By Betsy Sherman
A fuller accounting of the creative contributions of women to the film industry in its early decades is still fighting for a place in mainstream awareness. The documentary Be Natural is a valuable battering ram in that fight.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché – available on DVD and streaming from Kino Lorber
Director Pamela B. Green opens her documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché with a succession of no’s. The responders are significant players of 21st- and late-20th-century film production, who have been asked whether they’d heard of Alice Guy-Blaché. The subject of the question, and of this compelling film, is generally accepted to have been the first woman film director. She stepped behind a camera in 1896, only a year after the movies’ birth.
The pervasive surprise at Guy-Blaché’s name and place in history would surely come as a surprise to my Arts Fuse colleague Gerry Peary, who in 1972 wrote the article “Czarina of the Silent Screen: Solax’s Alice Blaché” for the small but influential film journal The Velvet Light Trap. He concentrated on the American phase of Guy-Blaché’s career, after she established the Solax studio in 1910, where the French emigrée and her husband Herbert Blaché produced films (Alice was president of the company).
A snag in Gerry’s article is that, while he was able to tell the story of Alice’s career in the 1910s through what was written about her in the publication Moving Picture World during that decade, none of her films were available for him to see.
Much has happened between 1972 and today, even though early cinema remains a pretty arcane subject. There have been technical advances in film restoration, and a shift in attitude whereby old celluloid is rescued rather than junked. With the digital revolution, we don’t have to go to the archive, the archive has come into our homes. On the academic front, there’s been the rise of feminist criticism and of a social history movement that seeks out unheard voices (for example, the Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University). Yet the fuller accounting of the creative contributions of women to the film industry in its early decades is still fighting for a place in mainstream awareness.
The informative — and emotionally involving — Be Natural is a valuable battering ram in that fight. It’s got a smooth blend of documentary styles. We’ve got a trusty narrator to fill us in on AGB’s biography (Jodie Foster, bringing the cred of her own career and her flawless French pronunciation). We’ve got filmmaker Green pursuing leads in order to gather Alice-related materials with which to make the documentary we’re watching (she finds relatives of AGB and her co-workers, who didn’t realize the historical value of their family relics). There are film scholars providing context for Alice’s story, and media archivists and conservators who are rescuing the fragile prints of work by Alice and her contemporaries.
Alice Guy (1873-1968) was born into a bourgeois French family that lived for a while in Chile, then resettled in Paris. After the death of her father, Alice, in order to support herself and her mother, took a job as secretary in the Paris photography firm of Léon Gaumont. The 22-year-old accompanied her boss to one of the 1895 demonstrations held by the Lumière Brothers of their Cinématographe, the device that “won” the international competition for the most effective way to produce moving pictures.
Gaumont saw a great opportunity in the new field (he and rival Charles Pathé would come to dominate film production and distribution in France). He set up a filmmaking area on the office’s terrace. Alice convinced Gaumont to let her use Gaumont’s hand-crank camera to film, not the documentary slices of life favored by the Lumières, but stories of her own devising. The first of these experiments, made in 1896 on that terrace, was The Cabbage Fairy, depicting the whimsical idea of newborn babies being harvested in a garden (that film seems to be lost, but a remake from a few years later survives).
Thus Alice became one of the first, if not the first, makers of narrative cinema. She went on to make hundreds of films for Gaumont, not only in France, but also in other European locations. She married the Englishman Herbert Blaché in 1906, and Gaumont sent them to set up shop in the United States, where they planted the Gaumont flag in Flushing, New York. After Gaumont’s U.S. production effort petered out, Alice formed the Solax company, which first worked out of the Flushing studio, and then moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey, home to many fledgling American studios that would later move west and establish Hollywood.
In a career that stretched to the beginning of the ’20s, AGB had a part in making perhaps a thousand films, although not many prints have survived (an overwhelming percentage of films from the silent era have been lost). Some of these extant films can be seen in Kino Lorber boxed sets Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers and Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913)
Be Natural (the title comes from the director’s overarching instruction to her actors) has a wealth of clips of AGB’s films, and spotlights those that exhibit sophistication in technique and subject matter. Several of her films were color-tinted, and at Gaumont she was part of an early experiment in sound movie-making using the “Le chronophone” system. She tackled technical challenges to make the comedy The Drunken Mattress, in which a mattress seems to come alive. On the dramatic side, she made a landmark Life of Christ in France. Madame’s Cravings satirizes the food binges of a pregnant woman. The 1906 Gaumont film The Consequences of Feminism had husbands and wives take on each other’s roles and wear each other’s clothing; the film was praised by Russian film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein in one of his diaries. Her American films included A House Divided (1913), a wry look at marriage, as well as adventure films and Westerns with female protagonists — as one scholar puts it, films with “uppity women.” But noteworthy as these examples are, it doesn’t seem as if AGB had any grand agenda other than to entertain.
All of the above events make for an exhilarating ascent — until about the two-thirds mark of the documentary. The “fall” of Alice Guy-Blaché took place from about 1917 onward, with the closing of Solax, the breakup of her marriage to Herbert and his departure to the West Coast, and her return with their two children to France, where no one in the film business would hire her to make movies. From here on, there opens a kind of phantom track in Be Natural — there’s what happened, and what might have been, if only Alice had been given the second chance that so many men have been given.
It’s a story that applies to many fields, with women and members of minorities written out of history. Though when it comes to cinema, the injustice feels insidious, since women had become so important in front of the camera. But over the course of the ’20s, many of those working behind the camera were pushed out of the industry and replaced by men — until pairing the words “woman” and “director” sounded like a mere stunt.
Throughout the documentary we see and hear clips of interviews with the elderly AGB, taped in the ’50s and ‘60s. The elegant, white-haired woman takes great pleasure in talking about helping to create this new medium of entertainment at Gaumont and Solax. But there’s consternation in the narrative as the timeline moves forward. Histories of cinema begin to be written mid-century, and AGB is left out of them. Alarmingly, some of her films are being attributed to male directors junior to her, and Solax is associated with Herbert’s name alone.
In these interviews, and in an enlightening trove of letters that the filmmakers obtained, we hear Alice walk a line between indignation and resignation. It’s as if she’d been gaslighted, her accomplishments negated. Your heart goes out to her, and to her late daughter Simone, whom we also get to see in a taped interview rescued by the filmmakers from videotape deterioration. At least Simone, a great champion of her mother, lived long enough to see the uptick in awareness of and appreciation for the AGB films. The documentary ends on an upbeat note as it celebrates Alice’s legacy.
Jane M. Gaines’s book Pink Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries?, which takes a philosophy-of-history approach to the subject of the role of women in the advancement of cinema, has a chapter devoted to AGB and the difficulties of proving authorship. After all, in the early days, films lacked identifying information such as credits. Gaines applies a theory of history that deals with the “unthinkable event,” as in the unthinkability — to traditional historians — that Gaumont’s 22-year-old secretary could possibly be the person who opened the door to fiction filmmaking. Thanks to new research, and its dissemination in projects such as Be Natural, the message goes out: ya better revise, guys.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.