Before Kathryn Bigelow, before Penny Marshall or Susan Seidelman or Lina Wertmüller, there was Madame Alice Guy Blache, the first woman director in cinema history, an iconic Fort Lee visionary who is being honored on her birthday at a brief graveside ceremony Thursday in Mahwah.
The Fort Lee Film Commission is sponsoring the 11 a.m. annual event at Maryrest Cemetery — an unofficial launch, of sorts, to its summernight film series, which begins next week.
In 1894, young Alice Guy was hired as a secretary at a still-photography company in Paris. Only 21, schooled in convents, she would go on to help create movies as we know them.
Guy persuaded her boss, Léon Gaumont, to let her direct a story film. The result, the one-minute La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy) launched what would be a 28-year career in the film industry.
As head of film production for the Gaumont Company, she single-handedly developed the art of cinematic narrative.
On one of her film sets she met and fell in love with company sales manager Herbert Blaché, who was nine younger. They were married in March of 1907 and she resigned her position at Gaumont (conflict of interest, it appears).
However, Gaumont sent Blaché to manage his studio in Flushing.
Soon, she was directing three films a week and had herself built a $100,000 glass-roof studio in Fort Lee in 1912 called Solax — making her the first woman to own her own studio and plant.
In 1913, she directed a film still considered a masterpiece, “Dick Whittington and His Cat,” for which she blew up a ship off the Jersey Shore.
Two years later, financial troubles forced the couple to form separate studios. But Blaché ran off to Hollywood with an actress in 1918 and his wife nearly died after directing her last film in 1919 and contracting the Spanish flu.
Blaché brought his family to Hollywood, where they maintained separate households. But she couldn’t find the kind of work she did in Fort Lee.
Does the cliff from this Blache movie scene look familiar?
The couple divorced in 1922, Alice auctioned off what remained of Solax to satisfy bankruptcy requirements, and she sadly returned to France.
Behind she left an amazing catalog of more than 24 feature films and hundreds of short films. Still, she was all but forgotten until her memoirs were published in 1976.
Madame Blache returned to New Jersey in the 1960s and died in 1968, a few miles from her beloved Solax Studio. New books have been written about her, gaps have been filled in.
Next year, she will be honored by the Directors Guild of America in 2011.
And the Fort Lee Film Commission has made sure to not let the memory of this amazing woman disappear again.
Thursday’s 11 a.m. ceremony is open to the public. Call Tom Meyers of the Fort Lee Film Commission at 201.693.2763 for further information.
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