May 31, 2019
It’s been another great month in podcasting. There’s an excellent array of special guests in my May roundup. Episode titles link to the show discussed:
Leonard and Jessie Maltin
Leonard and Jessie Maltin discuss the origins of the Maltin family business and the inaugural Maltin Film Fest in a fascinating conversation with host Alicia Malone.
I Blame Dennis Hopper
Illeana Douglas talks with Karina Longworth about her podcast You Must Remember This and her book Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood. I loved hearing Longworth talk about why she chose the subjects of some of her best episodes and how she approaches her research.
World War II Dracula
I enjoyed listening to my first episode of this podcast that explores classic horror films. Here hosts Ben Rowe and Sarah Rowe discuss have a wide-ranging discussion about the Bela Lugosi flick The Return of the Vampire (1943), a movie that was totally new to me. I love how well informed and thoughtfully analytical these two are. I’m looking forward to catching up on old episodes.
Classic Movie Musts
Meet John Doe (1941) with Victoria Riskin
Host Max Baril talks with Victoria Riskin about the dual biography (reviewed here) she wrote about her parents Robert Riskin and Fay Wray and the Riskin-scripted Capra film Meet John Doe. An industry veteran herself (she's a television writer and producer), Riskin had lots of stories to share about her childhood and perceptive insight into the business of making movies.
2019 TCM Film Festival, Adina Hoffman on Ben Hecht
Nitrate Diva Nora Fiore shares her experiences at the TCM Classic Film Festival before host Mike Gebert talks Ben Hecht with the screenwriter’s biographer Adina Hoffman, whose lively book Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures I reviewed here.
Maltin on Movies
Film historian Kevin Brownlow has such a rich, varied history that he’d be an interesting interview with anyone, but he’s especially fascinating here with Leonard Maltin (and daughter Jessie), because both have such deep experience with cinema and preservation. Brownlow has spoken with so many film greats and he shares a lot of those stories as well.
May 29, 2019
45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: The Remarkable Recovery of the Homegrown Spec-fi Flick As The Earth Turns (1938/2019)
One of the most exciting discoveries in the archival offerings of Seattle International Film Festival 2019 is a silent spec-fi film that has been out of circulation for eighty years. Made in Seattle by director, producer and star Richard Lyford, As the Earth Turns (1938) is an innovative, exhilarating independent production. This Friday, a restoration of the film with a new score will screen at SIFF Uptown with restoration producer Kim Lyford Bishop and restoration producer/score composer Ed Hartman scheduled to attend.
As the Earth Turns opens in a conflicted world, where Europe is at war. Young, ambitious American reporter Julie Weston (Barbara Berger) begs her editor for better opportunities, and gets it when he sends her to a Naval radio station to look for stories in the flood of messages constantly streaming into the base. She gets a big one: the mysteriously named Pax sends a wire demanding peace, or else he while increase the length of the day five minutes.
Pax isn’t taken seriously at first, but when he does successfully change time, and then follows up on his promises of earthquakes and weather changes (shades of climate change); government officials begin to take him seriously. However, it is the clever Julie and her associates who ultimately uncover the mystery of Pax and his ironically destructive approach to seeking peace.
Lyford was only twenty-years-old when he made As the Earth Turns, and by that time he’d already written 50 plays and made nine unreleased films. He clearly had a remarkable knack for filmmaking; while the film is clearly low-budget, the production is far from cheap. Lyford combines sleek, innovative effects work with a lively story, able cast, and intertitles that have a pleasing touch of wit. His fascinating model work (including a gorgeous “high-tech” airplane) anticipates the great sci-fi flicks of the 1950s, while his camera work is off kilter and inventive in an Avant garde way.
In a uniformly appealing cast, Berger is the stand-out. Unlike the glamour girl reporters in Hollywood productions of the time, she is refreshingly natural and straightforward. It’s a shame this was her only film role.
Lyford is also magnificent in a slightly campy, but ultimately touching performance as Pax. With a raised eyebrow and shaking fist, he is enormously entertaining, but never excessively cartoonish. He clearly had the ability to master any aspect of filmmaking and embraced the indie spirit of doing whatever it took to get the job done.
Hartman’s new score is a fine complement to this new release. It is period appropriate, but with a modern feel, which is appropriate for the forward-thinking tone of the film.
Seattleites will enjoy the extensive location shooting amidst Pacific Northwest greenery. There are also scenes set on the streets of Seattle, on Boeing Field, and at Gasworks Park when it was still a functioning gas plant.
Lyford would eventually move to Hollywood, where he would direct documentary shorts for Disney. He is perhaps most famous for his television documentary Island of Allah (1956) and the short The Titan: Story of Michelangelo (1950), a film which won the Academy Award for documentary feature.
This is a festival must-see for fans of classic film. It’s a marvelous discovery. Tickets for the 6/1 screening can be purchased here.
May 24, 2019
Decades after getting his big break in Frankenstein (1931), Boris Karloff revisited the idea in Frankenstein 1970 (1958). This time he was the one harvesting body parts and playing with knobs as Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Karloff is the draw in this low-budget quickie production which recently made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
In this continuation of the Frankenstein legend, the doctor lives alone in a creepy castle, disfigured by the torture of World War II Nazis, and desperate for funds to continue his work. That work is to create a version of himself before his face and body were deformed, so that the Frankenstein bloodline may continue.
Frankenstein finds a source of cash via a television crew looking to use his home as the set of a horror film. He also relishes the influx of fresh organs for his creation. As people begin to disappear in the night, the production’s director starts to ask questions.
Of course, an atomic age Dr. Frankenstein needs an atomic reactor to complete his work, which he is able to do with his new funds. He also has recording equipment, which gives Karloff the opportunity to provide long, unnecessary monologues about what exactly he is doing. His creation remains wrapped in bandages for most of the film, a budget-friendly decision which makes it seem more like a mummy movie than a monster flick.
Frankenstein 1970 suffers from a lack of energy and tension. It’s got a lethargic pace and not much to distinguish the familiar story. A tinge of camp might have given it more oomph, but the cast plays everything straight.
Karloff is the reason to watch: he’s got that Joan Blondell quality of never being bad, however lackluster the film. Even saddled with the cliché of moodily playing an organ, he manages to be effectively creepy. There’s also a gruesome thrill in watching him pout because he drops a pair of eyeballs from one of victims and has to deal with the bother of killing again to get a fresh set. This was a milieu Karloff knew well and could work to his advantage.
Special features on the disc include commentary by historians Charlotte Austin, Bob Burns and Tom Weaver from the original Warner Archive DVD release of the film and a trailer.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
May 23, 2019
Sonja: the White Swan (2019) is a biopic of skating star Sonja Henie, who made records as an athlete and sparkled briefly, but potently as a movie queen in Hollywood musicals. I don’t know enough about this phenomenally successful athlete/actress to be able to say whether it succeeded in telling her story, but it does reveal a fascinating character. Starring as Henie, Ine Marie Wilmann portrays a complex, passionate woman. The film around her doesn’t always rise to the level of her performance, but it is magical when it does.
Sonja moves around in time, showing the origins of Henie’s skating passion and occasionally dipping back into the past to shed light on her present. From the beginning, she possesses a ferocious belief in herself. She summons success as much as achieving it. When athletic fame brings her to Fox Studios, she will take no less than a four picture deal, thwarting studio head Darryl F. Zanuck’s efforts to try her out in small parts before taking a real financial risk.
Henie is the same in her relationships, demanding that her family move from Norway to be with her in California and then molding their lives to her satisfaction. When she hires an assistant, she expects the same fealty, having her move in so that her employee’s life is in service to her. At first, this behavior is mildly disturbing, but as the story progresses, her ruthless nature reveals itself more fully and it is chilling.
While it is undeniable that the Henie portrayed here was capable of horrific behavior, just as often the things she did that caused scandal would hardly inspire a raised eyebrow if done by a man. Driving a hard bargain or indulging in free love and afternoon champagne were not the domain of women then, and to this day can be the cause of scorn.
In the end, I didn’t recognize the Henie I’d seen in the movies here. Even the gorgeous scenes where her film production numbers are reproduced with magnificent glamour don’t capture the button-nosed sweetness of the star. Wilmann does much with the material she is given though, portraying a woman capable of great cruelty, but also delightfully indulgent in the pleasures of life.
The film as a whole played unevenly for me. In her rise to fame, we see her successes in great detail. As she declines, much of the action plays off-screen, sometimes related in voiceover, which made her fall difficult to engage with on an emotional level. The early scenes pop with an almost sensual energy, buoyed by a punchy modern soundtrack full of electronic beats and upbeat soul and hip hop that instead of seeming anachronistic, does much to express Henie's passionate drive. That feeling devolves into a bland second act, where some scenes are lit so dimly that it is hard to make out what is happening.
In a coda with a sequence of film clips featuring the real Henie, the star is presented in her later years, happily married and apparently thriving. We see where she ended up, but precisely how she got there remains a mystery.
This is worth a view based on Wilmann’s remarkable performance and the punch of the early scenes and movie sequence reproductions.
Tickets for the final SIFF screening of the film on 5/27 can be purchased here.
May 21, 2019
45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: A Collage of James Mason Clips in Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) (2018)
While I think that it is usually best to go into a film cold in order to enjoy it fully, the work of Austrian filmmaker Norbert Pfaffenbichler benefits from some explanation. His experimental works are accessible, but require preparation. Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) (2018), which features clips from 160 James Mason films is a riot if it catches you in the right frame of mind.
The film is the final installation in Pfaffenbichler’s Monologue Trilogy, a series of films in which he has compiled clips of male movie stars in surreal juxtapositions of moods, ages, and situations. In the first two films, which featured Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, his stars interacted with themselves in different roles. I had the opportunity to watch the Karloff film, A Masque of Madness (2013) at SIFF 2014 and found it mesmerizing to watch the actor performing with himself across time, even chasing himself at one point.
This time Pfaffenbichler shakes things up by adding women to the mix. Mason is shown loving, beating, berating and romancing his leading ladies in seventeen thematic episodes. Unlike the Karloff film, Mason disappears from the screen for lengthy periods as the women in his cinematic life regard him with disappointment, fear, and very occasionally admiration. It is in essence a violent portrait with a sprinkling of lust and romance to make it a shade more palatable.
Pfaffenbichler uses sound and music to challenge the emotions evoked by these clips, placing lushly romantic music with grim imagery or adding repetitive clicks and the like to increase the tension of a sequence. It is this editorial hand that makes the film more compelling than the strictly-themed collection of clips it first appears to be.
I hate to say that a film is not for everyone, but I have to admit this might move too slowly and erratically for those who prefer a conventional narrative. It’s worth a look for fans of classic film though and especially Mason fanatics. While firmly advancing through its structured themes, it is also curiously freeing, because it releases the viewer from narrative storytelling and allows somewhat untethered exploration of all the feelings, images, and sounds that make movies, and their stars, so thrilling.
The SIFF screening of this film includes Austrian filmmaker Virgil Widrich’s amusing short Copy Shop (2001).
Tickets for the May 30 screening of Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) can be purchased here.
May 16, 2019
Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures
Jewish Lives Series
Yale University Press, 2019
Hollywood movies would have been very different without the brilliance of screenwriter Ben Hecht. He not only wrote enduring classics, but in the early days of the talkies gave shape to major film genres. In a new book, which is part of the extensive Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, Adina Hoffman explores the life of this volatile personality and devoted craftsman.
Hecht got his start as a newsman and the life experience he got from big city reporting would have a big influence on the street smart, lightning fast dialogue he would later pen for the movies. He gave the gangster genre prominence with early entries like Underworld (1927) and Scarface(1932), which drew heavily from reporting life. The same could be said of screwball comedy, which truly began to emerge after he adapted his stage play for Twentieth Century (1934).
There are so many other good films he wrote beyond these genre builders. It’s almost overwhelming to take into account all the classics that Hecht created, whether credited or behind the scenes. Among them: Nothing Sacred (1937), Gunga Din (1939), Wuthering Heights (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946).
Hecht was always a bit scornful of Hollywood, but was happy to draw large paychecks over many decades doing work that came easily to him. Hoffman reveals a man who may have been skeptical of his film work, but who approached screenwriting seriously, with a careful eye to what would delight an audience. Part of that life included his frequent writing partner and close friend Charles MacArthur, an underrated talent with much of the same inborn skill for lively dialogue.
The Hollywood stories are bookended with tales of Hecht’s raucous early life and his later devotion to projects that would promote his Jewish activism. That activism would be the source of controversy for years and eventually threaten his career, but with a talent that big, he found a way to keep working. It seems his life was never dull, with wives, lovers, hard drinking writer friends, and political and artistic drama to fill all the corners of his existence.
Hoffman’s writing is lively and wry, with a fidelity to revealing detail and great storytelling. It’s rare to see the personality and work of a biographical subject so expertly intertwined. As a result, the tone of the book is as acutely mischievous as Hecht himself.
I found this to be an especially entertaining and informative biography. It cuts right to the action and moves with crisp, invigorating efficiency through a remarkable life.
May 14, 2019
I wrote this review days before the legendary Doris Day passed on. It is in a way a tribute to her charm and talent, because every word I've ever written about her has been a tribute. She was the living embodiment of sunshine and so phenomenally talented.
Produced in the last decade of Doris Day’s prolific career, the cheerfully chaotic The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) has the not unpleasant feeling of being crafted from a reliable formula. It’s got a jaunty DeVol score, boisterous direction from Frank Tashlin, who was born to work with Day, and a cast full of actors who tend to go with one note and do it very well. This light-hearted romantic comedy with spy intrigue is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
Day is the widowed daughter of a glass bottom boat tour operator (Arthur Godfrey). She helps her Pop entertain his customers by dressing up as a mermaid and swimming underneath them. One day a NASA scientist (Rod Taylor) snags her tail with his fishing pole and rips it off, leaving her bottomless. She’s furious, until she realizes he’s her new boss at the laboratory where she does public relations. She also likes the looks of him.
A misunderstanding leads Day’s employers to suspect she works as a spy for Russia. She’s more indignant that they assume she’s dishonest than afraid of any trouble she might face. With still more miscommunication to follow, she takes revenge for their mistrust in her.
This was one of two films Day made with the profoundly underrated Taylor (they made Do Not Disturb together the year before). Though Rock Hudson was her best screen match, you could never imagine them hitting the sack the way you can her and Taylor. Of all her leading men, she’s got the most heat with him.
That said there’s a charming feeling of camaraderie between Day and Taylor. For the most part the film is comically turbulent, but there’s a quieter scene where Day sings songs with her Pop, his girlfriend and Taylor where they all appear to genuinely be having fun together. Here Taylor seems especially delighted and full of admiration for his costar and he's not alone. She lights up any setting, and here all involved seemed delighted to bask in her glory.
Paul Lynde, Dom DeLuise, and Alice Pearce are among the reliable supporting cast. It’s full of actors like these who knew precisely how to plug their personas into any situation. There are few surprises, but everyone is working to a high standard.
The Glass Bottom Boat succeeds where a lot of spy spoofs fail, because it relies more on the quirks of its cast than genre jokes for laughs. It’s a real mood lifter and a great moment for Day and Taylor.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
May 10, 2019
My introduction to the concept of pre-Code as a film category probably began with the Forbidden Hollywood VHS series hosted by Leonard Maltin and featuring Warner Bros films. Having delighted in those saucy flicks, I would eventually devour Thomas Doherty and Mick LaSalle’s books on the era, learning as much as I could and writing long lists of films I wanted to see.
As helpful as all of those resources were, the pre-Code book that had the most profound effect on me was Mark Vieira’s Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. It was an impulse buy at a used book store, which turned into an obsession. Something about the way he combined glowing photographs with a deep dive into the films got me hooked. I got a taste of the period and just enough information to make me want to learn more.
For this reason, I was thrilled to learn Vieira would be returning to the subject with Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934). In the twenty years since Sin in Soft Focus was published, pre-Codes have increased exponentially in popularity among classic film fans, perhaps even equaling film noir as a beloved film category. That TCM has partnered with Running Press to publish the book is especially amusing, as pre-Code screenings at the TCM Classic Film Festival are notorious for filling up quickly and leaving long lines of fans in the lobby of the multiplex.
The beauty of Vieira writing this book is that he knows the topic so well that he’s able to write about it efficiently, relating vital facts and revealing the essential character of the period. Using various films from the era as starting points, he explores different genres, controversies, and production stories, while steadily moving through the overall history of the birth of the Code and its eventual enforcement.
Forbidden Hollywood looks good, with lots of the gorgeous photos for which Vieira’s books are best known, but there’s also a lot of solid research here, related in an engaging way. This is an entertaining, informative read that deserves to endure as a classic reference book.
Many thanks to TCM for providing a copy of the book for review.
May 7, 2019
I’m a big fan of pre-code Constance Bennett, with her razor sharp hip bones and saucy quips. She doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her contribution to the lively adult-themed flicks of that time. While Our Betters (1933) is not the best of those films, Bennett is reliably excellent as an American heiress who marries a titled man and thrives in the morally flexible world of British aristocracy. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, this was an entertaining flick.
As the wealthy Pearl Saunders, Bennett is still in her wedding dress post-ceremony when she realizes her new husband (Alan Mowbray) has a lover and he has only married her for her money. Years pass, and she has discarded any pretense of wedded bliss, instead becoming a scandalous society sensation among the upper class. Though not given to passionate affairs, she keeps an open mind and doesn’t clutch her pearls at the prospect, a fact her squeaky clean sister Bessie (Anita Louise) begins to realize with alarm.
While there are multiple romantic dramas unfolding at any given time, Our Betters is an essentially plotless look at the energetic if meaningless lives of these social elite. With characters given to comments like, “If I leave you, you’ll have nobody but your husband” and a bizarre reference to bananas as a “most unpleasant vegetable, so fattening,” the action may occasionally flag, but it is never entirely dull. As empty as these people may ultimately be, you want to blow raspberries when a sanctimonious outsider makes a plea for “honor, decency, and self-restraint.”
After seeing many a film where a pre-code heroine sins freely until she accepts matrimony in the last act, it is almost a relief that Bennett is only temporarily punished for playing the game as she sees it and remains essentially her own woman. In the end, she emerges triumphant because she retains her power to manipulate any situation as she sees fit. If her perspective has become a bit more moral, so be it. You get the impression the halo won’t stay in place for long.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
May 3, 2019
The schedule for the 45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival is out, and it is a jawdropper. SIFF is going to be an especially happy place for classic film fans this year. With restorations, rediscoveries, and a diverse array of voices, the selection is especially tantalizing.
This year’s festival runs from May 16 to June 9, and I’ll be writing about several screenings in more detail as the month progresses. For now, here are my recommended flicks. All film titles link to schedule and ticket purchase information:
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) with Live Soundtrack by the Invincible Czars
This is the third time the Austin, Texas-based indie band The Invincible Czars have provided musical accompaniment for a silent at SIFF. I loved the knowledge of music history, creativity, and craft that went into their score for John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), which they performed at SIFF 2017, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with for another horror silent.
As the Earth Turns (1938)
Shot in Seattle, this newly remastered sci-fi thriller has been out of circulation for 80 years. Seattle native Richard Lyford directed and starred in the film, which includes location footage of Boeing Field and Gasworks Park. I love that even the new score has been composed by a Seattle composer, Ed Hartman.
Fritz Lang’s take on the thriller is his penultimate silent film. Of epic length, but fast-paced, there are many elements which would eventually become genre tropes and spy gadgetry in this mixture of intercultural agent romance and intrigue. SIFF will be screening a 2K restoration.
Barbara Rubin & the Exploding Underground (2018)
A brisk portrait of the brief life of Barbara Rubin, an experimental filmmaker who boldly established herself in the primarily male arenas of movies and Orthodox Judaism in 1960s New York. The story of the woman who introduced Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground is bound to be interesting.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019)
Via recordings he made while writing his autobiography, Miles Davis himself gets to narrate much of this straightforward and thorough documentary about the legendary jazz trumpet player. Former loves, family, bandmates, and experts present a justifiably critical, but empathetic portrait of an artist, who had a reputation for being difficult, but whose impact on and complete adoration of music is undeniable. Movie fans will love the in-depth segment on the unorthodox way Davis created the soundtrack for the Louis Malle film Elevator to the Gallows (1958).
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018)
The polarizing, long-time New Yorker critic Pauline Kael gets the documentary treatment in a film that alternates her own words and life with clips of the films she reviewed.
The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) director Mark Cousins examines race and privilege in Hollywood by comparing the lives of stars Susan Hayward and Lena Horne. Born in the same year, on the same day in Brooklyn, these talented women had dramatically different careers. The film primarily consists of the Fox musicals Stormy Weather (1943) and With a Song in My Heart (1953) , which starred Horne and Hayward respectively, playing side-by-side on two quarters of the screen, while text with trivia about the women and their lives occasionally appears on the other half of the screen. At first I found the presentation headache-inducing and the comparison not as compelling as I'd hoped, but the story gradually builds and deepens. You begin to understand the exhaustion both actresses felt as women in Hollywood, but how much more profoundly draining it was for Horne as a black woman. A tonal shift in the final ten minutes of the film firmly establishes that divide.
I have been dying to see the films of Mexican movie star María Félix for years. After being limited for so long to admiring her in stills, I’m excited that I will be seeing her in action for the first time on the big screen,costarring with Pedro Armendáriz (From Russia with Love ). The restoration of the print was overseen by Martin Scorsese, who has done so much to bring classic international film to a wider audience.
I Am Cuba (1964)
A gorgeous film that is notorious for its Soviet propaganda, but celebrated for magnificent cinematic technique. Whatever you think of the politics of these four stories of Cubans struggling under the Batista dictatorship, Mikhail Kalatozov’s long, climbing tracking shots are a baffling wonder.
Directed by Women
The Bigamist (1953) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Kino Lorber will present restorations of two of the best films Ida Lupino directed. Both broke new ground: The Bigamist covered sensational subject matter with a sympathetic approach while The Hitch-Hiker was unusually brutal subject matter for a female director at the time.
Between the Lines (1977)
Director Joan Mickin Silver’s (Chilly Scenes of Winter ) joyful and devastating film about a group of journalists working for an underground newspaper in Boston touches on the same takeover anxiety that plagues the industry today, but is for the most part about the lives of these difficult, but intriguing people. Baby faces abound in this flick that came early in the careers of Bruno Kirby, Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, Lindsay Crouse and Jill Eikenberry.
Sonja: The White Swan (2019)
Norwegian filmmaker Anne Sewitsky directs this biopic of skating star Sonja Henie, who was all smiles in her Hollywood movies and apparently the exact opposite off-screen.
The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (1985)
Every description I see of this Japanese new wave musical about a manufactured pop duo compares it to another movie: Rocky Horror Picture Show, A Hard Day’s Night, The Apple. All of these comparisons are apt, but insufficient to appropriately describe this silly, chaotic, and immensely entertaining movie. With zombies, manga, inventive slapstick and wall-to-wall music, there’s always something interesting, and sometimes astounding, happening. While there will be three screenings of the film at varying times of day, this is definitely a Midnight must-see.
DJ NicFit Presents Fantastic Planet (1973)
DJ NicFit returns to SIFF (last year’s production: spinning sounds to Highlander) to parallel the sounds of The Flaming Lips with this beautifully bizarre French animation sci-fi classic.
I’m not a big fan of Billy Wilder’s Cold-War comedy 1,2,3(1961), but I did want to mention the festival screening. It’s a good opportunity for fans of the director and star James Cagney to see the film on the big screen.
May 1, 2019
I’ve been waiting years for the release of Be Natural:The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a documentary about pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché directed by Pamela Green. As an early Kickstarter backer of the film, I’d frequently receive enticing updates about the production, and now that it is here, I can’t wait for the world to rediscover this important figure in film history.
Guy-Blaché is responsible for so much of what cinema is to this day, both from a technical and narrative standpoint. She was not only a pioneering director and producer, but helped cinema to endure by expanding beyond simple documentation and making it a vehicle for storytelling.
As the secretary of Léon Gaumont at what would eventually be called Gaumont Studios, Alice witnessed the birth of cinema. In 1895, she attended a screening of Lumière Brothers films with her employer and marveled at the possibilities of this new medium. Eventually, she found herself behind the camera, where she transformed movies from records of daily life into stories and fantastical visions that would capture audiences far longer because they engaged the imagination.
Given this, why aren’t the history and works of Alice Guy-Blaché taught in film schools, even in France? There is a sequence in Be Natural where a succession of famous directors and actors look blank-faced at the mention of her name. Why do so few prominent filmmakers today know her name? Green digs into that question, which unsurprisingly has much to do with the patriarchy, but also with access to Blaché’s work. There are many works available by Edison, Méliès and the Lumière Brothers ensuring that their legacies are secure. Despite filming hundreds of productions, very few of Alice Guy’s movies are available to the public. To appreciate her work, it obviously must be seen.
Green tells Guy-Blaché’s early story with a slick collage of graphics which more than make up for the lack of footage from the time. She then transitions into a sort of detective story, her own quest to learn as much as she can about the director. There is a bit too much time dedicated here to voicemails and overlays of maps over a car rolling down a highway, but it is interesting to get inside Green’s research process.
In one simultaneously exhilarating and depressing sequence, one of Guy-Blaché’s American relatives shares an astonishing stash of items belonging to the director. It’s an amazing treasure trove of history, but he gives it up to Green without a second thought, because he tells her no one else cares about it. While this may be debatable, there’s no denying the fact that Green was the first person to make the effort to contact him.
I was most fascinated by the second half of the film, which goes into more detail about the films Guy-Blaché made. She is responsible for the first film with an all-black cast, A Fool and His Money (1912), in addition to innovating with new concepts like double exposure, split screen, special effects and sound. In the days before censor boards formed to police content, she dove into content that would soon be deemed too scandalous for the screen: raunchy stories, randy men, and the frank portrayal of a pregnant woman. She captured life as she saw it.
Guy-Blaché worked hard to preserve her own legacy when her film career faded. As late as 1939 she was having films incorrectly credited to Gaumont director Louis Feuillade put back under her name. She spent her later life tangling with the challenges of finding her films and getting her memoirs published, the latter of which finally happened eight years after her death in 1968.
In modern times, there has still been resistance to reviving and restoring the work of Guy-Blaché. Even in her native France there are those who question the profitability of preserving her work, a crass refusal to acknowledge the historic importance of doing so.
In the film, writer Nicole-Lise Bernheim put it best: “Here is a woman who helped invent cinema, and there is a silence around her. It’s absolutely intolerable and even stupid that we can’t see these films.” Hopefully Green’s documentary will help to change that. I believe it has the power to do so.
Thanks to SIFF for providing access to the film for review. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché will play at SIFF Film Center May 3-5.