History disappears quickly, an apt observation made in the recently released documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache — though it’s not so much an untold story as a forgotten one. The film is a tribute to the first female filmmaker and a lesson in the importance of film preservation.
Be Natural restores Guy’s importance to the development of cinema with this account of her life and career that begs the question: Why was she ever forgotten? But forgotten she was as evidenced by interviews with multiple celebrated directors who fail to recognize her name. Her exclusion from film history is appalling in light of her extraordinary accomplishments as both an artist and business woman, directing over one hundred films and setting up her own film company in the United States. Upon viewing the film, one can only wonder what other female filmmakers have been unfairly marginalized to the point of being forgotten.
Guy entered the world of film in its earliest days, working as a stenographer and assistant to Leon Gaumont, also a pioneer of the French film industry. Gaumont’s company initially sold camera and film, but in 1897 expanded his business to include a motion picture production-offshoot. Guy, a woman as ambitious and daring as she was talented, seized her chance to direct films, an unlikely prospect for a woman of that or any era which stands as a testament to her confidence and powers of persuasion.
Her early success had a great deal to do with both her native talent and visionary approach to the artistic possibilities of this new art form. She instinctively understood the importance of fictional storytelling to film beyond the simple documentation of interesting visuals. It was under her direction and guidance that Gaumont’s film studio made films based on narrative scripts, and she was the first director to use close-ups, color-tinting, and synchronized sound. Directing her first film in 1896, at the age of 23, Guy would go on to direct, write, and/or produce over one thousand films. As a director, she demonstrated a great range, directing slapstick comedies and a drama based on the life of Christ, featuring a cast of three hundred extras.
Guy possessed a great business sense and acumen which was further developed when she was promoted to head of production at Gaumont. She and her husband moved to the United States and opened working studios in New Jersey and New York, making her one of the first women to own a studio. This was the closest thing that the United States had at that time to a film industry and it was founded by a woman. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. She continued to push the artistic bounds of film and in 1912 directed an all African-American cast in the film A Fool and His Money. This was considered radical by the standards of that era and even now considered a risky move by most major studios.
Soon Wall Street realized that there was serious money to be made from the now flourishing film business, and it was at that point that things began to unravel for Guy. Wall Street didn’t want women running studios, and Solax Studio declared bankruptcy. Before long before she was forgotten and left behind by an industry that she had been instrumental in creating.
Alice Guy Blache is not the only female pioneer in the film industry forgotten by history. In a guest post for the website WOMEN AND HOLLYWOOD, J.E. SMYTH writes of another overlooked woman who wielded considerable power in the industry. One of the most influential presidents in the history of the Screen Writers Guild, Mary C. McCall Jr. A tireless advocate for screenwriters, McCall was an activist who openly criticized the Blacklist during the McCarthy era. She supported the labor movement and the Equal Rights Amendment. Under her leadership, women were active members of the Screen Writers Guild. After she left the union, their membership levels plummeted. Despite the great advancements she made for screenwriters, she too is largely forgotten.
Memories fade, and not every influential figure in film will be remembered. But when we forget the women who made great contributions to an art form that continues to endure and inspire, we make it easier for gender inequality to flourish in the film industry. By looking back, it shows us the way to a brighter future.
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