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Once upon a time, there was a girl whose love for stories would make her the first female filmmaker in the world. Her name was Alice Guy Blache. Alice was a pioneer in filmmaking, starting her storied career as an assistant in a French camera factory and eventually owning her own successful movie studio in the United States. Guy-Blache made hundreds of films over her lifetime and pushed the art form forward in many ways. This is her story.
Get to know Brenda Chapman, who helped launch DreamWorks Animation Studios and later joined Pixar Animation Studios where she created, wrote and directed Brave – inspired by her relationship with her daughter – for which she was the first woman to win an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film. Currently, Chapman is working on a novel, a memoir and a children’s book.
BRENDA CHAPMAN Once upon a time, there was a girl whose love for stories would make her the first female filmmaker in the world. Her name was Alice.
CHAPMAN Alice was born in France and spent a part of her childhood in Chile. She lived with her parents there while her father ran a chain of bookstores.
As a child, Alice devoured the stories that surrounded her. She couldn’t get enough of fairy tales and the fantasies. In her imagination, cabbage fairies brought babies into the world, and there was nothing more beautiful than a dancer taking her final leaps across a stage.
But, it wasn’t until age 22 that Alice discovered the true purpose of her love of stories. It happened in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris in 1895…when Alice first saw the famous Lumière Brothers demonstrate their brand new motion camera.
The brothers cut the lights. On a white tarp stretched across the wall was a still image of the Lumières’ camera factory.
Suddenly, the image sprang to life! Laborers spilled out of the factory. They stopped to chat, to peer into each other’s lunch buckets. Remarkably, the pictures moved— something Alice had never seen before.
This was a kind of magic. Alice knew she could use it to make stories come to life. Now, she just had to convince everyone that she was the one to do it.
CHAPMAN I’m Brenda Chapman, and this is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Alice Guy-Blaché.
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Paris in the 1890s bloomed with new possibilities for young women. For the first time, universities opened their doors to them, and they were allowed to pursue careers of their own.
Alice was nineteen years old when a family friend told her about a job opening for a secretary at Gaumont et Cie. It was one of the first camera companies in France. With new advancements in technology, the company was booming.
CHAPMAN Alice arranged an interview with the company’s president. But when she arrived at the famed Gaumont building, he was nowhere to be found. The front desk clerk was so flustered, he ushered Alice into the company manager’s office to interview with him instead.
There sat Léon Gaumont, the company’s manager. Though Léon was impressed by Alice’s credentials and professionalism, he told her that she was too young.
Alice replied, “I will get over that!”
Léon found that response amusing. “Yes, alas, you will!” he said.
He hired her that day.
CHAPMAN Alice was a quick study, and she was intensely interested in the cameras the company produced. One by one, Alice mastered them all. She learned how to construct them, and how to load them with film. With the snap of a shutter, she could demonstrate how they worked. She even learned how to develop the photographs.
Her boss Léon came to rely on her almost as a partner. She was so knowledgeable, that he invited her to attend meetings with him. She was doing a lot more than taking notes.
Alice made suggestions on how to use the cameras, and innovated improvements to them. She demonstrated this new, exciting technology for clients and co-workers alike. Soon, everyone knew if they had a question about the Gaumont cameras, Alice was the one to ask.
That was why the Lumière Brothers invited both Léon and Alice to their surprise event at the Society for the Encouragement of National Industries.
Auguste and Louis Lumière, two pioneering filmmakers, had been racing Thomas Edison. They wanted to invent the first motion picture camera that could project an image. And incredibly, they did!
CHAPMAN The Lumière brothers played a short film of workers leaving their factory. Nothing special. But to Alice it was everything. She remembered her days buried in books and realized: she could use film to tell stories. This new technology could document people’s lives…as they happened. The possibilities were endless.
Excited and inspired, Alice asked Léon if she could try her hand at the new technology.
He agreed—as long as she promised not to let her stenography work fall behind.
Alice studied with the Lumière Brothers, drinking in the technical details. But what came out of Alice when she finally made a movie… was art. And she chose one of her favorite childhood stories to bring to life: The Cabbage Fairy.
It starred two of her friends as the fairies, a doll as a baby, and the cabbages were made out of cardboard!
It was only a minute long, but it was one of the first—if not the first—motion pictures that told a story.
CHAPMAN Alice’s first films excited people. She had a good eye for creating a beautiful scene. Plus, she knew the equipment backwards and forwards. That meant she was skilled enough to experiment and invent things.
Stunts, color, movies with sound, and even special effects—Alice developed them all!
Not only did they show off the Gaumont equipment, they delighted everyone who watched them. Her films were so wildly popular that soon Léon named her Head of All Moving Pictures.
As she produced her own creations, Alice also taught all the new directors how to make their films. Creating the “house style,” Alice defined the look and feel of all the movies coming from Gaumont. Meanwhile, her own work continued to stun and amaze.
Her films were lyrical, beautiful, and groundbreaking. Alice was multi-talented, creating movies of all kinds. Romance, drama, comedy. Her musical films were especially popular. She directed the actors to lip-sync (and dance!) to a phonograph recording. Then, she carefully lined up the image and sound to play together perfectly.
Alice innovated sound production almost three decades before the first talking films would be introduced. She synchronized visuals with choreography and pre-recorded songs. Many credit her for the creation of the first music video!
CHAPMAN Alice’s fame rose, and she exhibited a film at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.
There, she won the first of many honors for her work. And she never slowed down. While Alice was the Head of Moving Pictures at Gaumont, she had a hand in producing, directing, or writing more than four hundred films.
In an era before “filmmaker” was even a word, Alice was an award-winning producer, director, and screenwriter.
And, for seventeen years, she was the only woman filmmaker on the scene.
CHAPMAN In 1907, Alice decided to strike out on her own. She left her job at Gaumont, and eventually moved to the movie capital of the world: Fort Lee, New Jersey.
That’s right! Before Hollywood turned on all the lights, filmmakers gathered in New Jersey. They built among the first major production studios in the beachside town, and Alice was right there with them.
After she got married, she became Alice Guy-Blaché. Her husband Herbert had also worked at Gaumont, demonstrating cameras. Eventually, the two decided to relocate to New York, where Alice built her very own studio.
She named it SOLAX. And since she was new to American film, she had to come up with a way to make her films stand out. Others made their names with early thrillers and monster movies, but Alice broke out with… Westerns!
CHAPMAN Yes, this French filmmaker was one of the first to bring Westerns to life on the big screen. Her productions weren’t all saloon sets, either. An Alice Guy-Blaché film featured big, exciting, unbelievable stunts!
She used real horses, real chases, and real guns. Special effects wouldn’t do it for Alice when she needed to blow up a boat. She simply blew up a real boat!
Another innovation she brought to filmmaking in America was a new style of acting. At the time, it was normal for actors to treat filmmaking like a series of exaggerated poses. They’d clutch their chests, throw hands against foreheads, and faint on couches!
Alice insisted that her actors inhabit their roles naturally. Instead of posing: walk. Instead of gesturing broadly: touch genuinely.
CHAPMAN People fell in love with the way Alice’s actors told stories with their whole bodies, and with real expressions. With her techniques, she created a depth and reality that most movies didn’t have at the time.
This way of acting was so important to her, that she put signs all over her studios for everyone to see.
The signs said BE NATURAL.
CHAPMAN Alice was proud of being the first female filmmaker in the world. People buzzed around her, eager to learn her techniques. She helped launch several other female directors, such as Lois Weber, into the business. Lois was a comic actor, who studied directing and producing under Alice. With Alice’s mentorship, Lois became the first female American director.
Alice loved to write movies for and about women. Her stories had women as the heroes. She created many movie stars, including Olga Petrova and Marian Swayne. Olga was an early feminist, She insisted on playing strong roles in her films, like doctors, scientists, and adventurers. Alice also directed the earliest known narrative film with an all-Black cast.
In a few short years, Solax became the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America. It could produce as many as four films at the same time, and it was the first to start offering full-length feature films.
CHAPMAN Alice herself was famous. Hundreds of newspapers and magazines wrote articles about this amazing filmmaking giant—who just so happened to be a woman. People from all over the United States sought out her expertise; she was even invited to give a lecture series at Columbia University.
At her peak, Alice personally earned up to $60,000 dollars a year—about $1.5 million dollars today.
But for Alice, it was never about the money. It was about spinning the stories in her head out onto film, so she could share them with the world. She wrote an autobiography to make sure she was never forgotten. And then, of course, sat down with a camera and made a documentary about her own life.
In 1968, Alice Guy-Blaché passed away at age 94 with more than seven hundred titles to her name.
Her gravestone in New Jersey reads, “First Woman Motion Picture Director”, “First Woman Studio Head”, and “President of the Solax Company.”
Alice’s work helped define what movies could be. Films and filmmakers still use her techniques and innovations, and actors today strive for her ideal: to be natural.
Today’s episode was hosted by Brenda Chapman. Brenda is a writer, storyboard artist, and director, who, in 1998, she became the first woman to direct an animated feature from a major studio. Get to know Brenda in our interview episode, available now.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
Our Executive Producer is Elena Favilli, Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Sarah Storm, and Robin Lai. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager. This episode was written by Saundra Mitchell and edited by Maithy Vu. Proofread by Ariana Rosas.
Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi who has also sound designed this episode. Mattia Marcelli was the sound mixer.
Until next time… Stay tuned and stay rebel!