Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Earlier this year I was teaching an Into to Film History class and it was a pleasure to be able to explore and show the films of Alice Guy-Blaché, the unsung film pioneer. Until the 21st century, Guy was mostly a name in film books (Hitchcock mentions her as an influence in an interview somewhere), if she was a name at all.
Because her films have been getting re-discovered—like, literally re-discovered, hidden on the bottom shelves in archives and such—and restored to visibility, it’s possible to make the case that not only was Guy historically important as a businesswoman in the dawning days of the cinema (she was production chief at Gaumont in its earliest period, and later ran her own studio in New Jersey), she was a formidable artist, too.
One of the films we showed in class was Falling Leaves, a 1912 heart-tugger that shows a firm sense of how screen space should be arranged for maximum storytelling punch. We also looked at a behind-the-scenes curio, Alice Guy tourne un phonoscene (1905), which shows Guy herself on the set of a very complicated production that includes sound recording equipment. You might almost conclude that Guy was documenting herself, lest future generations forget where she stood in the process.
A breathless new documentary directed by Pamela B. Green, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, arrives at Seattle’s Beacon theater this week, and it should serve a worthy purpose of increasing Guy’s visibility as a very important figure in early film (not least because it includes some large names testifying to Guy’s importance, including Geena Davis, Julie Delpy, Gale Ann Hurd, and narrator Jodie Foster). The doc is certainly convincing in suggesting that sexism had a lot to do with quashing Guy’s role, although it should also be noted that there are a lot of male moviemakers of the silent era who were once considered important and influential and who have also been forgotten. Silent-film reality is brutal when it comes to preserving and remembering itself.
Alice Guy-Blaché’s work is available at Scarecrow. But then you knew that already. Check the Beacon calendar here.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.