melodrama, Hotel Honeymoon, in which the moon came to life and smiled at the lovers. She may also have been the director of In the Year 2000, a satire in which women ruled the earth. In any case, it would have been consistent with her character and sense of humour.

From the beginning, the stars of the ‘Solax Stock Company’ were Blanche Cornwall and Darwin Karr, joined in 1913 by Vinnie Burns and Claire Whitney. Others in the company included Lee Beggs, Mace Greenleaf, Marion Swayne and Billy Quirk, who specialised in comedy and was the hero of the ‘Billy’ series.

At first Alice Guy tried not to draw attention to her unique position as the world’s only woman film director: a sensible precaution in the face of a milieu where skill in manipulating stock clichés was more appreciated than intuition or sensitivity. But when they discovered her existence, the trade press took an attentive interest in this charming Frenchwoman whose gentleness on the set disguised such astonishing energy. Delighted by the touch of exoticism she brought to them, they published her photo. In evening dress. In her working clothes: with a megaphone in her hand, protected from the sun by an immense hood, standing on a piece of scaffolding to direct a scene from Fra Diavolo. They reported every word and gesture of the woman whom they called not Mrs. Blaché but – toujours Ia politesse – Madame Blache. When she visited Sing Sing on a reconnaissance trip, they photographed her sitting in the famous electric chair and quoted her as saying: ‘French prisons are much more comfortable, particularly the one at Fresnes.’ (Heavens! How did she know?) They were fond of repeating that, according to ‘Madame Blaché’, French children show an innate feeling for acting even before they are out of their rompers. But the Americans can catch up with them by hard work.

In point of fact, Solax was highly successful. Its films were popular and sold well. Consequently, in January 1912 she was able to announce that she had acquired a site on the other side of the Hudson, on Palisades Avenue at Fort Lee, where she was planning to build a modern studio. Along with the Pathe studio and Eclair, where Etienne Arnaud had just arrived, Solax helped to make Fort Lee the capital of a Franco-American cinema. The new building, which contained a large studio with two-storey-high glass windows facing south, was equipped with a laboratory capable of printing 16,000 feet of positive film a day. And meanwhile on February 3, 1912, at Weber’s Theatre on Broadway, Solax organised its first gala evening, attended by everyone from the New York film world.

Alice Guy-Blaché

Herbert Blaché, who was still running Gaumont’s New York office, was every bit as dynamic as his wife and was a great help in marketing her films. In May 1912 he became leader of a group of independents who were determined to put up some kind of active resistance to the Edison Trust, which was uncooperative or worse in its dealings with them. He founded a distribution company, the Film Supply Company, and became its president until it was merged in 1914 with the Mutual Company (although Mutual was later to produce Chaplin’s films, it was at this time still exclusively a distribution company). In addition to Solax’s pictures, the Film Supply Company distributed films made by Thanhouse, Great Northern, Majestic, Comet, Reliance and the American Film Company, as well as the films of several French companies – Gaumont, Lux, Eclair, Eclair American, and Le Film d’Art.

Almost as soon as he was released from his exclusive contract to Gaumont in October 1913, Herbert Blaché founded and became president of Blaché Features Inc. (vice-president: Alice Guy). It soon replaced Solax, which ceased its bi-weekly productions on October 31. But five Solax films which were already under way were distributed under the old label at the rate of one a month. Unlike Solax, the new company made only dramas – especially adventure stories – and these were a minimum of four reels long. Alice Guy inaugurated the production side of the company on November 17 with The Star of India. Of the fourteen films made by Blaché Features Inc. from November 1913 until its disappearance in November 1914, nine were made by her; the others were directed by Harry Schenk or by Blaché himself.

With his indomitable passion for founding companies, Blaché set up a new one in April 1914 with a capital of $500,000. The U.S. Amusement Corporation: vice-president Alice Guy; managing director, Joseph M. Shear. The aims of the company were set out by its president in a manifesto entitled The Life of a Photodrama: the time had come to acknowledge the development of the cinema, to make it more of an art form and to produce masterpieces. One could achieve this by adapting literary classics neglected by the cinema. Or one could do it less expensively and with less risk by bringing stage adaptations to the screen. In practical terms, this meant that the company was proposing mainly to adapt plays which would be performed – and this was the innovatory part of the project – by actors who had successfully appeared in them on the stage. This concern with quality and culture struck a new note in the materialist American cinema; the scheme also offered all the disadvantages which Feuillade had vigorously denounced as early as 1911, at the time of his attacks on ‘Le Film d’Art’ and ‘La Société Cinématographique des Auteurs et Gens de Lettres’. Namely, the death of the original script and the takeover of the cinema by the theatre.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1914)

The company’s series of ‘art films’, most of which were directed by Herbert Blaché, was inaugurated in September 1914 with a production of The Chimes, based on Dickens. This was followed by The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Burglar and the Lady (from a melodrama by Langdon McCormack), etc… Alice Guy’s contribution to the activities of the U.S. Amusement Corporation was represented by three films released early in 1917: The Adventurer (from the novel by Upton Sinclair), The Empress, and A Man and the Woman (based on Zola’s Nana). From January 1917, the former Solax studio at Fort Lee was rented by Blaché to Apollo Pictures; its subsequent tenants, before it was sold and pulled down around 1920, included Albert Cappellani.

Meanwhile, from October 1914 until August 1917, Alice Guy directed some ten five-reelers and supervised the production of a dozen others for a company whose first appearance coincided with the disappearance of Blaché Features Inc. and whose aims seem to have been a carbon-copy of the U.S. Amusement Corporation. The company was called Popular Players and Plays: president, L. Lawrence Weber; managing director, Harry J. Cohen; and director of production, Herbert Blaché. All of the films which Alice Guy directed for this company were adapted from stage plays (The Ragged Earl, The Tigress), novels (Michael Strogoff, What Will People Say?) or, in one case, a poem (My Madonna, based on The Call of the Yukon by Robert Service). Most of them starred one of the first ‘vamps’, the Russian dancer Olga Petrova.

It is curious to note that it was the Blachés who helped Metro Pictures (which, after mergers, became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) to get off the ground, by entrusting them from their inception in March 1915 right up until 1918 with their various productions, thereby providing them, over a two-year period, with most of their output as distributors: a humble and unintentional contribution to the birth of a giant. But the Blachés’ departure from their Fort Lee studio signified the end of an era. By 1917 it was already impossible for independents to survive and the future belonged to the big companies, as the Blachés were to discover to their cost. Pathé Exchange released Alice Guy’s last two films: The Great Adventure, with Bessie Love, in March 1918; and Tarnished Reputation, based on a screenplay by Léonce Perret, in June 1920. Her husband, however, obtained a reprieve. In 1920 he directed Buster Keaton’s first feature, The Saphead, and Ethel Barrymore’s first film, The Hope. In 1923 he joined Universal, becoming their production director in 1925 and supervising, among other things, all the Hoot Gibson Westerns. He left the cinema in 1929 with the coming of sound.

The pioneer days of the New York cinema were gone for good. And the passersby glancing into the window of a small lampshade shop in downtown Los Angeles little suspected that its owners had been pioneers of both the French and the American cinema. The French attributed Alice Guy’s films to Jasset or to Cohl. And the Americans had quite forgotten that ‘refined Frenchwoman Madame Blaché’. In a recent interview about her one film as director, Lillian Gish remembered quite clearly that before her own venture there had been a Frenchman whose wife had also directed films. But the name completely escaped her.

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Originally published: 15 June 2023

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