Lost in the pages of history, our own American history, is the importance of relations with other countries that date back to the birth of this nation in 1776. Although we have had long ties to Great Britain, obviously those ties were severed during our American Revolution. Yet during that same period we were able to forge an alliance with France that proved critical to the success of our war for independence. During the crucial year of 1776, after the Declaration of Indepndence was signed, Benjamin Franklin was sent to France to gain the support of France in the cause of American independence and secure France as an ally against Great Britain. The work of Dr. Franklin resulted in that very alliance that led to our victory in the American Revolution.
Why this dissertation on the great early alliance between the nascent nation of the United States and France in a piece on Fort Lee history? Fair question. Well some 136 years later, in 1912, there was something of a French invasion into Fort Lee, a friendly one, one that secured employment for many Fort Lee residents. This invasion was not led by brigades of soldiers or infantry divisions, it was one based on a new industry, film. The French film company Éclair built a new studio on Linwood Avenue in Fort Lee at the present day site of Constitution Park. Here hundreds of filmmakers and studio workers produced films including the first film version of “Robin Hood” produced in America. There were so many French film industry professionals living and working in Fort Lee at this time that there was a French language newspaper published in the borough.
That same year of 1912, the world’s first woman film director, cinema pioneer Alice Guy Blache’, built and opened her Solax Studio on Lemoine Avenue at the present day site of the A&P supermarket just north of the George Washington Bridge. Next time you stop at the market see our Fort Lee Film Commission marker to Madame Blache’ and her Solax Studio at the entrance off Lemoine Avenue as this is the only historic marker dedicated to Madame Blache’ in the United States.
Madame Blache started her career in film as a secretary at Gaumont Film Company in Paris in the 1890’s. Alice became the Head of Production of the Gaumont film studio from 1897 to 1907. Here she produced some of the earliest narrative films in the world as well as early color and synchronized sound films. In 1910 she came to America and established her first Solax studio in Flushing but by 1912 she felt the need to build a larger and more modern studio in the center of film production in the United States at the time, Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Madame Blache’ produced, wrote and directed hundreds of films at her studio in Fort Lee from 1912 through World War I, at time when women in America did not have the right to vote. The American film industry began to move west and by the end of World War I Hollywood was swiftly becoming the center of film production not just in this nation but also in the word. Alice followed the industry out west but women were not afforded the same opportunities in Hollywood as they were in Fort Lee only a few years earlier. Unable to secure real employment as a director in Hollywood, and divorced from her husband and with children to care for, Alice eventually returned to her native France never to direct another film. She did return to America in the 1960’s to live with her daughter who was a diplomat in New York. Alice died at the age of 94 in 1968 in New Jersey not many miles from her old Solax Studio. At the time of her death only about four of her films were thought to survive. Today over 140 of her films have been found and restored which still represents only a fraction of her work in film.
The Fort Lee Film Commission has assisted many scholars, students and filmmakers in their work to understand Alice. Most recently we have worked with Hollywood based filmmaker Pamela Green on her documentary about Alice titled “Be Natural.” This documentary is in production and the Executive Producer is Robert Redford and it will be the first American documentary of this scale about this cinema pioneer.
Last week two French film and television producers, Emmanuelle Gaume and Xavier Couture, visited us here in the first American film town Fort Lee. They were in New York and Fort Lee for five days from their native Paris to do research for a film on the life of Alice Guy Blache’. The Fort Lee Film Commission opened our archive to them which is housed in the Fort Lee Museum. We then took them on a tour of Fort Lee film sites including the site of Alice Guy’s Solax Studio. This tour enabled them to capture the importance of Fort Lee as an early center of world cinema production, one that attracted a French filmmaker named Alice.
So next time there is any controversy as regards American and French relations, before you jump the gun and rashly rename French fries “freedom” fries, remember that not only did France send us critical support to secure our victory in the American Revolution, in 1912 they sent us a filmmaker named Alice who made history in a studio called Solax in the first American film town, Fort Lee, New Jersey.