Filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché speaking with actress Bessie Love, on set of The Great Adventure. [courtesy Anthony Slide]
In 1895, at the Societe d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale in Paris, Auguste and Louis Lumiere debuted the cinematographe to a small group of colleagues and friends. The camera was officially released to the public later that year, and the Lumiere brothers become known as the fathers of cinema. Present for the private release was Alice Guy-Blaché, the twenty-two-year-old secretary to Leon Gaumont, inventor, industrialist, and founder of the Gaumont Film Company. He had been concerned about Alice’s youth when he hired her. “It will pass,” she assured him.
Inspired by the screening, Alice Guy-Blaché wrote, directed, and produced one of the first narrative films ever made, La Fée Aux Choux, or, The Cabbage Fairy, in 1896. Gaumont permitted her to use the company’s equipment under the condition that “the mail doesn’t suffer.” This film, in which babies are plucked from cabbages by a fairy, cements Alice as one of the first filmmakers in history, and the first ever female film director—a mother to cinema.
Guy-Blaché’s career outpaces that of legends like the Lumieres and Georges Mélies, with whom she was a contemporary. At the 1900 Exposition Universelle, Alice won the Diplome De Collaboratrice (Collaborator Award). Her competition included Melies, Ferdinand Zecca, and Edwin S. Porter. She wrote, directed, and produced over a thousand films and was among the first to employ techniques like close-ups, hand-tinted color, and synchronized sound. Many of her films were created through Solax, the production company she founded in 1910 in Fort Lee, New Jersey, (America’s original Hollywood) in 1910, three years after moving to the United States with her husband, Herbert Blaché. For Alice, to become a filmmaker, “was my fate, if you will.” And she was, at the time, well-known for it.
Why, then, had I never heard of her?
I studied film as an undergraduate at NYU, and yet, the first mention of Alice Guy-Blaché I can recall was one month ago at the Telluride Film Festival. A friend familiar with the program (and all things cinema) recommended that I see Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a documentary. So I filed into the Masons Hall theater where Pamela B. Green, the film’s writer, director, producer, and editor shielded herself from applause with the hood of her sweatshirt while the executive producer, Geralyn White Dreyfous, told the audience the film had been ten years in the making. Dreyfous described the film and Pamela’s work with difficulty, as if she couldn’t possibly articulate the magnitude of what we were about to see. She described it as the slow, piece-by-piece discovery of a vanished, invaluable archive.
In the film, Green describes seeing Alice Guy-Blaché mentioned on a television show about female pioneers of cinema. Previously unaware of Guy-Blaché, Pamela began researching to discover that while a few experts of Guy-Blaché existed, other experts on cinema, like Peter Bogdanovich, Julie Delpy, Robert Redford, and dozens more featured in Be Natural had never heard of her. The baffling disappearance of this once widely recognized cinematic trailblazer led Green to a reckoning with the world that had neglected her.
Be Natural will be screening from December 7 to 13 at the Metrograph in New York City. Recently, I spoke with Pamela B. Green about the mammoth task of proving Alice Guy-Blaché’s legacy, and the obstacles—which she, like Alice, refused to linger on.
Filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché (on camera platform behind camera tripod) on set of The Life of Christ, 1906 (Courtesy of Société française de photographie)
How did your initial interest in Alice Guy-Blaché spin out into the making of a feature-length documentary?
At first, I was surprised—why had I never heard of her? I was shocked mostly by how much she had accomplished. How could such an important figure in the birth of cinema not be known? Under my breath I said, Wow. After a bit of thought, I said, Well, I’m not surprised. So, of course, I looked her up, I started asking around. I kept thinking about it.
In my day job, I get hired to work on opening sequences for films, sometimes by a studio, sometimes by a director. If they don’t have the budget to shoot something or they need to tell a backstory, I specialize in helping with that kind of creative storytelling. It might involve editorial work, shooting original footage, finding archival or stock footage, et cetera. Some years back, I had the chance to work with Robert Redford. I asked him if he had ever heard of Alice, and he was a deer in headlights. He said, I lived in France and was going to art school and I can’t believe I don’t know about her. I said, Well I think we should make a documentary. There is so much to explore with the new way of research. I think that was around 2010. I had been researching Alice for some time already and from there I started putting the pieces together, step-by-step, you know, putting a trailer together, looking for funding. Everyone in Hollywood said it was suicide, we would never get the money, nobody would care, blah blah blah—a lot of discouragement. But I don’t like hearing no. I like to turn a no into a yes.
Robert Redford came on board, and so did Jodie Foster—it was a no-brainer for her. Everyone involved was at the top of their game. The funding was the most difficult part.
It was a lot out of pocket for myself, and I didn’t think twice about it. There were so many different hurdles, not only to tell the story, but to collect the materials worldwide, to write the story. We had to keep finding new things to show both funders and the world that there is something here. This is going to change things.
It was a very long process of searching, negotiating, tedious researching in different languages and identifying new materials where her name might have been misspelled or just initialed in the records, things that were found in people’s garages.
There are a few scenes in the film where you are uncovering connections between Alice and her living descendants, and discovering valuable records and artifacts in doing so. Some, like Tatiana Page-Relo, Alice’s great-great-granddaughter, are surprised to hear that Alice lived in the states. Alice’s granddaughter’s widower, Bob Channing, invited you to Show Low, Arizona where you both discovered boxes of Alice’s negatives. He gave them over to you saying, “I can let you take these and you don’t even have to give them back. No one’s going to ever care.”
Yes! Everything is condensed in the film, but in real life it was a lot of me asking, Have you had a chance to look in the attic? and the other person insisting, No, I don’t have anything there. Everybody told me they didn’t have anything and I was like, Hmm … yes, you do. Pushing, pushing, and besides finding new material, you have to find films. You have to locate them in the different archives. Stuff needs to be digitized, which is extremely expensive.
Two weeks before Cannes, we were licensing a piece of material from a French archive and they said, Oh we have these glass photos from The Birth, The Life, and The Death of Christ, do you want them? And I was like, What—what do you mean? Of course. But those are seven hundred euros. I don’t think that people realize what’s involved in not only getting her films but the transfer costs, the licensing, et cetera. It’s basically paving the way to make her work accessible for future generations. The glass photos prove that she was the director of The Life of Christ.
In the documentary, you talk about how many films, like The Birth, The Life, and The Death of Christ (1906) and her first film, The Cabbage Fairy, were erroneously attributed to other directors. And in the case of a film like The Misadventures of a Calf’s Head, Alice was credited where it was not due, which enraged her. With so much misattribution, how did you draw a navigable map to deciphering Alice’s oeuvre?
There are a lot of sliding doors and Greek tragedy around this woman. But materials like the glass photos solve the problem of whether Alice was the director or not. I think when you make a documentary you have to be very selfless. You have to really look at the subject and listen to what they are saying. I watched her interviews, I read her memoirs, and I made a spreadsheet of every single thing she said to address all of her needs. I went after every single thing, one by one, because I don’t think it was ever done that way, for her.
With academics, the subject is a pizza, and they take on a slice, they don’t take on the whole. I was really interested in the whole. That was the only way she was going to be really known and not just a piece of academic information. I wanted her to have a face, I wanted her to be humanized, and I wanted her to be known to the masses.
For much of her work, I had to prove it. A lot of people think, Oh, did she really do this? We don’t know.
Does belief in the importance of Alice’s work vary regionally?
A lot of Americans have done research on her, more than the French. The French are the naysayers and I think this was her problem. The French didn’t necessarily believe her. They used her documents, but they didn’t really make a moment for her. To their credit, the films were not really available, but at the same time, they didn’t do their research. And this didn’t just happen to her, it happened to many people at that point, at that time, in that era. It was good and bad for her at the same time.
But you believed her.
I believed her. I had some doubts here and there, but when I checked, ninety-five percent of the time what she said checked out, it identified as correct. It was kind of creepy. I was checking and the more that was correct, the more I wondered what else I could find. It became this obsession. I was determined.
My grandmother was my best friend, and she passed away right before we launched the Kickstarter for the film. Because of our connection, I love older people. I think their shell is one thing, but inside, they’re young and vivacious and they have lived and accomplished so many things. I’m always interested in their stories and what they’ve gone through, especially women. I would usually brush these things under the carpet—how difficult things have been for me as a woman in the industry. In the past, I just ignored it and kept going. I never stopped to think, Wow, that’s really bad. I think I was in denial in a way. Working with Alice pushed me to say some of these things out loud. It is not okay.
When you work on biographies, you’re trying to create justice for the person you’re covering, and you wouldn’t be human if they didn’t have an effect on you as well. She definitely had an effect on me.
I love solving mysteries. Growing up I was big into Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, Murder She Wrote, Columbo, all of those things. I don’t like it when people don’t get the justice that they deserve. I fought for her. I did it through my work. I feel like I’ve done everything she’s asked for.
What types of things, specifically, did you feel Alice was asking for?
She wanted to find her films. There is a parallel in the movie where she is looking and I’m looking. She wanted to prove that she made The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ. The 1896 film of The Cabbage Fairy is tough, because it doesn’t exist.
Yes, the documentary shows a remake from 1899.
To me, the fact that she remade it again and again, as well as featured it in her other projects—such as the babies being born in the cabbages in Madame Has a Craving in 1906—it just doesn’t make any sense that the original wouldn’t have been from 1896. Compare it today. If you get a new piece of technology to play with, you’re not going to wait six years to ask your boss to do something. And she is already playing with the Lumieres’s flipping image device, the Kinora, in 1895. It’s not just about being the first filmmaker, the first anything, it’s about being there at the beginning and developing a medium, furthering the possibilities of what it can become.
It was like she was in a lab testing, testing, testing all of these different ways that you can do something, and pushing the medium that we use today forward. To be there at the start is always hard. There are so many bugs and difficulties, forget about the equipment. She ignored the obstacles, and pursued the possibilities. And she was talented.
And she was funny. In your film, director Kevin Macdonald says that YouTube movies are in their infancy in the same way that the Lumieres’s or Guy-Blaché’s first films were. “They are no more sophisticated in their grammar or their style.” Media scholar Henry Jenkins remarks on the similarity of the content in films from the early twentieth century to the digital era—both include stunts, trained animals, trips around the world. Andy Samberg comments on the remarkable similarity between The Irresistible Piano from 1907 and his When Will The Bass Drop? from 2014.
When I first found her films, I thought, Wow, this is just like YouTube, but I had to find the right people to put that on screen. I had a lot of historians arguing, saying, No, no it’s not. I felt I had to put things in there that would make it relatable for a younger audience, because silent cinema isn’t relatable unless you have some kind of connective tissue.
Guy-Blaché was responsible for one of the first films featuring an entirely black cast, A Fool and His Money (1912). Filmmaker Ava DuVernay says that while this film was definitely of its time and not necessarily progressive, it is historically important for its inclusion of black actors. Shall The Parents Decide (1916) tackles sexual inequality and reproductive rights. It’s a film about planned parenthood, written by Alice and activist Rose Pastor Stokes, meant to be screened at birth control advocate Margaret Sanger’s clinic opening. But Margaret was arrested the minute the clinic opened. Sir Ben Kingsley called Guy-Blaché a genuine storyteller, and said of her, “You realize watching her films how little has changed.”
These films show you that history is cyclical, and we are not doing anything really new. We are experiencing a continuation of things that happened a long time ago. A Fool and His Money’s cast was meant to include white actors, but they all refused to work with actors of color. She didn’t care. She said, Okay, forget that, let’s do it this way, and proceeded with an all-black cast.
What about her husband? She moved to America for him. Do you think he played a role in her disappearance from the film world? Author Steve Ross says in the film that once large investment firms saw the potential for profits in cinema, the women were pushed out. “Alice would have no chance. Wall street money comes in the front door, women are forced out the back door.”
He was not a good business person, but I think if she hadn’t met Blaché, she would still have eventually been pushed out once people realized there was money in cinema. If she had gone to California earlier, maybe Solax would have been a brand that we still know today.
And the films, they were lost. When you ship out a film to a theater, you don’t get it back. Where does it go? Most of them were made out of nitrate. If these films had been recorded and documented properly, I think we would have a different landscape of what filmmaking has looked like for women in the history of cinema as a whole.
You chose Be Natural as the title for the film, which was taken from a sign Guy-Blaché hung in her studio at Solax. Encouraging actors to be natural was a very different approach to directing in a time when people were accustomed to posing for pictures.
That is what attracted me to her in the first place. I couldn’t believe how her films didn’t fit the era whatsoever. Some did, I’m sure, but many of them look completely modern. What can I tell you? They look like they’re from the twenties or later. Some of her actors weren’t even actors at the time. Some came from theater, but others she just grabbed from the studio and gave them direction. With the actors from the theater, she didn’t want the gestures.
Alice is quoted in the beginning of the film saying, “It was my fate, if you will.”
In her memoirs, she says that becoming a filmmaker was her destiny. With Alice, the biggest thing was ignoring the obstacles and focusing on the possibilities. I want this film to entertain, but I also want to change history for her. I want people to watch, to be inspired, and to find the possibilities in themselves and those around them.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché was an official selection of the Cannes, Telluride, Deauville American, BFI London, and New York Film Festivals. It will be screening from December 7th to 13th at the Metrograph in New York City. The film is scheduled for a wide release in Spring 2019 by Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber.
Toniann Fernandez is a writer based in Brooklyn.
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