Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of Alice Guy-Blaché before. There are a couple of dozen film folk featured in Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood and San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, June 21), and all but one or two of them openly profess ignorance regarding the world’s first female film director.
While the stories of the Lumière Brothers, D. W. Griffith, and other (male) pioneers of silent cinema have been well-documented over the years, Guy-Blaché was largely (and in some cases, literally) written out of film history. Narrated and produced by Jodie Foster, Be Natural unearths this previously hidden history and helps set the record straight.
Born in 1873 and raised in France by her grandmother, Alice began her working life as a secretary at the Parisian photographic firm Comptoir in 1895. After Leon Gaumont took over the company shortly thereafter, Guy-Blaché was lucky enough to get invited to the first screening of the Lumière Brothers ‘reality’, La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon).
The film planted a seed in Alice’s mind: if film could depict real life in short, less-than-a-minute-or-two bursts, could it not also be used to tell narrative stories? In 1896, Gaumont allowed her to produce the fantasy La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy); the film became a huge success and Guy-Blaché unwittingly became a filmmaking pioneer.
Despite going on to found a New Jersey production company where she would write, produce, and direct hundreds of films, the details of Alice’s life have been largely unknown and her work almost impossible to see for decades. Be Natural travels across continents to fill in the gaps, telling her story from the perspective of film historians (including the estimable Kevin Brownlow, here seen wearing an out-of-character baseball cap), family members (both distant and close), and archival footage of several late-in-life French television interviews with Guy-Blaché.
One of the pleasures of documentaries about silent film is the tantalizing possibility that the viewer will be privy to the rediscovery of something once thought lost, and Be Natural is no exception. Through great effort, some of Guy-Blaché’s works have now been identified in archives around the world, while others have been rescued from private ownership before the final, fatal onset of vinegar syndrome. You might even call it a happy ending.
‘The Quiet One’
Beatles or Stones? One of the great cultural dividers of years past hinged on which of the two British Invasion bands you preferred. I have always been a Beatles guy, but sure — there are some good Stones songs, too.
Color me surprised, though, by The Quiet One (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday), an elegiac tribute to former Stones bassist Bill Wyman. I had always thought Charlie Watts was the quiet Stone, but apparently I was wrong.
Based on the Wyman archives (and oh, am I jealous of those voluminous archives), The Quiet One uses the bass-player’s memories of his 30-plus years in the band and blends them with home movie footage he shot as they criss-crossed the planet entertaining teenage (and later, adult) audiences. While the film’s tone occasionally drifts into hagiographic VH1 territory, the end result is a satisfying salute to the Stones’ elder statesmen, now 82 years of age.