‘Be Natural’ preserves, promotes career of pioneering female film director

Posted 8/28/19

“Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché” is a biographical film that not only desperately needed and deserved to be made, but in the hands of director Pamela Green, it’s also an engaging tale, presented with measures of wit and eye-catching style that do justice to the pioneering work of Guy-Blaché herself.

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‘Be Natural’ preserves, promotes career of pioneering female film director

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“Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché” is a biographical film that not only desperately needed and deserved to be made, but in the hands of director Pamela Green, it’s also an engaging tale, presented with measures of wit and eye-catching style that do justice to the pioneering work of Guy-Blaché herself.

Not only did Guy-Blaché get her start in the film industry back when there barely was a film industry to speak of — in Paris during the 1890s, only shortly after the Lumière brothers had debuted their own cinematography equipment, with their inventions likewise following in the immediate wake of Thomas Edison’s — but Guy-Blaché was also still in her 20s when she started making films.

Indeed, not only was Guy-Blaché one of the first filmmakers, but “Be Natural” makes the case that she was one of the first actual directors of films, in terms of using film to present preconceived stories, as opposed to simply filming scenes that were already happening, such as a train passing through a tunnel, or waves crashing against a shore.

The laundry list of innovations that “Be Natural” credits Guy-Blaché with helping to introduce to film-making is almost dizzying to keep track of, from films with color and synchronized sound, to what several “Saturday Night Live” alumni agree are some of the first onscreen comedy skits ever filmed, as well as the first music videos.

“Be Natural” notes Guy-Blaché’s influence on later filmmakers as well, with Alfred Hitchcock citing her by name as a source of inspiration, and Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein even attributing his most famous shots in “Battleship Potemkin” in 1925 to a satirical short film by Guy-Blaché from 1906, entitled “The Consequences of Feminism.”

Because Guy-Blaché qualifies as a feminist role model not only for what she herself achieved as a filmmaker, but also for her propensity for putting strong, self-reliant women at the center of her filmed narratives, and in at least one instance, making a film with an all-black cast, after white actors refused to work with the black actor whom she’d cast as her lead.

And yet, in spite of all these contributions to the medium of film — which included becoming one of the industry’s first female moguls, by starting her own company, Solax, in America in 1910 — even bona fide film historians such as Peter Bogdanovich lament to Green’s cameras that they hadn’t heard of Guy-Blaché, whose output numbered literally thousands of films by the time her career ended in 1919.

Green turns this to the film’s advantage by devoting roughly half of “Be Natural” to the detective work she did to uncover the hidden history of Guy-Blaché, as we see Green contacting an entire family tree of Guy-Blaché’s surviving descendants, and wrestling with the often-negligent archiving of the filmmaker’s work, to connect the dots of her life and career.

Even though Green was hunting down film clips, records and other artifacts that had already sat in storage boxes and on shelves for decades, “Be Natural” conveys her race against time itself, to preserve those remnants of the past, before the film reels and tapes grew too old, fragile and incompatible to be converted to digital media.

“Be Natural” also illustrates how Guy-Blaché’s legacy was quietly omitted from the historic record, by employers who incorrectly attributed her films to other directors (all men), and then simply failed to live up to their promises to her, that they would eventually correct the record to give her the credit she was due.

Green has finally fulfilled those promises to Guy-Blaché, and “Be Natural” — named for Guy-Blaché’s guiding mantra, which the naturalistic acting of her onscreen performers lived up to — stands as an entertaining, essential part of any proper film buff’s education as a result.

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