Be Natural

Through the camera's lens: Alice Guy-Blaché (top left) following her passion

Documentary, not rated, 103 minutes, some French with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles

“Have you ever heard of Alice Guy-Blaché?”

The question is put to a slew of contemporary filmmakers, male and female, and most of them respond with the same blank look. Chances are, it’s not dissimilar to the look on your face as you read this.

Guy-Blaché, née Alice Guy, was a pioneer of the cinema, probably the first female filmmaker, and one of the first to recognize the potential of the new technology to do something more than simply record daily life. She is reputed to be the first to make a story film (The Cabbage Fairy, 1896), and was one of the innovators experimenting with color in the early days, and working with sync sound (Gaumont’s Chronophore sync system) long before Al Jolson declared, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

In 1894, she applied for a job as secretary to French inventor and cinema pioneer Léon Gaumont (Gaumont: “You’re very young.” Guy-Blaché: “It’ll pass.”). After witnessing the Lumière brothers’ 1896 demonstration of movie projection, she asked her boss for a chance to direct. And the rest is forgotten film history.

Well, not entirely forgotten. Guy-Blaché (she married a colleague named Herbert Blaché) is definitely on the radar of many film historians, and there have been books and documentaries about her before this. She wrote an autobiography in the 1940s. It was finally published in France in 1976, eight years after her death, and in English a decade after that.

Guy-Blaché and her husband came to America and started one of the early studios, Solax, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Her filmmaking motto was posted there on a large banner: be natural. She made over 1,000 films, some of them feature length. A fair number survive, many preserved in the Library of Congress. One was a comedy she made in 1906, The Consequences of Feminism, a light-hearted reversal of gender roles.

At the heart of this accomplished documentary by Pamela B. Green is a couple of filmed interviews with the lady herself, recorded in France in the late ’50s and early ’60s. They reveal a charming and pragmatic woman who looks back on her career with considerable pride and good humor, and politely suggests that the record be corrected many of her accomplishments to her male colleagues and associates.

Green has created a visually lively presentation and done a thrilling job of research and detective work, tracking down family members, unearthing lost troves of celluloid, letters, and other memorabilia, and putting together a fascinating portrait of a true giant of the cinema. If you’re a movie buff, this is one of the most exciting movies you’ll see this year. And it should do its part to ensure that Alice Guy-Blaché is, in the words of the current New York Times revisionist obituary series, overlooked no more.