"Snookie from MTV isn't a Jersey girl – she isn't even from New Jersey," Tom Meyers, Fort Lee Film Commission executive director, says. "Alice Guy Blaché is our reel Jersey girl."
Even before women had the right to vote, director Alice Guy Blaché (pronounced Ah-LEES Ghee Bla-SHAY) was creating cinematic art in such movies as Dick Whittington and His Cat (1913), The Ocean Waif (1916) and Tarnished Reputations (1920).
In 1910, Blaché, a French filmmaker who had worked for the Gaumont Film Company based in France, decided to venture out on her own entertainment endeavor with her husband, British-born American film director, producer and screenwriter Herbert Blaché. Together they formed Solax Studios, a company based out of Flushing, N.Y. In 1912, she built and operated Solax Studio in Fort Lee, located on Lemoine Avenue, now the site of A&P. The studio contributed to the economic growth and development of films created in the Fort Lee area, helping making it the birthplace of America's motion picture industry.
"Alice Guy Blaché not only paved the way for women filmmakers but for all filmmakers," Diane Raver, Garden State Film Festival's executive director and founder and the 2011 recipient of the Fort Lee Film Commission's Alice Guy Blaché Award, says. "Here was a woman who, during a time in our history when all industries, not just filmmaking, were considered for men only, had a far-reaching impact. She headed a successful business and managed to maintain a family long before the women's lib movement made it fashionable."
In a career spanning 28 years, Blaché directed more than a thousand films, of which more than 100 were synchronized sound films and 22 were feature films. She produced all of her own films and many more by other directors working under her. She was also the first woman to own and run her own studio plant, Solax Studio, which, when opened, was bigger than any studio Hollywood had at that time. But in the 1920s, when the motion picture industry emerged in Hollywood, Blaché returned to France with her two children to give lectures on film and write novels from film scripts. She never returned to filmmaking.
"She would almost single-handedly develop the art of cinematic narrative and define the role of movie director as separate from that of camera operator," Alison McMahan, author of the biography Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, says. "She eschewed expensive backdrops in favor of real locations, making her films look startlingly modern. She pioneered the use of close-ups to dramatic effect in films several years before D.W. Griffith, who is usually given credit for the innovation, even started working in film. And most important, she was the earliest to deploy character arc and the psychological perspective of a lead character in a film story."
Unfortunately, Blaché's film career remained unrecognized for many years, and the Fort Lee Film Commission has made continuing efforts to place Blaché in the spotlight. Last year, the Fort Lee Film Commission sponsored the 9th Annual Garden State Film Festival with a symposium dedicated to Blaché, and she was honored by the Directors Guild of America. She received a posthumous special directorial award for lifetime achievement from Martin Scorsese, who directed the classic film Goodfellas, parts of which were filmed in Fort Lee, after years of lobbying by the Fort Lee Film Commission.
"Her ideas about narrative filmmaking predated all the great American filmmakers and most filmmakers in the world," Meyers says. "She built and operated her own studio here in New Jersey, then the motion picture capital of the world, and the films that survive are wonderful."
Meyers had hoped Blaché would be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, as she was recently selected as one of 50 nominees for the class of 2012 and it's the centennial of her building and opening Solax Studio in Fort Lee. Unfortunately, it was recently determined she would not be inducted, so the Fort Lee Film Commission plans to create the NJ Motion Picture and Television Hall of Fame and induct Blaché as the first inductee.
"Her legacy was unprecedented," Raver adds, "and she remains the unsung heroine of our industry."
Blaché returned to the U.S. in 1964 to live with daughter Simone, and died March 24, 1968, at the age of 95, at a nursing home in Mahwah.
On July 1, Blaché's birthday, the Fort Lee Film Commission plans to unveil a new headstone for her grave in Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah. It includes the Fort Lee Film Commission logo and the words "First Woman of World Cinema and Owner of Solax Studio, Fort Lee, N.J."
The History of Alice Guy Blaché and Fort Lee's Solax Studio
Alice Guy Blaché and her husband, Herbert, along with a third partner, create Solax Studios. Her early films are melodramas and westerns.
She builds a studio in Fort Lee, N.J., said to cost more than $100,000. Solax produces two one-reelers (10-15 minute films) a week. She writes and directs at least half the films and oversees all production.
Dick Whittington and His Cat is released. At three reels in length (45 minutes), a $35,000 budget and elaborate costuming and staging (including burning a boat), it is her most ambitious Solax project.
The Blachés join Metro-Popular Plays and Players, a production company that produces features for distributors. These films are shot in Solax Studio in Fort Lee, which still belongs to the Blachés.
Alice Guy Blaché directs seven features, including The Ocean Waif.
The former Solax studio is now rented out to other companies. In the fall of 1917, the Blachés' children, Simone, age 9, and Reginald, age 5, contract the measles and become seriously ill. Herbert Blaché sends his family to North Carolina, where Alice Guy Blaché cares for her children and takes part in the war effort by volunteering for the Red Cross while he manages the business in Fort Lee.
Herbert Blaché moves to Hollywood with one of his actresses. Alice Guy Blaché gives up her house in Fort Lee and moves into an apartment in New York City.
Tarnished Reputations opens March 14, 1920. It is her last film.
Courtesy of Alison McMahan, author of the biography Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema. Photos courtesy of Alison McMahan & Fort Lee Film Commission