Film & Television

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

In 1918, Blaché left his wife and their two daughters and moved with his mistress, a Solax actress, to Hollywood. Guy-Blaché continued to direct until 1921, but was eventually forced to declare bankruptcy and auction off her studio and its assets. She moved back to France, but by then the film industry had grown into big business and there were no longer opportunities for women.

In her retirement, Guy-Blaché became concerned that her legacy had been lost. Her name and accomplishments were conspicuously missing from multiple volumes of film history — including a memoir by Gaumont himself. Many of her films were incorrectly attributed to her husband, assistant directors, or individual actors. She spent the last years of her life in nearly constant contact with film historians in an attempt to set the record straight. “There is no merit in being first,” she told an interviewer with some regret. She died in 1968.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché delivers a compelling and detailed biography of Guy-Blaché. We also get to see excerpts from many of her films (alas, many more are missing due to the perishable film technology of their time, as well as the ravages of World War I). There are clever animated graphics that add entertainment value, and we meet Guy- Blaché’s daughter Simone, and the auteur herself via recorded interviews. The narration by actor/director Jodie Foster is elegant and intelligent. Foster, who attended a bilingual prep school, has an exquisite French accent, which certainly adds to the experience. Much of the documentary, however, follows Green’s detective work.

Using Internet tools like Ancestry.com, Green locates living relatives of Guy-Blaché and her colleagues. This unearths a treasure trove of photographs, letters, souvenirs, and awards. She meets film collectors and excavates archives, at one point visiting a half-dozen different Hollywood production houses before she can get an old videotape transferred to a modern format.

Green’s passion for the project is indisputable. In fact, she funded the film through an online Kickstarter campaign, eventually enlisting the aid of directors Taymor, Hardwicke, and Julie-Ann Robinson. Her executive producers include Foster, Hugh Hefner, and Robert Redford, among several others. 

However, Green (along with co-writer Joan Simon) does let her zeal for solving the mystery of the forgotten Guy-Blaché get in the way of some encouraging facts. Despite all of the celebrity interviews that begin the movie, Guy-Blaché isn’t wholly unknown. In recent years, a number of academics and film historians have diligently chronicled her life and work. The Women Film Pioneers Project has published a biography with an extensive filmography. And, more Guy-Blaché’s films are available on “Gaumont Treasures” and the Library of Congress’s “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” DVD sets. In 2015, Martin Scorsese inducted Guy-Blaché into the Directors Guild of America with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award. He had warm words of praise:

“Alice Guy-Blaché, director, wrote (and) produced more than a thousand pictures of all kinds. She was a genuine pioneer. One of the first film makers, the very first woman film maker and first woman to own and operate her own studio. She was also a Pioneer in the audio-visual story telling along the side of the Melies, Lumière brothers, Griffith of course and Chaplin.”

Despite these exclusions, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is interesting and informative — and entertaining in its own right. As Taymor explained while the film was in production, “It’s always good for everybody to see a great artist exposed when they have been forgotten for one reason or another. It’s almost a female virtue not to brag. It holds a lot of women back from taking credit when they have been behind the scenes.”

Thanks in large part to Green’s lovely and loving film, Alice Guy-Blaché is no longer behind the scenes. She is front and center, exactly where she should have been for the past century.

 

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