On Friday morning a small group of people gathered beneath a clear Wedgewood-blue sky at Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah. But this wasn’t just any ordinary group of people, and they weren’t here to mourn. The group that included a member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the founder of the Garden State Film Festival, an owner of the Allendale-based production company MediaMix Studios, the Fort Lee Film Commission, an assemblywoman and the County Executive gathered to pay a long-overdue tribute to the first woman director in the motion picture industry, Alice Guy Blache, on the occasion of her 138th birthday.
“She pioneered the role of women in film,” said Diane Raver, founder of the Garden State Film Festival, when speaking about Alice Guy Blache. And yet, she remains largely unrecognized by the majority of directors (particularly female directors), Hollywood studios and film historians.
Whereas Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks are celebrated for making motion picture history by breaking away from the studio network and forming United Artists in 1919 as a means of having total control over the films they were making, Alice Guy Blache formed her own studio nine years earlier for the same reason. But despite her achievements as a filmmaker and studio owner, she was a behind-the-camera woman filming in a man’s world and lacked the recognition that the collaborative personalities of the United Artists group attracted.
Whereas the historic beginning of United Artists is well documented, the history of Alice Guy Blache has remained buried throughout the years. Her accomplishments would have remained largely lost to history were it not for the efforts of the Fort Lee Film Commission, which has made it a focus to acknowledge her as an important force in the early history of the nascent film industry and give her the recognition she is due.
In 1910, Blache broke away from the Gaumont Film Company based in France to strike out on her own. She formed Solax Studios, which at the time, was the largest film production studio in America based in Queens. Two years later, she moved Solax to Fort Lee where she built a state-of-the-art facility on Lemoine Avenue near where the A&P currently sits.
Blache continued to make movies there until 1918, when she separated from her husband and the studios were fleeing Fort Lee to relocate to California.
The Fort Lee Film Commission continues to work hard to bring Blache's role as director and studio owner to the attention of the public and the greater Hollywood society. The film commission is currently working on a number of projects to reinstate Blache´ to her rightful place in film history. They’re producing a documentary about her to air on public television; they’re working with New York Women in Film & Television to have Blache recognized in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of her establishing Solax Studios in 1912; and they’re working with Assemblywoman Joan Voss to have Blache´ admitted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2012.
Director of One Life to Live and active member of the DGA, Gary Donatelli, has successfully petitioned the DGA to honor Alice Guy Blache's pioneering role in the film industry with a special Directorial Achievement Award that will be presented on October 13, 2012 at DGA's headquarters in Manhattan. In fact, it was only when he attended a film festival some years ago, when Fort Lee Film Commission executive director Tom Meyers spoke about Blache's seminal role in the film industry, that Donatelli heard about Alice Guy Blache. Since then, it’s been his mission to bring her to the attention of Hollywood.
The Fort Lee Film Commission and Donatelli are collaborating to have a DGA marker placed at the gravesite of Alice Guy Blache. Simultaneously, they are working to get Alice Guy Blache a marker on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Chairman of the Fort Lee Film Commission, Nelson Page, is going to have Alice Guy Blache's movies screened at his theater, The Lafayette Theater, in Suffern, N.Y.
By honoring Alice Guy Blache and recognizing her role as a female filmmaker, the Fort Lee Film Commission hopes to attract women filmmakers to Fort Lee to film. In the past few years, they have successfully brought filming of television episodes of Law & Order SVU to Fort Lee, as well as episodes of One Life to Live, re-establishing Fort Lee as a great place to film, and bringing in revenue for both the town and our local shop owners.
During her lifetime, Blache was well aware of the power she wielded within the industry and well aware of the limitations women faced. When asked, she said that women were better suited “aesthetically” to filmmaking than men; however, women lacked the “physical strength and creative ruthlessness needed for professional success.”
If you want to learn more about Alice Guy Blache and the role of Fort Lee in the early film industry, read Richard Koszarski’s Fort Lee: The Film Town.