Tuesday, August 20, 2019

DVD Review | Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché | 2019

I first discovered the films of Alice Guy-Blaché a few years ago while randomly searching for early silent short films on YouTube. I was struck not only by the fact that I had never heard of her before (despite having studied this era for years), but that her films displayed a preternatural narrative and formal sophistication that not even Meliés or the Lumières had achieved around the same time. In fact, Guy-Blaché was pushing forward cinema as a narrative medium in the 1800s decades before D.W. Griffith would be credited with pioneering some of the same techniques.

It appears I was not alone in my ignorance of Alice Guy-Blaché, the subject of Pamela B. Green's fascinating new documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice-Guy Blaché. Not only was Guy-Blaché the first female filmmaker, she was one of cinema's earliest pioneers, starting out as a secretary for Gaumont before taking over production, eventually emigrating to America and founding her very own film studio. She directed her very first film, The Cabbage Fairy, in 1896, only a year after the iconic premiere of Louis and Auguste Lumière's Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. It was only through the diligent research of film historians that she recently received credit for that film, as well as hundreds of others in her long and productive filmography. Guy-Blaché's days as a studio mogul were also likewise credited to her husband, Herbert Blaché.

So why was Guy-Blaché seemingly lost to history? And why were so many of her films credited to other filmmakers? Be Natural investigates her incredible life and career, throwing back the curtain on one of cinema's greatest and most overlooked pioneers. The film takes its name from the filmmaker's motto - "Be Natural," a reminder for actors that once prominently graced the walls of her studio, Solax, which ran in New York from 1910-1914. That in itself is a remarkable thing - a filmmaker in the early 1900s telling actors to be natural, when the acting styles of the time were so presentational. So what happened? Was she forgotten simply because she was a woman? Were other film professionals at the turn of the 20th century intimidated by her prowess? Did film historians simply not take her seriously? Green incisively examines all the factors that lead to Guy-Blaché's seeming erasure for the history books, interviewing popular filmmakers and historians alike to uncover her story. But the most indelible anecdotes come from archival footage of Guy-Blaché herself, fondly recounting her days as a filmmaker. This was not a woman who put it all behind her went quietly into that good night, this was a woman who was forgotten by history.

Through lack of film preservation and the advent of sound, so many early silent films were lost, and along with them, the rich history that gave birth to them. But Be Natural seeks not only to resurrect that history, but to rectify a great injustice, placing Guy-Blaché in the pantheon of cinema pioneers where she belongs. There is a certain playfulness to her films that sets them apart from single shot actualitiés that were so common at the time. Her films had spirit and wit. Her film, The Consequences of Feminism (1906), boldly satirized gender roles at a time when such things were often expected to be accepted without question. She was one of the first to use hand-tinted color, and was an early proponent of Gaumont's Chronophone sync-sound system. To see this lion of cinema tell her story in her own words after nearly a century of silence is truly stunning stuff, and Green tells the story with equal parts awe and righteous indignation, framing it as a historical mystery she and her team must solve. It's a vital, deeply moving documentary that at long last acknowledges Guy-Blaché's invaluable gift to cinema, insuring that this long-forgotten pioneer will finally be given her due.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ | Directed by Pamela B. Green | Narrated by Jodie Foster | Now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

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