Nine years ago, the Fort Lee Film Commission decided that a new grave marker was in order for movie director Alice Guy-Blaché. By the time of her death in 1968, she had been largely forgotten despite her accomplishments in early cinema. “The original one,” the New York Times reported in a long-belated 2019 obituary, “had noted only her name and the dates of her birth and death. The new memorial states that Alice Guy-Blaché was the ‘first woman motion picture director,’ the ‘first woman studio head’ and the ‘president of the Solax Company, Fort Lee, N.J.’ ”
Both the newspaper and the commission were correcting oversights. So were Pamela Green, director of the 2019 documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, and Kino Lorber, which last year released a DVD of 17 silent movies by the director made at the Solax film studio.
The story of Guy-Blaché and how she intersects with New Jersey is the tale of an independent-minded artist whose career and legacy were usurped by a burgeoning film industry that chose to follow the advice to “Go West.” Her beginnings were in Paris, where she was born Alice Guy in 1873. In 1894, she became a secretary for Leon Gaumont, a man the New York Times calls “one of several French inventors experimenting with the potential of early cinematography” and the founder of his own film studio.
Convincing her boss that fictional films could be made as effectively as documentaries about everyday life, she soon, the New York Times notes, “had dispensed with [secretarial] duties for an expanding list of others: location scout, casting director, costume designer, cinematographer, editor, writer, director and producer.” In the process, she became the first female film director.
Before long, Guy-Blaché was serving as head of film production at Gaumont Studios and was experimenting with technology like the Chronophone, what World Film Directors identifies as an invention that “synchronized visual images with sounds recorded on a wax cylinder” several decades before the advent of talkies. After marrying Herbert Blaché in 1907, she and her husband were assigned to Gaumont’s U.S. facility in Flushing, New York where she would take a desk job as general manager.
Within three years, however, Guy-Blaché was ready to resume work in moviemaking and, because Gaumont’s U.S. office was not engaged in producing movies, she, her husband and George A. Magie launched an independent film production company, Solax, for which she would serve as president. “Solax’s first studios were in Flushing, NY,” the Barrymore Film Center website states, “but, as Solax grew, the Blachés invested in a modern production plant in Fort Lee. The new studios, completed in 1912, cost more than $100,000.”
According to World Film Directors, the studio boasted “five stages, projection rooms, prop rooms, carpenter shops and laboratories capable of turning out 12,000 feet of positive film a day,” all within a four-story facility.
Initially, Guy-Blaché, World Film Directors notes, “seems to have thought it prudent not to draw attention to the fact that Solax was owned and run by a woman,” but a Moving Picture World article about her in 1911 observed, “she practically has a hand in the entire output of the company.”
Solax proved it was capable of competing with the big-name studios of the time, many of which shared the town of Fort Lee with Guy-Blaché. It’s estimated that from 1910 to 1914, 300 films ranging from shorts to full-length features were produced at Solax. And, according to the New York Times, “Guy-Blaché blazed a variety of narrative and artistic trails. She made comedies, adventures and romances. She made thrillers, melodramas and westerns. She made religious epics and documentaries, never hesitating to expand into new or provocative domains.”
Next Week: A Legacy Restored