If there’s one sad thing historians know about official histories, it’s that success has a thousand fathers … but few mothers. From the days of glass box theaters and hand-cranked cameras comes Pamela B. Green’s fascinating, deeply researched documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache.
Guy-Blache has many firsts on her resume. She was very likely the first female film director. She was certainly the first woman to start a film studio. She also co-founded the Solax Studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey—a town one historian here calls “Hollywood 1.0” because Goldwyn, Fox and Paramount all hatched there, on the palisades right across the river from New York City, before WWI. Guy-Blache was the first person to make a film with an entirely African American cast (in 1912). Director Ava DuVernay (When They See Us) comments here on the short’s historical importance, while distancing herself a bit from its attitudes. Guy-Blache made an early film about family planning; it would have screened at the Margaret Sanger Clinic if the cops hadn’t shut the clinic down first. Her short The High Cost of Living (1912) studies a crime committed by an ironworker who is forced to be a strikebreaker. In his Behind the Mask of Innocence, the eminent silent film historian Kevin Brownlow calls it “a fascinating glimpse into the conditions of the time.”
As well as being first, Guy-Blache was also funny: her two-minute-long, 1906 film La Femme Colante (“The Sticky Woman”) is as uproarious as a Kate McKinnon sketch. Early on, Guy-Blache discovered that deadpan humor triumphs over gesticulation. At Solax Studio, above the boards where the actors hit their marks, was a large sign urging them to go smaller: “BE NATURAL.”
Guy-Blache rose from the rank of stenographer at France’s Gaumont studios to become the person who hired Louis Feuillade to direct. In terms of importance as it relates to the creation of cinema, this is equivalent to being the boss who used to send D.W. Griffith out for cigarettes.
And, yet, this pioneer was written out of official histories and considered a secondary player to better-known names. I’m not saying it was gender … but it was gender.
The traditional source of information on Guy-Blache is a 1964 television interview featuring her as a proper, elderly Frenchwoman with pearls around her neck. At that point in time, perhaps two-and-a-half of her movies had been retrieved from loss. Green delves from there, making the hunt for Guy-Blache visually thrilling.
Be Natural is a celebration of how the internet picks the locks of history. Case-in-point: the passage in which Green rescues a fouled tape of an interview with Guy-Blache’s daughter by racing all over Los Angeles, from one engineer to another. In a technical institute in Paris, she visits the theater where Guy-Blache screened her early films more than a century ago. In Seattle, a facial recognition expert confirms that Guy-Blache is a figure in certain films and photographs. Green researches family trees from the roots up, until she finds a trove of materials in a humble house in St. Louis. She also takes a look at Guy-Blache’s Legion d’Honneur medal, which is being kept in storage by one of Guy-Blache’s descendents in a tiny town in Arizona.
Digging in the style of an investigative reporter, Green creates a portrait of this pioneer in both her highly-paid success and later unhappiness: Guy-Blache’s husband left her for the better-known early female film director Lois Weber. She was robbed of credit in the official histories again and again, and in later life was unable to get work at Gaumont, the studio she helped thrive. Happily, Green’s intrepid research restores Guy-Blache to her rightful place in cinema history.