By Elias Savada.
In a way, I consider myself a film archivist. I don’t do that for a living now, but I do have close ties with many such institutions, especially in the United States (the larger repositories being the Library of Congress, NYC’s Museum of Modern Art, Rochester’s George Eastman Museum, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and USC’s Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive), that foster marvelous restorations of works long unseen and often considered lost. I used to work for The American Film Institute (yes, they used to circulated memos to staff that the preceding “the” had to be “The”), and they get an early, brief shout out in Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a marvelous documentary from Pamela B. Green about the first female film auteur. (More on the AFI later.)
Green finds a way to put the art in archival films as a subset of her extraordinary research on Alice Guy-Blaché, who made hundreds of silent films during cinema’s first decade…only to become a mostly lost footnote a century later. She was doing this a very long time before Hollywood would deliver weekly blockbusters to our theatrical doorstep. Armed with a quite imaginative vision; many captivating, transportive animated sequences; revealing, re-discovered interviews; clips from restored films from the director; and a well written narrative delivered by Jodie Foster, Be Natural is a stunning tale about a filmmaker most folks never knew existed, with the added pleasure of following along with Green as she’s peeling away the layers of obscurity on Alice’s life and finding her films in far-flung locations around the world.
In this thoughtful examination of the era that saw the birth of an art form that would transform modern culture, Alice Guy was a woman pioneer in a field dominated by men. As a secretary to Léon Gaumont, creator of the world’s oldest surviving film company, she was in the audience when the first film flickered across the screen in Paris. She was smitten. “It seemed extraordinary to me. It filled me with admiration.”
Guy (later becoming the eponymous hyphenate after she married British film director Herbert Blaché) learned early on how to cope in a world that considered her too young for an important position she had wanted. Her reply, recalled in a 1964 filmed conversation, “Sir, it will pass.”
She was among the first persons (if not the true original) to believe film could actually tell stories and move past its infancy as a mere documentarian recording daily life for the initial audiences. Showing her brilliance as a teller of tales, her first effort as a writer-producer-director was The Cabbage Fairy, an 1896 film now lost, although an 1899 remake captures the identical fairytale story line, of an ethereal spirit plucking newborn babies from a cabbage patch.
As head of production for Gaumont for the decade commencing in 1896, she oversaw hundreds of films, some of which noted film historians would later erroneously attribute to male contemporaries. Boxing and Passion Play films were the first “features” in this leading-edge era, comprised of shorter chapters grouped as one. Her Life of Christ a.k.a. The Passion (1906), in over 2,000 feet, contained 25 tableaux.
She also became an established filmmaker in the United States, where she and Herbert, newlyweds, headed in 1907. Within a few years she founded Solax, a movie studio in Flushing, New York (and later Fort Lee, New Jersey), and is again prolifically behind the camera, with her output now estimated at over a thousand films, outpacing such luminaries as Thomas Edison, the Lumière brothers, and Georges Méliès.
Although there are many talking heads (directors, actors, historians, archivists) to be found – among them several of my acquaintances (good to see you all!) – most offer up fascinating bon mots, including this film’s director Green. She whimsically asks various Hollywood movers and shakers if they have even heard of Guy-Blaché. “No,” “Never,” etc. Geena Davis: “I’m floored that we don’t know about her!”, offering proof that Alice got lost in history’s shuffle. Some get extended screen time, offering trinkets from Alice’s past; others offer tantalizing clues to be examined like a Saturday afternoon serial. You can’t wait for the next chapter to start!
Green’s genealogical detective work is impressive and artful – especially the sepia-toned, dust-speckled tree animations – that the film could easily find more fans among family historians. Green tracks down family members (Tatiana Page-Relo, her great-great-granddaughter; Bob Channing, widow of a granddaughter) and unravels some mysteries about folks listed in Guy-Blaché’s address book. I got goosebumps watching the puzzle pieces being fit together.
When famous archives are brought into the mix, Alice’s papers, photographs and films are located. Everything you ever wanted to know about her but didn’t know where to look – until Green’s persistence conquered all.
I did say I was going to mention AFI again. Author/historian Anthony Slide mentions he was hired by them (we briefly worked together when AFI offered archival assistance – how are you doing, Tony?). He helped start the AFI’s Catalog project, on which I worked for 13 of my 14 years with that organization. This was a book series created as a well-researched overview of films “produced in the United States,” arranged mostly by decade. The 1911-1920 set (usually a main volume or two, plus a separate index) was published in 1988 and only contained a couple dozen of Alice’s films. Irrelevant to this documentary, the 1961-1970 books also contained foreign films released in the United States. The more pertinent volume, The American Film Institute Catalog: Film Beginnings, 1893-1910, was singularly compiled by me over a seven years period starting in 1974. I included in my research nearly every film released in the USA, as I felt it important to relay the scope of all worldwide film product shown in America at the time. While I never full finished my work on those early cinema volumes – I was laid off halfway through the 15 years I estimated the project would take – the information was published as a work in progress.
Now, if you have the printed copies of the AFI Catalogs (they aren’t published these days, but the information is available on AFI’s website), one big caveat: the current managers have stripped out every foreign film from the online version. I will admit that I only listed a handful of Alice’s films in that set. Blame it on the inability of the trade papers (the big ones were The Moving Picture World and Motion Picture News) which often did not cite credits, especially on foreign films. Alice’s first credits, according to that castrated online catalog, date from 1913. No The Lyons Mail (1904). No Life of Christ. No sense.
So much for my rant, but it seemed appropriate to include here.
Tony Slide’s comment that Alice Guy-Blaché that the cinema, at its birth, needed people by her “to come in show you there was more to the cinema than just a stock shot” of a train arriving in a station or the surf breaking.
The good news is that Be Natural, which has had widespread art house exposure, is already available on VOD, and will soon be available on DVD from kinolorber.com. To be truthful, I was an early (2013!) supporter of this project (part of a Kickstarter campaign), so look for my Thank You credit at the film’s end. I feel like a very proud father.
So, yes, I’m gushing praise on this film. Green finds a way to show her private investigator skills from one moment to the next, and make it fully entertaining. Finding a camera (and making a short film with it), or locating the streets in Paris where Alice filmed. And I haven’t even touched on her American output! Alice Guy-Blaché was a consummate artist, and Pamela B. Green is gloriously following in her revolutionary footsteps.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).