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The Screening Room

Alice Guy Blache: Unsung heroine of early cinema

By Teo Kermeliotis, for CNN
  • French-born Alice Guy Blache is considered to be the world's first female director
  • Between 1896 and 1920, she was involved in more than 1,000 films
  • Directors Guild of America has voted to posthumously honor Guy Blache

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Directors Guild of America had not honored Alice Guy Blache's achievements as a director and there was an ongoing campaign to rectify that. The DGA would like us to clarify that it has already taken action to give Ms. Blache a posthumous "Special Directorial Award for Lifetime Achievement" in honor of her groundbreaking career. The decision was taken last year but a public ceremony is yet to take place.

London, England (CNN) -- As Helen Reddy's 1970s feminist anthem "I Am Woman" blasted through the speakers of the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, a squall of shrieks greeted Kathryn Bigelow's exit from the Oscars stage.

A few moments before, Barbra Streisand's cry "Well, the time has come," had put an end to one of the longest omissions in the 82-year history of the Academy Awards: A woman filmmaker had finally won the Best Director prize.

Bigelow's historic win -- for powerful war thriller "The Hurt Locker" -- was quickly hailed as a milestone for the shrinking pool of female filmmakers, who more often than not find themselves cornered in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry.

The breakthrough victory exposed one of Hollywood's most startling statistics: Bigelow was only the fourth woman in the history of the Oscars to be nominated for best director.

It also marked a perfect occasion to unearth one of cinema's forgotten truths: the fact that much of its early history has been written by pioneering women whose forward and novel thinking helped lay the foundations for the industry's subsequent explosion.

It's sad that Alice Guy Blache's wonderful story is not known by people.
--Nancy O'Mallon

One such visionary was Alice Guy Blache, an obscured hero of cinema's early years -- she is considered to be the world's first female director and the first woman who created storied film.

Born in a Parisian suburb in 1873, Guy Blache started her career as a secretary to French movie pioneer Leon Gaumont in 1894. She is credited with the idea of being the first person to see beyond the camera's scientific uses, turning it into a fiction film tool.

In 1896, she made her directorial debut with "La Fee aux Choux" ("The Cabbage Fairy"), a 60-second short film believed to be the first ever fiction film.

Guy Blache ran the production of unit of Gaumont Film Company in Paris until 1907 when she moved with husband Herbert Blache to the U.S. Three years later, she created her own company, Solax, and in 1912 she spent more than $100,000 to set up a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, becoming the first woman to own and run a studio plant.

Until 1920, Guy Blache directed, wrote, and/or produced more than 1,000 movies, including more than 100 synchronized sound films long before sound was even used in cinema.

But despite the depth of her work (she directed from westerns and biblical epics to melodramas and romantic comedies), her contribution in shaping early cinematic history is often overlooked, helped by the fact that most of her work had gone missing for much part of the last century.

When Guy Blache passed away in 1968, at the age of 95, she believed that almost her entire catalogue of films didn't exist. However, over the last few decades about 130 of her movies have been located and uncovered. And lately, the world is starting to take notice.

Last November, the Whitney Museum of American Art dedicated a series of events to her memory, exposing more than 80 of her rare films to the public for the first time.

Also, the National Board of Directors of the Directors Guild of America has voted to award Guy Blache a posthumous "Special Directorial Award for Lifetime Achievement" in honor of her groundbreaking career.

The move, which follows a campaign by Fort Lee Film Commission, is expected to shed light on her long forgotten story.

"It's sad that Alice Guy Blache's wonderful story is not known by people," Nancy O'Mallon, filmmaker and vice chairman of the Bergen County Lee Film Commission, told CNN.

While Bigelow's Oscar win has helped put the spotlight back on female directors, rescuing Guy Blache's story from oblivion can be used as an inspiration for women thinking about becoming film directors, according to O'Mallon.

After all, this was a pioneering female filmmaker making movies long before women were even allowed to vote.

"Alice had a vision of what she wanted to achieve and I get the sense she never looked at being a woman as a disadvantage," O'Mallon said.

"Her most important legacy is her fearlessness with which she directed and achieved her goals in life; she started as a very young woman and from the beginning of her career she followed her curiosity and desire to do good stories," she added.