Saturday, March 28, 2020

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache

Directed and edited by Pamela B. Green and written by Green and Joan Simon with narration by Jodie Foster, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache is a film about the life and career of one of cinema’s early pioneers who was also considered to be one of the first real auteurs who also owned and ran her own studio. The film showcases the woman’s career as well as the films she created as well as why she was often overlooked during her career and the re-discovery of her work. The result is an engrossing and wondrous film from Pamela B. Green.

In 1895, a secretary for engineer/industrialist Leon Gaumont attended a private screening of a film entitled Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory by Auguste and Louis Lumiere. The secretary that is Alice Guy saw a new medium as from 1896 to 1920, she made hundreds of films that would not just pioneer cinema as an art form but also would create techniques and ideas that would be the basis of cinema itself. Like the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies, and Edwin Porter, they would create short films that would showcase cinema’s tool in the world of storytelling yet it would be Guy that would take the format much further prompting others including Melies to step up their game. In 1907, Guy married Englishman Herbert Blache as he would be Gaumont’s production manager in the U.S. until 1910 when she and Blache formed the Solax Company to make their own films as she would use the slogan “be natural” to those who worked at the studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

One of Guy-Blache’s innovations in filmmaking was the creation of the Gaumont Chronophone system that allowed her actors to lip-sync to pre-recorded music and use the music to sync up to the film footage as it was the early ideas of sound heard in film. Guy was also ambitious as she made a 25-part series of shorts relating to Jesus Christ as it was quite bold for its time. Another form of innovation that she did during her time in New Jersey was make a film with an entirely black cast in A Fool and His Money as it was made because white actors didn’t want to work with black actors prompting Guy-Blache to just hire an all-black cast regardless of prejudice. She also made films that had gender roles reversed as well as tackle subject matters that not many were willing to go into.

Then came World War I as business started to hurt Guy-Blache’s studio but also this emergence of businessmen wanting to take over the world of cinema including Thomas Edison prompting many studios to move to California rather than work with Edison who wanted to have a lot of control on the world of film through his own equipment and such. Herbert Blache would also move to California due to his affairs with other women leading to the two to divorce in 1922 as she returned to France with their children never making films again. Especially as she wouldn’t receive the proper credit for her work with Gaumont becoming more of a businessman in running his own studio as things would get tougher during the Great Depression and World War II though Gaumont would try to rectify his faults in giving her proper credit despite people around him telling him not to.

The documentary also has Pamela B. Green who also serves as the film’s editor not just trying to find out more about Guy-Blache and her films but also asking many other filmmakers, historians, actors, and such including Julie Taymor, Peter Bogdanovich, Evan Rachel Wood, Ava Duvernay, Peter Farrelly, Andy Samberg, Julie Delpy, Lake Bell, Gillian Armstrong, cinematographer John Bailey, and many others about Guy-Blache as many of them admit to never having heard of her. There is also the story of Green not just trying to find information about her films and her life but also meeting those who knew someone who knew Guy-Blache including descendants of Guy-Blache such as her great-great granddaughter as well as descendants of Leon Gaumont as there’s a scene where the descendants of Guy-Blache and Gaumont would go to various locations where Guy-Blache made some of her films. Much of Green’s direction and editing is straightforward with a few montages of film archivists finding some of Guy-Blache’s work while also going into the difficulty of restoring her work.

The film also features archival interviews from Guy-Blache from the late 1950s and early 1960s with narration by Jodie Foster who reads some of Guy-Blache’s comments and letters with a rare audio interview between Guy-Blache and a film historian in Brussels who wonders why she isn’t credited for her work. Notably as historians dating back to the 1940s would often omit her as some claim there was a lot of resentment towards her because she was a woman as some even question the validity of her claims in the mid-1970s after she had died in 1968. It would be Guy-Blache’s daughter Simone and other historians that would keep Guy-Blache’s name alive while Green would also talk to relatives who found old letters, photos, and notebooks that lead to many clues that show proof of Guy-Blache’s claims. Upon discovering the shorts of Guy-Blache, cinematographer John Bailey and others at the Academy Arts and Science would try to recreate one of her shorts with comedy actors Chris Kattan and Horatio Sanz with the same camera that Guy-Blache used.

Sound editors Casey Langfelder and Daniel Saxlid, along with sound designers Marcello Dubaz and Kent Sparling, do superb work in providing many of the audio archives from Guy-Blache’s interview with the Belgian film historian that his grandson had kept all of these years while also capturing all of the people who are interviewed for the film as they all talk about discovering Guy-Blache and her importance in film history. The film’s music by Peter G. Adams is terrific for its mixture of low-key electronic music and ambient pieces as it play into the search for Guy-Blache’s films and everything about her. Even as Green showcases old photos of the studio she created in New Jersey as well as visual recreation of the studio itself and where filming took place in the studio.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache is a phenomenal film from Pamela B. Green. It’s a film that anyone interested in film history or film itself must see as it not only does some correcting into some of the real stories about cinema’s birth but also in showcasing one of its pioneers and her innovative work. Especially as it showcases the woman’s work and her brief yet illustrious career that proved how influential she was. In the end, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache is a sensational film from Pamela B. Green.

Related: The Short Films of Alice Guy-Blache Vol. 1

© thevoid99 2020


Jay said...

What a great celebration!

Dell said...

I'm pretty embarrassed to say I've never heard of this doc or its subject. Thanks for giving me something to seek out.

thevoid99 said...

@Jay-See it! It's a must if you're interested in film history.

@Wendell-It was on Turner Classic Movies as they did a night dedicated to her as well as showing 7 of her films which I plan on reviewing in the coming days. It is worth seeking out as it is clear that there's a lot of gaping holes in the pages of cinema history that need to be filled and corrected as I'm glad Guy-Blache is getting some overdue recognition.