Hello, film fans! Chances are, you’ve probably heard of Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers, but have you ever heard of Alice Guy-Blaché, the original Queen of motion pictures? The answer is probably “no.” Despite being a pioneer of the medium — a trailblazer responsible for some of the first narrative fiction films and the first film with an all-African-American cast (A Fool and His Money, 1912) — the French filmmaker’s name doesn’t ring bells. I’ve been immersed in cinema for over 30 years and I had never heard of her until recently, when I had the chance to watch Pamela B. Green’s fantastic new documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.
Guy-Blaché is from the old school. She was making movies before Alfred Hitchcock was even born; before the 1900s, nearly 15 years before Hollywood’s first film, D.W. Griffith’s In Old California. She was working on film sets (if they were even called that back then) as early as 1896 at the ripe age of 23, and she was the only female working in the industry during its inaugural decade. Who is she and how did she get involved? What were her films like? How come we’ve never heard of her?? These questions and more are answered in Be Natural, an entertaining and informative documentary that covers lots of ground while shedding light on an important subject.
The doc sinked its hooks in me from the jump with an eye-popping opening sequence that throws a smorgasbord of nostalgic movie titles and logos at the viewer. It’s full of eye candy for people who love and live movie history and it’s jam-packed with old footage, photographs, film clips, maps, and moving graphics. This is the opposite of a Frederick Wiseman doc (that’s not a knock on Mr. Wiseman, just a comparison of styles) with lots of talking heads intercut amongst the array of visual info.
The clips of Guy-Blaché’s films are engrained with the same enchanting magic of a Méliès flick. They have an otherworldly quality about them; like watching someone else’s dreams from a forgotten time. She was a brave and curious filmmaker, experimenting with special effects, color-tinting, and synchronized sound. She was also an unabashed feminist who didn’t shy away from portraying the difficulties and injustices that women encounter, in her work. Her 1905 film, Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) depicts a society where the roles of men and women have been inverted. Aside from directing, she also worked as a writer, producer, art-director, and studio head, and in a prolific career that lasted over 25 years, she left her fingerprints on over 700 films. (We need a box-set STAT!)
Pamela B. Green’s doc is the product of a Kickstarter campaign (thank you, backers!). It features narration by Jodie Foster and its visual nature makes it worth seeing on the big screen if you have the opportunity. Long live the Queen!
4 out of 5 Nerdskulls
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché plays in Houston at 7pm tonight (Saturday, April 6th) and 5pm tomorrow (Sunday, April 7th) at the MFAH. Tickets are available here.
Check out The Cabbage Fairy (1896) Guy-Blaché’s oldest surviving film:
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