This is the question posed to dozens of filmmakers at the beginning of the documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché. The vast majority of them say no, but a few do know her name, including Ava DuVernay. Pamela B. Green’s documentary then unspools like a mystery story, as she traces Alice Guy- Blaché’s path from a secretary at an early photographic company in France to being one of the first film moguls with her own movie studio in 1910s New Jersey (the original home of cinema, until Thomas Edison bullied everyone off the east coast and into the warm embrace of Edison-free California). Be Natural is full of “Why don’t we know about this?!” moments, but Green never wags her finger at the unknowing, instead she illustrates how Guy-Blaché, thought to be the first female director, fell through the cracks of history, and makes a case for Guy-Blaché’s place among the titans of early cinema.
The new trend in documentaries is to use narrative genre conventions to shape information, such as Three Identical Strangers unfolding like a psychological thriller. Be Natural follows that pattern, treating Alice Guy-Blaché’s life story like a mystery procedural. Green is the investigator, and Guy-Blaché is, for all intents and purposes, a missing person. Green sets out to solve the mystery of What Happened to Alice, tracing her rise in Edwardian Paris as a filmmaker producing short reels for a photographic company to use to demonstrate their camera system. Much of early film is essentially stock footage—“The Race Horse” and “Arrival of a Train” are among the earliest examples—but what set Guy-Blaché apart is that she realized moving pictures could be used to tell a story. Her shorts were not stock footage, she was making short films before such a term even existed.
And she made them so well! Be Natural doesn’t just lay out the life story of Guy-Blaché, it establishes her value as a cinematic pioneer and master of filmmaking. She experimented with processes like hand coloring negatives, and synching pre-recorded sound to moving images in phonoscenes, a predecessor of the music video. At one point, Andy Samberg is gobsmacked by a side-by-side comparison of the Lonely Island sketch “When Will the Bass Drop?” with “The Irresistible Piano”, realizing that Guy-Blaché was, essentially, making comedy shorts a hundred years ago. Intercut throughout the documentary is an attempt by USC archivist Dino Everett and cinematographer John Bailey (formerly president of the Academy) to recreate a short in the style of Guy-Blaché, using an antique camera similar to hers. They have a lot of problems, and while sure, the equipment is old, it is effective in showing how rudimentary Guy-Blaché’s tools were, relative to the sophistication of her films.
Be Natural, similar to Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, serves to excavate a woman sidelined by history and put her back in the spotlight she, and her achievements, deserves. Much of the documentary is focused on Green’s efforts to track down “Alice’s papers” and as much of her surviving work as possible in order to satisfy historians and curators so that Guy-Blaché can be more than a mere footnote in cinema history. Honestly, I wish Be Natural featured more than just a montage of teams of researchers discovering reel after reel of Guy-Blaché’s work, because that is the most exciting part of the story, seeing how much of her work survives (and a lot of it is now on YouTube, like the really excellent short “The Drunken Mattress”). Be Natural is a thorough and loving portrait of a woman history almost forgot, a pioneer and visionary whose contributions to early cinema echo down the generations. We hear a lot of “women can’t” in film, but Be Natural proves women can, and always could.
Be Natural is available on demand now.