Alice Guy-Blaché is an undisputed pioneer of the film industry—among other things, she was the first female director, one of the first directors to make a narrative film, and worked on over 1,000 films—but for years she was left out of the history books, her work attributed to male directors or simply left unmentioned. Pamela B. Green’s documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché represents an effort to right that wrong by telling Guy-Blaché’s story, in a lively film that incorporates archival materials, contemporary interviews, film clips, animation, and narration by Jodie Foster.
Besides celebrating a pioneering director, Be Natural serves as a good reminder of how different the early film business was from what it is today. Among other things, there was no film school to attend, and no old boy’s network to crack, because the industry was literally being created as she came of age. Guy-Blaché got into the business sideways, through a sequence of events that began with the death of her father. Needing a trade so she could support her mother, Guy-Blaché decided to train to be a secretary (another profession then in its infancy). Once qualified, she might have taken a job at any number of businesses, but fate brought her to a photography supply company owned in part by Gustave Eiffel (designer of the eponymous Tower) and Léon Gaumont. The job gave her a chance to meet many key people in the nascent film industry, to become familiar with technical and business aspects of it, and to be present at the first presentation of a projected film, the famous documentary short “Workers Leaving the Lumière Company,” in 1895.
Guy-Blaché convinced Gaumont to let her make a film, and the result was the fictional narrative “The Cabbage Fairy” in 1896 (it draws on the folklore that babies are found in cabbage patches, analogous to the way in some countries they are said to be brought by the stork). Using film to tell a story, rather than simply record events, was a new idea at the time, but one that quickly caught on. Guy-Blaché became head of production at Gaumont, creating a variety of films and incorporating the latest in technical innovations, including double exposure and masking.
In 1907 she married Herbert Blaché, production manager for Gaumont’s U.S. operations, and in 1910 they partnered with George Magie to form the Solax company in Queens, New York. Both Guy-Blaché and her husband directed films for Solax, and they later moved to a larger facility in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was a center of American filmmaking in the pre-Hollywood era. The documentary’s title, “Be Natural,” stems from this period—Guy-Blaché placed a sign bearing that slogan, a direction to her actors, in the studio in Fort Lee. She directed her last film in 1919, and the film business, never particularly concerned about preserving the past, moved on.
For years Guy-Blaché’s surviving films languished in archives, but today a number have been restored, with some of them released in box sets, and some are even available on YouTube. You can see clips of some of her films in Be Natural, which should convince you that Guy-Blaché is more than a historical curiosity: instead, she was a real filmmaker whose work holds up well today. Much more information is available about Guy-Blaché (and other early women filmmakers) in 2019 than was the case, say, 50 years ago, so Be Natural may overstate the case of her being an “unknown” today. Still, that’s the kind of hyperbole that gets you Kickstarter funding, and without that funding this documentary might never have been made. |Sarah Boslaugh
Be Natural: The Untold Storyof Alice Guy-Blachéis distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. The only extras on the disc are trailers for this and two other films.