Be Natural works to redress the collective amnesia regarding Guy-Blaché’s undeniable importance to cinema history.
The earliest filmmakers were not simply producing works of cinema, but also crafting, from scratch, an entire language through which the cinema could make meaning. The fundamentals of cinematic language—its grammar, syntax and standard structure—are today so internalized that most film viewers would be hard pressed to even notice them. There are updates over time, such as, for a recent example, how to incorporate text messages and emails into a screen-sensible form. But in the first two decades of film, directors were actively generating the very basics, in addition to having the same headaches of today’s creators, such as funding, marketing and getting diverse groups of people to collaborate.
And yet…these intrepid cinematic pioneers prevailed. But not all of them have enjoyed the sort of fame that should accompany such an immense achievement. Chief among the unjustly forgotten is the first woman filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blaché, who may very well have been the first narrative filmmaker, making cinema that went beyond recording trains and crashing waves, of any gender. She was also an international figure, working in both France and the US and achieving other such noteworthy accomplishments as directing the first film with an entirely black cast and training a half-dozen other women filmmakers in the craft. In total, she is estimated to have written, directed and/or produced more than 1,000 films. Figures as titanic to cinema’s history as Eisenstein and Hitchcock credit her as a major influence. Even still, she is mostly unknown to the filmmaking community today and largely left out (or significantly under-credited) in works of cinema history.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché works to redress the collective amnesia regarding Guy-Blaché’s undeniable importance to cinema history. It argues for a clearly stated thesis—namely, that Guy-Blaché deserves more attention and acclaim—and then proves it by tracing her rise from working as a typist at a Parisian camera factory to running her own studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She was basically the real-life Peggy Olson of cinema.
What Be Natural does so well is fete both Guy-Blaché and the immense accomplishments of all the early filmmakers. Without being as didactic as the earliest episodes of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, it shows viewers the progression of moving pictures from capturing workers leaving a factory to re-creating the Passion story to staging whole cavalry battles. It may sound corny, but Be Natural is a vivid celebration of the earliest cinema as much as it is a convincing argument for Guy-Blaché’s crucial role in it. It demonstrates both the beauty of pre-WWI film and the way these works established standard genre tropes—Andy Samberg identifying one of Guy-Blaché’s films from a century ago as a “sketch” stands out—and film language.
In trying to explain why someone as obviously central to the development of cinema as Guy-Blaché has been left out of the story of cinema, Be Natural shows commendable restraint. It would be tempting to weave some grand conspiracy by men to shortchange women, but the truth is actually more powerful than all that. What happened was much more banal: early film historians just assumed that Guy-Blaché, as a woman, could not have possibly been so massively influential. Be Natural embraces this more structural (and, to my eyes, more horrifying for its unintentionality) explanation. It is a misogynist world and those who live in it rarely need to actively try if their goal is to push women’s achievements aside. Guy-Blaché worked doggedly in her later years to re-insert herself into cinema history and she was welcomed by the film community, but treated paternalistically. And she remained mostly out of the historical record, in spite of all the smiling faces and goodwill she encountered. This is the real way that history is written—and a quick peek at my bio below will show that I know a thing or two about the creation of the historical record—and the way seminal figures like Alice Guy-Blaché are discarded is all the more sinister for the good intentions that accompany it.
The good news here is that not only do engaging films like Be Natural exist to rectify the errors of previous generations of historians, but also that there is an unofficial record. Just search YouTube for Alice Guy-Blaché and enjoy the dozen-plus of her films that are available to anyone with an internet connection. My personal recommendation is the hilarious The Drunken Mattress, whose final seconds is a fairly fitting encapsulation of Guy-Blaché’s life and how it is remembered today.