“Be Natural” is a documentary by Pamela B. Green about the first female filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blaché, who remains largely unknown by many modern filmmakers and the general public. Narrated by Jodie Foster, and using visually interesting graphics to move the story along, we first learn about Guy-Blaché’s amazing body of work and then dive into the research/detective work that Green undertook to learn as much as she could about the director’s life and why her name is so often missing from the history of cinema. The movie’s run at Laemmle Monica Film Center ends Thursday, April 25th—don’t sleep on this one!
From the opening animated sequence that morphs modern, flashy Hollywood into 1920s Hollywoodland and then leaps outward to Fort Lee, NJ—which I personally never knew was the exciting birthplace of early American films, many made by immigrants—you know that “Be Natural” is not the type of documentary that gets dragged down by too many talking heads or static images. Its parts are woven together expertly and there are plenty of clips of Guy-Blaché’s wonderful films as well as from a 1960s interview with her that reveals her wit and charisma.
Guy-Blaché wrote and directed an astonishing number of shorts and feature films for the French studio Gaumont and after moving to America with her husband, for her own studio Solax in Fort Lee. From her very first film, “The Cabbage Fairy” in 1896, she was a pioneer at using the medium to tell stories. She excelled at directing comedies and eventually created many socially conscious and feminist movies that included gender role reversals (“The Consequences of Feminism”), marital squabbles (“A House Divided”), and one of the first films with an all-black cast (“A Fool and His Money”). “Be Natural” was a sign in her studio that reminded her actors to be as authentic as possible, which is just one of the ways she was ahead of her time. But like many women in entertainment history—and elsewhere—much of her work was miscredited by historians and film critics alike, many of whom relied on hearsay rather than research.
Léon Gaumont himself, who depended on her greatly as his head of production and chief filmmaker, never even used the notes or corrections she sent him for the studio’s written history, despite writing her many letters thanking her privately. A documentary on the industry in Fort Lee discussed only her husband as the head of Solax—this is the kind of stuff you expect, but also makes you want to rip your hair out. Especially since her husband Herbert Guy-Blaché was unfaithful and lost most of the studio’s money in failed investments.
Green’s intriguing detective work uncovers Alice Guy-Blaché’s living relatives, some of whom didn’t know they were related to her, and through them finds old photographs, recorded interviews, and many letters. It’s especially exciting when the fragile reels of her films are found in various collections and archives. Overall, the film delights in the wonders of its subject’s creativity, ingenuity, hard work and, as her daughter attested, her zest for life. She has a lasting legacy that is thankfully becoming more and more well-known.