Film & Television

‘Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché’

If you’ve never heard of director, writer, producer, and moving pictures pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, don’t feel bad. Neither, apparently, had Julie Taymor, Catherine Hardwicke, Geena Davis, Peter Bogdanovich, Kathleen Turner, Diablo Cody, Patty Jenkins, Julie Delpy, and some 80 other Hollywood insiders interviewed by director Pamela B. Green. 

Green’s documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, attempts to change this. Half-biography, half-investigative reporting, the film walks through Guy-Blaché’s truly remarkable life and then tries to uncover how — and why — film history forgot her for so many years.

Alice Guy was born in 1873 in a suburb of Paris to a French mother and a Chilean father. Her childhood was peripatetic; she and her siblings lived in South America and Switzerland, and she was eventually educated at a convent school in Veyrier, France. After her father’s death, Guy studied to be a stenographer, a respectable profession for middle-class women, in order to support her widowed mother. 

In 1894, she began working at the Comptoir général de la photographie, a camera and photography supply company. The company was eventually sold and renamed Gaumont after one of its owners, Leon Gaumont. (Today, Gaumont is the oldest continuously running film studio in the world, operating under the tagline “depuis que le cinéma existe,” or loosely, “since movies have existed.”)

On March 22, 1895, Gaumont took Guy to the Lumière brothers’ debut of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, the first projected motion picture. Although a persuasive demonstration of the new technology, the short film was journalistic and objective; as its name suggests, it simply comprised images of dozens of factory workers walking out and onto the street at the end of a workday. Guy, who was just 22 years old, imagined other possibilities. She convinced Gaumont to let her make some of her own films in order to sell more cameras. He agreed, as long as she stayed on top of her secretarial duties. By 1896, Guy was Gaumont’s head of production.   

Her earliest project, believed to be the industry’s first narrative film, was La Fée aux Choux (or The Cabbage Fairy). It runs about a minute and a half. An actress in an ethereal costume pulls newborn babies out of giant cabbages. Whimsical, if a little strange by modern standards (you can easily find it on YouTube), the film was praised as a “chaste fiction of children born under the cabbages in a wonderfully framed chromo landscape.” During the next decade, Guy produced hundreds of films, ranging from fantasies, domestic dramas, and comedies, to travel and dance features. She innovated many of the special effect techniques of the age, including double exposure and running a completed film backwards. In 1906, she filmed an epic Life of Christ with multiple sets and nearly 300 extras.

The following year, Guy married cameraman Herbert Blaché, and the couple moved to the United States to run Gaumont’s American operations. By 1910, they left Gaumont to open their own production company, Solax, in Flushing, Queens. It grew quickly, becoming the largest movie studio of its time. The couple built a state-of-the-art facility in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many studios were setting up shop. They continued to produce, sometimes completing as many as three to five films per week. And they continued to break new ground. 1912’s A Fool and His Money, for example, was the first film to feature an all-African American cast. The Consequences of Feminism was a comic take on gender-bending that feels lightyears ahead of its time. In all of her films, for Gaumont and Solax, Guy-Blaché insisted on a more realistic form of acting than her contemporaries did. Hanging in the studio at Solax was a large sign that reminded her actors to “Be Natural.”

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.