Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache

The first hour of this documentary on Alice Guy-Blache had me mesmerized. She was the first female to make movies in the late 1800s. She’s largely been ignored, even in detailed books about the history of cinema. And nothing better than seeing a bunch of current filmmakers (Patty Jenkins, Andy Samburg, Diablo Cody, Kevin MacDonald, Lake Bell, Peter Farrelly, Ave Duvany, and the last interview you’ll see with Agnes Varda) talk about her, or having never heard of her. The best was the belabored way of speaking you get from Peter Bogdanovich. He talks about all the books and history he knows of cinema, and just as you think he’s about to sing her praises, he admits to having never heard of her. The legendary Alfred Hitchcock even mentions her influence in an old book.

Yet halfway into this movie, it starts to feel a bit unorganized. And it’s not all that interesting to listen to filmmaker Pamela B. Green see a name in an address book, Google the name, make a phone call to his granddaughter, to find out he was Alice’s cameraman on a number of films. That’s just not very compelling cinema.

Because Alice is such an interesting, trailblazing female director, and it’s a story any film buff should be aware of, you’re willing to sit through the slow parts.

In Hollywood, women have complained about the difference in pay (which isn’t actually a thing), but when Alice made movies — women didn’t even hold jobs, unless it was as a maid or perhaps a stenographer (which she also was). Yet here she is writing, directing, and starting her own production company in France and then Fort Lee, New Jersey. And as we’re seeing clips of her silent films, and hearing current actors (Ben Kingsley, Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis, Julie Delpy, Evan Rachel Wood) praise her and her techniques (and the big sign she had painted in her studio “Be Natural”)…you’re just so happy her story is finally being told. Jodi Foster is the perfect person to tell this story (she is one of the producers and does great narration). She has a toughness in her voice, and sounds like she’s pronouncing the French names perfectly. It just breaks your heart when you find out what became of Alice and her films.

You’ll feel bad about how her former boss, Leon Gaumont, left her contributions out of the studio records, or what her husband Herbert Blache ended up doing.

While looking at the trinkets and heirlooms that are discovered while trying to find out more about Alice might not be all that interesting, each clip you see of those forgotten (and some lost) films is just fascinating. I had never heard of The Drunken Mattress or The Cabbage Fairy.  It’s also a bit of fun when we see the descendants touring the spots where some of these movies were shot. I’ve gotten the same thrill when I’ve visited places my favorite album cover photos were taken. And as someone that has had rare music on cassettes that I had to get transferred to CD decades ago, it was rather exciting to see if they’d be able to get cameras from the silent era working properly to show these clips. And who other than Quentin Tarantino knew that these old films are so flammable they have to be stored a certain way. They spend a few minutes explaining why the nitrate film stock is so dangerous and it makes you wonder why anybody would even attempt restoration of these movies.

There are a lot of little nuggets along the way, too. Who knew Gustav Eiffel (who you might know from his work with the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty) had some involvement in film. Who knew that Planned Parenthood had an early film at their opening? And who knew that it was in the early 1900s when the first all-black cast was used in a movie   (The Fool and His Money), and how it transpired. Just as I learned a lot about singer/songwriter Rodriguez in Searching for Sugarman or about Buster Keaton in last year’s The Great Buster, these are stories fans of cinema should seek out.

By the end of the documentary, it felt like this production lacked some editorial polish, and it could’ve been a tighter more cohesive product. Yet I recommend every cinephile see it. Locally, it’s at the Digital Gym.

3 stars out of 5.

 

 

 

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