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A Legacy Restored

Alice Guy-Blaché’s name is just now starting to receive recognition denied women filmmakers of her time.

by Vince Farinaccio

Alice Guy-Blaché, the French-born Fort Lee filmmaker and Solax Studio head, may have been one of the most accomplished silent-film directors deserving of the recognition generously bestowed on others of that era yet she escaped the notice of the industry as it transformed into something less inclusive.

In a belated obituary from September 2019, the New York Times noted that “while Blaché navigated the shift to features creatively, she didn’t weather the seismic changes affecting the fast-growing movie world, including monopolistic distribution practices.” And it would be her husband who first offered an encounter with such changes.

By 1914, Herbert Blaché had established two new film companies, Blaché Features Inc., established at the height of Solax’s success in spring 1913, and the United States Amusement Company, committed to cinematic adaptations of literature and stage plays. Herbert was also affiliated with a third company, Popular Players and Plays.

The new studios represented a power shift whereby Herbert served as president and his wife as vice-president. When Solax shut down its film production in October 1913, Guy-Blaché was forced to relinquish her role as studio head. As Gerald Peary noted in 1972, “Alice Blaché’s small step of handing away her power has proved historically a huge step backwards for women’s rights in the cinema…”

Blaché Features’ movies, launched by Guy-Blaché in November 1913, focused on full-length films, generating 14 in a one-year period, nine of which were directed by Guy-Blaché. But the company was shuttered in November 1914. Three years later, Herbert began renting the Solax facilities to other companies, and his wife’s subsequent movies, including Tarnished Reputation, filmed in Fort Lee in 1918 despite Guy-Blaché reportedly contracting the Spanish Flu, were released by Pathe-Exchange.

According to online sources, Herbert left his family in 1918 for Hollywood, where he would become a director-for-hire and, according to World Film Directors, work at Universal Studios as a production director.

The following year, Guy-Blaché moved with her children to Hollywood where she sought work as a journeyman filmmaker as the movie industry was building its empire on the West Coast. No one, it seems, was interested in hiring her, although the New York Times claims she declined an offer to direct a Tarzan film adaptation, which suspiciously sounds apocryphal.

With her marriage ending in divorce in 1922, she returned to France with her son and daughter and, her New York Times obituary reports, “tried to find film work with no luck. It’s unclear why she didn’t succeed, although by the 1920s, the movies were a big business and no longer as hospitable to women who wanted to make their own films. She sold her books, paintings and other possessions and wrote articles and children’s stories.” Her filmmaking career was over.

Weitzman notes that 20th century assessments of film history virtually ignored Guy-Blaché, preferring a revisionist viewpoint with a tendency to erase rather than recognize: “Respected texts passed her over entirely, or merely mentioned her as a rare woman in the industry. [French studio head Leon] Gaumont himself omitted her copious contributions when he wrote a history of his company.”

Guy-Blaché returned to the U.S. in 1927 “in hopes of retrieving her films,” World Film Directors notes, “but was unable to locate them.” She also attempted to correct her omission from film history by writing a memoir, but only the French government acknowledged her accomplishments with an award in 1953. In 1964, she returned to New Jersey where, four years later, she died at age 94 in the town of Mahwah.

Today, with the availability of some of her surviving films on You Tube and Kino Lorber home video releases as well as easy access to documentaries about her life and work, Guy-Blaché is beginning to achieve the recognition she was denied for over a century.

Jersey Reflections