Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Pamela B. Green, 2018)
At least once a year, I ask students to name ten female film directors. They struggle to get beyond three, I confess it takes me a while to remember. And if you were to ask me about pre-Lupino…
So it turns out that there’s a French woman, born to a Chilean father, who was moreorless there at the start of film in 1895, who went on to direct, write or produce over a thousand films. And her story is untold.
Well, apart from the autobiography and a musical, but I don’t recall her name from the few histories I’ve read.
Were the films any good?
No, said a lot of experts, who were basing on hearsay and rare bad copies and no doubt old fashioned prejudice.
Having been barred from becoming an actor by her father, Alice Guy trained as a stenographer— an archetypal new woman job — in order to support herself, her mother and her sister, working for a company that was involved in cameras and was taken over by Louis Gaumont. Gaumont took her to one of the earliest screenings in Paris by the Lumières and decided to move into film making. Guy was quickly bored by those early epics of trains arriving at a station or workers leaving a factory, and reckoned they could be used to tell stories. Gaumont agreed to let her have a go, as long as she kept up with the correspondence. The result was The Cabbage Fairy (1896), possibly the first narrative film. She went to make on more for Gaumont and travelled trouble shooting his cameras and projectors and their experiment in synchronised sound, the phono scope. She learned shot composition and editing, with special effects and tinting.
Having married a British filmmaker, Hebert Blaché, she had to resign from Gaumont and moved with him to Fort Lee, New Jersey, to manage their American operations. She set up her own studio, Solax, and eventually put him in charge. And he set up his own company. The marriage didn’t survive and no one else was hiring. The dozen or so Fort Lee studios, facing seeming extortion attempts by Thomas Edison over patents, moved west to real estate in California, Robert Blaché. Her career is over.
And then begins the descent into obscurity — films in the wrong format, films felt to be unfashionable, sexism. Films that did survive — all on nitrate — disappeared into private collection or institutional archives, risking decay and degradation, as there was no money to preserve them further. She was sidelined from Gaumont’s own history, her autobiography went unpublished, her name erased from history.
Green poses as detective, tracking down surviving descendants, finding boxes of photographs and letters, and films in collections. Much of the film is semianimated photographs and maps, as she Googles names and contacts relatives on Skype. There’s a video of an interview with a daughter — this has to be baked to get a halfway decent image — and films of interviews with Guy-Blaché. In one photograph, Green notices a film historian is recording Guy-Blaché, and the tape is found. And we get brief clips of her comedies, her westerns and some pretty risqué materials.
She was there when Chaplin was making one of his films. Eisenstein clearly saw films which influenced October and Battleship Potemkin. Hitchcock was a fan. She must be a source behind much slapstick.
This is utterly gripping and Guy-Blaché is both charming and formidable. Jodie Foster narrates and voices from a raft of Hollywood directors, critics and actors interject. You can find a few of her films online, but the prints are pretty grey and LoRes.
Meanwhile, how many more female pioneers have we not heard of?