NOVEMBER 23, 2019
FILM ARCHIVISTS AND HISTORIANS have undertaken a great deal of recovery work in the area of early film and women’s film history since the 1970s. In the 1990s, Jane Gaines initiated what would become the Women Film Pioneers Project, followed by the establishment of the Women and Film History International organization of scholars and archivists. Among the important figures whose work has been substantially recovered is French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché, purportedly the first woman ever to direct a film. MoMA screened a series of Guy-Blaché’s films in the mid-1980s, and the Whitney, in 2009, curated a retrospective of her work. Last year, Kino Lorber released a six-disc set, Pioneer: First Women Filmmakers, which includes 14 of Guy-Blaché’s short films, and Mark Cousins’s 14-hour Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Film premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
What we now know of Guy-Blaché is broadly this: starting out as a secretary at Gaumont Studios in Paris, she began directing her own films in 1896 before taking on oversight of the company’s motion-picture production. She emigrated to the United States with her husband in 1907 to promote Gaumont’s Chronophone technology and, several years later, established and headed up her own studio, Solax, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She returned to Europe in 1922, which effectively marked the end of her remarkable motion-picture career. Guy-Blaché died in 1968; her memoirs were unearthed and posthumously published, by Scarecrow Press, in 1996.
Guy-Blaché’s career is thus not quite the “untold story” that the subtitle of Pamela Green’s new documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy–Blaché (2018), suggests. In the documentary’s opening sequence, a number of filmmakers share what they know of this film pioneer, which turns out to be not much at all — she has not been very well known in the general culture or even in the film world. But as the insights of the many film historians and archivists who appear in subsequent segments show, scholars have a deep appreciation of Guy-Blaché’s place in film history. Green was unaware of Guy-Blaché’s work before stumbling across a short TV piece about women pioneers in cinema, which prompted her to set out to discover not just who Guy-Blaché was but also, and arguably more importantly, why she had not known about her before now.
Named for the sign that hung above the stage of Guy-Blaché’s Fort Lee studio, Be Natural, which is narrated in large part by Jodie Foster, brings to a mainstream audience not only Guy-Blaché’s remarkable career but also a significant period in motion-picture history when women played considerable and frequently trailblazing roles. (Guy-Blaché opined, in a 1914 article for Photoplay magazine, that the disproportionate number of women in the industry was due to their “very nature […] because much of the knowledge called for in the telling of the story and the creation of the stage setting is absolutely within [a woman’s] province as a member of the gentler sex.”) One of the many delights of Be Natural is its inclusion of footage from a number of films otherwise inaccessible to the average moviegoer, in addition to substantial excerpts from interviews with Guy-Blaché from the 1950s and 1960s.
Equally fascinating are the film’s demonstrations of various early motion-picture technologies, such as the Kinora, a monoscope device that, upon being cranked, would flip through a series of photographic images in such a way as to effect an illusion of motion. Green provides a very real sense of the demands the first generation of film cameras placed on filmmakers. USC School of Cinematic Arts archivist Dino Everett and cinematographer John Bailey make several attempts to shoot a scene using a Pathé hand-crank camera of the sort that Guy-Blaché used, discovering in the process that “it’s a completely different feeling that you have in terms of your engagement with the medium.” As Guy-Blaché lamented in a 1957 interview, “When people critique the first films, it really breaks my heart. If they only saw the conditions we made films in!”
Perhaps most of all, Be Natural illustrates the rigors of film historiography: its aims and processes, its contingencies and exigencies, its pitfalls and triumphs, as well as the arduous and frequently unrecognized labor that takes place behind the scenes. Various archivists, preservationists, and historians — Anthony Slide, Jane Gaines, Vanessa Schwartz, Kevin Brownlow, and all those others who have over the course of long years recovered, identified, and contemplated early motion-picture history — are arguably as much the film’s stars as its titular star. While Green’s focus on the process of discovery is indeed laudable, the manner in which she documents can be at times a bit exasperating. Be Natural is a somewhat hectic documentary, with its many commentators, its proliferation of places, dates, and names. Such busyness is only exacerbated by the frequent use of animation and sound effects to evoke the research process: Skype dial tones, answering-machine messages, dynamic maps of road trips, to name only a few such strategies.
Be Natural is also, of course, about the discoveries themselves — for example, of Guy-Blaché’s 1912 all-black-cast film A Fool and His Money, which turned up in a Bakersfield flea market only recently. Film historian Kim Tomadjoglou and Library of Congress motion-picture archivist Rosemary Hanes were subsequently able to identify the film as Guy-Blaché’s. Be Natural includes footage from this short film, which predates by almost 20 years mainstream Hollywood’s predilection for all-black-cast movies, such as King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929) and Paul Sloane’s Hearts in Dixie (1929), in response to the coming of sound and the apparent fascination of white audiences with “the black voice.” I only wish Green had revealed something about the audience Guy-Blaché hoped to target with A Fool and His Money, the theaters in which it screened, and its reception. In other words, did Guy-Blaché explicitly conceive of the movie as a “race film,” intended for African-American filmgoers? Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma (2014) and When They See Us (2019), acknowledges that, while A Fool and His Money may not be “entirely progressive,” it is nonetheless historically important because “it had the black cinematic image […] that before hadn’t been seen.” Indeed, DuVernay declares it the first black film.
One particularly stunning — and presumably rare — early film sequence included here shows Guy-Blaché at work on set using Gaumont’s Chronophone technology to shoot a scene from her 1912 short Mignon, or the Child of Fate. The Chronophone, by incorporating both a phonograph and a cinématographe, was able to produce motion pictures with synchronized sound. According to Alison McMahan, Guy-Blaché produced around 150 of these phono-scènes, as they were known. (Guy-Blaché recalled in her memoir that, while shooting Mignon, a singing actress “went straight to the end, smiling, but when the camera stopped, she fainted. She had placed her foot on a burning ember fallen from an arc lamp, and had endured the burn rather than interrupt the filming.”) These synchronized-sound films provide further evidence of our need to rethink the way we understand the development of “silent” film; indeed, as Barbara McBane reminds us (in a 2006 article for the journal Film History), early motion pictures frequently incorporated mechanically produced “music or sound effects, pianists, small orchestras or bands, phonography, live lecturers or narrators, performers lip-synching dialogue, singers, sound effects produced by employees of the exhibitor, or any number of mechanical synch-sound systems.”
Film historian Anthony Slide remarks that, in producing synchronized-sound films such as Mignon, Guy-Blaché was surely a pioneer of the film musical. Jodie Foster’s voice-over makes an even bolder claim: Guy-Blaché was one of the first to work with synchronized sound. Indeed, Be Natural makes many comparable claims, including DuVernay’s that A Fool and His Money is the first all-black-cast film. And yet Dino Everett’s discovery, since that interview, of Something Good — Negro Kiss (1898), an enchanting reworking of Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896), reminds us that the work of film historians has regularly overturned confident declarations of such “firsts.”
Popular film histories continue to attach a series of such claims to Guy-Blaché: that she was likely the world’s first woman director, and perhaps the first director, period; that she was one of the first to use close-ups and hand-tinted color; and that she wrote, directed, and produced one of the first narrative films, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy, 1896/1899–1900), wrongly ascribed until only very recently, we learn, to her Gaumont colleague Louis Feuillade. Suitably intrigued, I watched this one-minute film, which is freely available on YouTube. However, I could not understand how La Fée aux Choux could be considered a narrative film for, simply put, it doesn’t tell a story; rather, it shows, across its one short, delightful reel, a fairy plucking babies — some real, one a doll — from a cabbage patch. Be Natural misses the opportunity to address this striking disjuncture between claims concerning La Fée aux Choux as the first narrative film and the “scene” that this short clearly is. In some ways, then, Green’s documentary continues to circulate a version of early film history that is underpinned and structured by a series of dubious “firsts.”
Of course, to articulate such a concern is not to downplay or undermine the undeniably astonishing and multiple achievements of Guy-Blaché. It is, however, to suggest that one should approach the archive, with its frequent gaps and silences, with care and an open mind, in order to resist predetermined conclusions. The best historiography is circumspect and nuanced, unfinished and speculative, and this should particularly be the case when addressing the most collaborative and ephemeral of all media: cinema/motion pictures. Be Natural, even if inadvertently, challenges us to consider alternative ways of doing film history that acknowledge the medium’s evanescence and incompleteness.
An equally pressing concern Be Natural raises is the belatedness or indifference of film historians in locating and identifying Guy-Blaché’s considerable output. Dino Everett notes with some frustration the way archivists continue to focus their efforts and energies on the likes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the neglect of the work of filmmakers who have only recently entered the canon. In footage taken from a 1970s roundtable discussion, the then-head of Gaumont, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, is asked what his company’s plans are for the 200 or so Guy-Blaché films it holds; he responds that “[t]here is no profit in copying this perishable film stock.” It’s a rather bleak moment in an otherwise upbeat film, and also a reminder of the inadequacy of the film histories on which we continue to rely. It is fortunately also the case that film history is not entirely dependent on the existence of and access to film per se. Much recuperative work can be profitably undertaken using those traces of motion pictures left behind in contemporary fan and industry magazines and in the syndicated press; in posters, postcards, lobby cards, and similar promotional materials; in contracts and related financial and legal documents; and in contemporary histories and memoirs, such as those of Guy-Blaché herself.
Finally, as Be Natural effectively demonstrates, the fact that her films were inaccessible until relatively recently is not necessarily the reason she fell off the radar following the demise of the Solax Company and her subsequent return to Europe. The long-overdue recognition of her extraordinary achievements is surely also due to the fact that she was a woman. Film historians have long seemed unable to accommodate into the archive more than a small handful of women filmmakers, such as Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner. It is indeed astonishing that a filmmaker who produced, directed, and/or wrote approximately 1,000 films across two decades in France and the United States, and who headed up her own production company, could vanish from the industry and then from film history. Be Natural is a timely and sharp reminder of, as Jane Gaines here notes, “how wrong we often are: women couldn’t do it; women wouldn’t do it.”
Sarah Gleeson-White is Associate Professor of American Literature at the University of Sydney. Her forthcoming book, Literature in Motion, considers the interactions of US literary and cinema cultures across the silent film era.