Alice Guy (1873-1968)

Date of Birth: 1 July 1873
Place of Birth: Saint-Mandé, Val-de-Marne, France
Date of Death: 24 March 1968
Place of Death: Wayne, New Jersey, USA

Biography

Alice Ida Antoinette Guy was born in Paris to French parents who had loved for many years in Santiago, Chile. They’d fled the city and returned home to France in early 1873 to protect the unborn Alice and her four siblings from a devastating smallpox epidemic that had struck Chile. Her parents left her in the care of her grandmother in Carouge, Switzerland while they returned to Chile to take care of business (her father owned a book shop and ran a publishing company) before they reclaimed her and took her to South America a few years later. After more relocating (she spent time in a convent of the Faithful Companions of Jesus on the French/Swiss border), her father died in January 1891 and the family relocated permanently to Paris.

There she trained as a typist and stenographer, workin yintially at a varnish factory before taking a job at the Comptoir général de la photographie owned by Félix-Max Richard, a manufactorer of camera sand photographic equipment, a company eventually sold to a consoretium of men including film pioneer Léon Gaumont after who the company was renamed. Initially retained as Gaumpont’s secretary, Guy accompanied him to the the famous 22 March 189r demonstration by Auguste and Louis Lumière of their new film projection system. Inspired and believing that film could be used for more than just “actualities” or demonstation reels, she asked Gaumont permission to make her own film and he agreed and in 1896, she made one of the earliest examples of a film with a fictional narrative La Fée aux choux, now sadly thought to be lost.

It not only inspired a flood of fiction films (speaking to the New York Tribune in November 1912, Guy recalled that “before very long every moving picture house in the country was turning out stories instead of spectacles and plots instead of panoramas”) but it started Guy on a pioneering 25-year career as a film director, a career that would see her making over 600 silent films and 150 with synchronised sound. The Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University suggests that “from 1896 to 1906 Alice Guy was probably the only woman film director in the world” and noted that “her Gaumont silent films are notable for their energy and risk-taking; her preference for real locations gives the extant examples of these Gaumont films a contemporary feel.” From 1896 to 1906, she served as Gaumont’s head of production, continuing to champion film as a narrative tool hile still making the “actualities” and non-fiction shorts that were popular at the time. In 1906, she made her most ambitious project to date, the epic La Vie du Christ/The Life of Christ (1906) that retold Biblical stories with an unprecedented 300 extras and she pioneered the use of audio recordings to add soundtracks to her films, using Gaumont’s “Chronophone” system.

Guy married Herbert Blaché in 1907 (and would often sign her films with her married name Alice Guy-Blaché) who became the production manager for Gaumont’s operations in the United States before th ecouple teamed up with George A. Magie to form The Solax Company based in Flushing, New York, which would become the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America. Sghe continued to pioneer while working as the company’s artistic director, making A Fool and His Money in 1912, believed to be the first American film to feature an all-African-American cast and she was the first woman to own her own studio and studio plant.

Guy and her husband divorced in 1920 by which time, Hollywood had started to establish itself as the centre for film production in the States. He opted to stay in Hollywood, working with, among others, Buster Keaton (he directed The Saphead in 1920) until he remarried and left the industry to become a furniture dealer. Guy however, called it a day and in 1922 she was back in France after she lost her studio in bankruptcy proceedings. For the next thirty years, she lectured on film, novelised scripts and write articles for magazines. She returned to the States in later years and died in New Jersey in 1968 and is buried in the Catholic cemetery in Mahwah, New Jersey.

Following the 1976 publication of an autobiography that she’d originally written in the 1940s, her critical stock began to rise and she started to earn the place in the history of cinema that, in life, she feared might elude her. Two documentaries about her life and work, Le jardin oublié: La vie et l’oeuvre d’Alice Guy-Blaché/The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché (1996) and Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018) along with Alison McMahan’s 2002 book Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema helped to cement her reputation and lead to many of her films being rediscovered, restored and preserved.

Genre filmography