At the beginning of Pamela B. Green’s lively and informative new documentary, a bevy of movie people — directors, actors, scholars and others — are asked if they know anything about the Alice Guy Blaché, who is the subject of the film. A few of them do (Ava DuVernay, for one), but most admit that they have no clue. Viewers who are similarly ignorant shouldn’t feel bad, and in the best pedagogical spirit Green turns blank looks and sheepishly shrugged shoulders into a teaching moment. “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché” seeks both to help rescue Guy Blaché from oblivion and to explain how she got there in the first place.
Alice Guy was born into a bourgeois French family in 1873. An interview conducted more than 90 years later reveals a woman very much of her era and class, with crisp diction, faultless grammar and a mildly ironical way of talking about even painful and contentious matters. Trained in stenography, Alice was hired, at 22, as an assistant to Léon Gaumont, who would soon become one of the founders of the French film industry.
Guy (who married the British cameraman Herbert Blaché in 1907) merits that description as much as her boss. Often referred to as a pioneer — one of a handful of important women filmmakers active in cinema’s earliest days — she was more than that. Present at an early, private Paris showing of one of Louis and Auguste Lumière’s first shorts, Guy was among the first to explore the storytelling potential of the new medium. At the Gaumont studio, where she worked until 1906, she directed hundreds of fantasies, comedies, melodramas and historical films. After moving to the United States, she set up her own company, Solax Studios, continuing her prolific output in the burgeoning proto-Hollywood of Fort Lee, N.J.
She was, in sum, a studio chief as well as a director and producer — a key figure in the emergence of two major national cinemas. The recovery of this reputation is central to Green’s project, and she builds on the work of historians and archivists, including Guy Blaché’s biographer, Alison McMahan. “Be Natural” is its own making-of documentary, following Green’s gumshoe efforts to track down letters and ledgers, artifacts and descendants. She enlists a specialist in facial recognition to determine whether a woman in an ancient moving picture is indeed Guy Blaché. She zigzags across Los Angeles in search of a lab that will digitize antique videotapes. She details her own cross-country and trans-Atlantic peregrinations as well as those undertaken by her heroine more than a century earlier.
The result is occasionally a little frantic — animated segments sometimes bring the past to life and sometimes get in the way — and often tremendously moving. The interviews with Guy Blaché and with her daughter, Simone, bring a tender, complicated dimension of personality, and make it feel as if the dawn of movies is not so far away after all. The present-day celebrities, who seem to become instant experts after their initial confessions of cluelessness, add little beyond their own boldface names. (An exception is Jodie Foster, who provides voice-over narration and served as an executive producer.) The preservationists and film historians are the truly fascinating characters, and it would be good to learn even more about the work of rescue and recovery they do.
“Be Natural” is inspiring because it is also appalling. The near-forgetting of Guy Blaché wasn’t just an accident of film history, though the fact that most of her work belongs to the years before World War I made it especially vulnerable to loss. Green notes that she is less well-known than contemporaries like Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner, but those women were also written out of film history or pushed to its margins.
Guy Blaché found America a more welcoming working environment than France. But in both countries the record of her achievements was erased. Her early Gaumont pictures were attributed to her male assistants, and their originality and quality went unrecognized, in spite of evidence of her influence on later auteurs like Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock. When it was remembered at all, Solax Studios was thought of as Herbert Blaché’s company.
Green’s revision of that record is long overdue and just in time, given the present-day reckoning with Hollywood’s stubborn traditions of behind-the-scenes (and onscreen) sexism. Most intriguing are the clips the documentary gathers from Guy Blaché’s films. Many of them look less like old curiosities than lost classics, and their range — from the surreal slapstick of “The Drunken Mattress,” to the domestic melodrama of “Falling Leaves,” to the social satire of “Consequences of Feminism” — is astonishing. (Several have been issued by Kino Lorber in the indispensable “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” collection). By the end of “Be Natural,” you won’t only have a clear idea of who this remarkable woman was; you may well have acquired a new taste in old movies.