“Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache”
by DAN LYBARGER
Published at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32913&reviewer=382
If you can imagine a discussion of the Sistine Chapel without mentioning Michelangelo, then you know what it’s like to talk about the dawn of the movies without bringing up French writer-producer-director Alice Guy-Blaché, who made her first movie in 1896. She actually predates people like D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and other people who turned a photographic novelty into an art form, a multi-billion business and a cultural force.
There have been books and documentaries about her before, but Pamela Green’s new look at Guy-Blaché’s legacy not only establishes how important the pioneer was, but it recaptures the excitement that occurred as she and people like Auguste and Louis Lumière and Georges Méliès were writing the rules of cinema.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché lays out the facts of Guy-Blaché’s life and provides enough samples from her 22-year career to demonstrate that she was an essential film pioneer. More importantly ,Green approaches her subject as creatively as Guy-Blaché made her own films.
Guy-Blaché, who started out as a secretary for France’s venerable Gaumont studio, was one of the first filmmakers who understood that movies could do more than simple capture mundane sites like workers leaving the Lumière’s brother’s factory or a baby having a meal. These sights might be good for a home movie or YouTube video today, but Guy-Blaché thankfully had grander ambitions.
Her first narrative movie, which was one of the first ever made, was 1896’s The Cabbage Fairy, where a woman plucks babies out a cabbage patch. It was tad more imaginative that watching a train rolling by a camera.
As she helped develop filmmaking, she staged everything from epic battles, to comedies, to biblical epics. When she moved her operations to New Jersey and founded her own studio Solax, she even made A Fool and His Money, which is probably the first movie with an entirely African-American cast. The movie was supposed to be a tad more diverse, but white thespians didn’t want to sully themselves by performing with blacks.
She was also making movies that featured synchronized sound almost 17 years before The Jazz Singer made movies talk and sing. Like Chaplin and Pickford, she demanded that her performers play more subtly to the camera. Thanks to the projected images, actors didn’t have to madly gesticulate to convey their characters’ emotions to a crowd. As a result, her movies, when they are available, have aged better than those of some of her better-known peers.
I guess I should mention some of her movies had hand coloring as well.
It’s easy to make a case for Guy-Blaché’s space in the cinema pantheon. Alfred Hitchcock freely named her as influence, and an earlier documentary I saw on her 20 years ago made a similar argument.
What Green does that’s worthy of the pioneer herself, is that she turns her nearly decade long question into a global adventure. She contacts archives to see what remains of the thousands of movies Guy-Blaché made. Several are lost, and the ones that remain have to be stored in places where the nitrate film won’t catch on fire. Getting these films to where they can be seen is time consuming and costly.
Even getting a video interview with Guy-Blaché’s daughter to where it can be seen is a struggle. Green, who has put together titles for everything from The Flash to The Muppets Most Wanted, animates how the content from a previously unwatchable tape can resurrected.
These titles and animations come in handy because they illustrate where Green travels to obtain materials or contact people. It’s almost like watching Harrison Ford circumnavigate the globe to rescue antiquities and punch Nazis.
Green also contacts the filmmaker’s relatives and descendants, some of whom are unaware of what an innovator she was. Green discovers letters and other documents that help establish not only her status as a cinematic inventor but also what she was like as a person.
If the fact that Guy-Blaché’s movies haven’t had the same almost universal survival rate that Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton’s have had isn’t sobering, the fact that many of her contemporaries and successors haven’t even mentioned her is. As Green points out, despite making the movies that practically built the walls of Gaumont, many of her fellow peers (almost all of them men) had selective memories and fragile egos.
Apparently, they didn’t like being shown up by a woman.
Green devotes much of the film to a long series of contemporary filmmakers who have varying familiarity with Guy-Blaché but who are thankfully willing to acknowledge and learn from a woman who died in 1968 at the age of 94 and who stopped making films in 1920. Having Ava DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us) candidly discuss A Fool and His Money is worth the price of admission, and it’s encouraging to see established film scholars and directors like Kevin Brownlow, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese persuasively acknowledge that Guy-Blaché has yet to receive her due.
After seeing Be Natural, it’s reassuring that there might still be innovators like Guy-Blaché out their waiting to present their art. Here’s hoping it won’t be neglected the way that some of her films have been.
- DAN LYBARGER