Alice Guy Blache Shorts
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"It has long been a source of wonder to me that many women have not seized upon the wonderful opportunities offered to them by the motion picture art to make their way to fame and fortune as producers of photodramas." Those words were written in 1914, several generations before women executives started advising one another to "lean in." "There is no doubt in my mind that a woman's success in many lines of endeavor is still made very difficult by a strong prejudice against one of her sex doing work that has been done only by men for hundreds of years."
The woman who wrote those words was a pioneering woman executive--the first female movie mogul, among other laudable firsts. Between the lines of her words you can hear her frustration--having blazed a trail, she turned around and looked behind her, only to despair that no one seemed to be following.
When we say that Alice Guy-Blaché was the first female movie mogul, however, we do her memory a grave disservice. Alice Guy-Blaché was one of the very first movie moguls of them all. She was the person who nurtured the careers of some of early cinema's most prominent directors, she pioneered narrative storytelling in film, she made sound films (in the 1890's!), she made the first film with an all-African-American cast, she built her own studio. She made the first ever feature film.
It was rare to find a woman with such accomplishments--but that was partly her point when she encouraged women to seek employment in the movie business. This was a brand new industry, and it was rare to find anyone with such accomplishments. Men could not claim some historical privilege in this brand new arena--it was one place where women might be able to compete on equal footing.
Her story begins with Leon Gaumont, a French engineer selling movie equipment and film. In 1897, he decided to start making his own movies, too. This was a time when most movies consisted of nothing more than pointing a camera at some event that happened: a man getting shaved, a baby eating some oatmeal, some workers leaving their jobs at the end of a day. Gaumont expected to make films like these, but running the company was busy work, and he needed an underling to go out and point the camera at things that happened. He asked his secretary, Alice Guy (not yet Guy-Blaché) to take that job.
Which she did. Except, she didn't just point the camera at things happening. She came up with stories.
The stories were modest at first, naturally enough, given the fact that movies typically ran no more than a minute in those days. That being said, as any fan of You Tube or Twitter can attest, there are many things a clever person can do in the short form--and Guy started to push the limits. Soon, she was making elaborate long form productions.
She experimented with recording soundtracks on disks to synchronize sound with her films, and explored the possibilities of special effects. She started hiring--and training--new directors to join her team, and launched the careers of the likes of Louis Feuillade and Victor Jassenet. It was at this point that she met cameraman Herbert Blaché, a younger man (by almost ten years) who caught her eye on the set one day. They were married in 1907.
Getting married to Blaché, though, derailed her burgeoning career. Married women didn't work, not in France at least. So she was forced to resign her post as Gaumont's head of production. But America was a different story--people weren't as hidebound by tradition there.
Alice Guy-Blaché arrived in the United States to supervise Gaumont's American distribution. She handled that responsibility excellently, even as a woman in a man's world, even as an immigrant wife and mother in a man's world. In fact, she found herself so good at juggling Gaumont business and family obligations that she decided start a company of her own at the same time. It was called Solax Studios, founded by Guy-Blaché in 1910 along with her husband (business manager) and George A Magie (Treasurer), with Alice serving as creative director.
Solax thrived, and soon outgrew its modest studio in Flushing, New York. Hollywood was not yet a significant place in the world of film; instead the "Hollywood" of the 1910s was Fort Lee, New Jersey. Alice built a brand-new studio for Solax in Fort Lee, and without any irony intended, she outfitted it with a glass ceiling (many movie studios used glass roofs to maximize sunlight while still enjoying the controlled conditions of the indoors).
In 1916, Louis B. Mayer started a distribution company to handle Solax's output. Mayer's Metro Pictures would soon evolve into MGM.
Sadly, despite this whirlwind of artistic and commercial success that Alice had created, Herbert grew tired of living in the shadow of his successful wife. He decided to divorce her and quit Solax to make his own films, to be released by Metro. In 1920, Blaché directed Buster Keaton's feature film debut, The Saphead.
Solax did not survive the break-up, and ceased production soon after. Guy-Blaché returned to France in 1922 where she taught filmmaking and enjoyed a writing career, but never made another movie. Which perhaps sounds sad, but Guy-Blaché could boast that over 28 years, she had supervised the production of 700 films, directed over 400 of them, of which 22 were features. Compared to the tragic fall that some of her contemporaries experienced she had the longest and most successful run of any of the first generation of movie moguls.
By David Kalat
Robert Klepper, Silent Films, 1877-1996.
Richard Koszarski, Hollywood Directors 1914-1940.
Alison McMahan, The Solax Films of Alice Guy-Blaché
Nancy Mowll Mathews with Charles Musser, Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film 1880-1910.