Thomas Edison. Auguste and Louis Lumière. Alice Guy-Blaché? Guy-Blaché, the French woman director: the first such, made films from 1896 to 1920. An innovator, her name, until recently, even among cinephiles, remained obscure. Nevertheless, Guy-Blaché was a cinematic titan. And without her, today, film would probably not be more than a novelty item of the 19th century. Director Pamela B Green works to restore the French director in her documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, by demonstrating the myriad of ways she changed cinema and the multiple methods men of the last 100+ years have worked to take credit away from her achievements.
Green first sets the stage by asking a simple question to directors, producers, and writers: “Have you ever heard of Alice Guy-Blaché?” The answer from most: Peter Bogdanovich, Patty Jenkins, and Christine Hardwicke — is a resounding “no.” From here, Green begins the tall task of hunting down Guy-Blaché’s living relatives. With few scholarly sources available, primary sources from the people who knew her best assures the best route. And with each relative she discovers: the French director’s daughter, her granddaughter, and distant relations, another portion of the lost creator’s personality, wit, and determination falls into place, including her rise from secretary, to director, to founder of Solax, to French and American cinematic mogul.
Narrated by Jodie Foster, the documentary then traces through this trailblazer’s cinematic works and achievements, films like The Cabbage Fairy, Falling Leaves, and A House Divided, or her work with synchronized sound and tinted color, in relation to her personal struggles: a philandering selfish husband. But it’s her decline into obscurity which is most heartbreaking. Green expertly untangles the web of deceit and changing events that turned the director’s life upside down; Hollywood shifting from the East coast to the West Coast, thereby, becoming male dominated, and masculine film historians who attributed this pioneer’s work to… you guessed it, other male directors were the main body blows. Through archival interviews with Guy-Blaché, Green makes clear how much the French director fought for recognition, and how often the new male chauvinist power structure denied her. A true auteur who controlled every component of her set, Guy-Blaché serves as a direct example of the struggle women creators still face today.
Thankfully, the pioneering director’s profile is on the rise, as Green’s documentary suggests. The work of film historians like Cecile Starr and Maxine Haleff, the patience of film archivists, along with a new generation of cinephiles point to a greater awareness of the director’s triumphs. There’s also been a recognition of her political work, as well: from Planned Parenthood to integration. In fact, Ava DuVernay appears to discuss A Fool and his Money, one of the first films to feature an all Black cast. Though, not perfect, Guy-Blaché strived for the difficult conversation.
Over the past year, I’ve personally learned more about Guy-Blaché. Namely, from Alicia Malone’s indispensable book: The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women. What’s drawn so many, including myself, to Guy-Blaché’s work is the poignancy and emotions swirling within her best films. One of the joys of Green’s documentary happens whenever she shows a filmmaker: Jenkins or Peter Farrelly, reacting to the French director’s work. We see why Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, and Sergei Eisenstein cited her as an influence.
Still, some threads are left untied, like John Bailey working with the type of camera Guy-Blaché filmed with. The conclusion he finds, “it must have been difficult,” requires expansion for how often Green cuts to him. In fact, Be Natural too often glosses over the pioneering director’s style. The ‘Be Natural’ mantra from the French trailblazer made an indelible mark on cinema. Demonstrating additional examples of how her method differed from others of the period should be the obvious progression of employing Bailey. But the two threads never tie together.
Nevertheless, the term “essential documentary,” often overused, finds true ground here. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is essential for every cinephile, woman director, and male director as well. Because lord knows, for some inane reason, men need visual proof to believe a woman.