Obscure Artists Alice Guy-Blaché And Tom Lehrer Get Their Due In 2 New DVDs | WYPR

Obscure Artists Alice Guy-Blaché And Tom Lehrer Get Their Due In 2 New DVDs

Sep 6, 2019
Originally published on September 10, 2019 1:23 pm
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli sometimes grumbles that there's too much TV and too little time, yet he continues to hunt for obscure but intriguing fare wherever he can find it. Today he reviews two recently released DVD about entertainment and entertainers from long ago, one featuring a singing satirist from the '60s, the other profiling a long-forgotten female filmmaker from the silent era. Both are available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Here's David.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In my college class on the early history of film, I spend lots of time showing the pioneering early movie shorts of Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers and George Melies. But I didn't know anything about Alice Guy-Blache, who wrote, directed and produced hundreds of similarly groundbreaking films at about the same time - now I do.

Similarly, in one of my TV history classes, I teach about the mid-'60s political satire series "That Was The Week That Was" and that show's brilliant composer of sarcastic, topical songs, Tom Lehrer. But I had never seen a full-length concert from that same period in which Lehrer sang and played his own compositions - now I have. And both of these boutique items have given me more pleasure than most of the mainstream TV I've been watching all summer.

"Be Natural: The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blache" is directed, edited produced and co-written by Pamela Green. She approaches her subject like a detective story or like an episode of the podcast "Serial," where her reporting about the story is part of the story she tells. As each nugget of information about the forgotten silent filmmaker leads to another, "Be Natural" shows, in very visual and sometimes playful or dramatic terms, how Green put together the various puzzle pieces. And the pieces are fascinating.

The young Alice Guy was in attendance in 1895 when the Lumiere brothers presented their short, one-scene movie "Exiting The Factory," the first exhibition of a motion picture film. So she was present to witness the very birth of cinema and quickly began making movies of her own. And this documentary's title, "Be Natural," refers to the sign Guy-Blache hung in her makeshift movie studios in France and later in New Jersey as an ever-present instruction and reminder to her silent movie actors.

Green, in compiling her film, interviews many current Hollywood players who, like me, express astonishment at not knowing this woman's biography, much less her films. And Green threads it altogether by relying on one modern female filmmaker, Jodie Foster, to serve as narrator. It's a lovely link to past and present with one woman director saluting another.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHE")

JODIE FOSTER: Alice, inspired by the Lumiere screening, thinks something better can be done than documenting daily life. Why not use film to tell stories? Alice Guy writes, directs and produces one of the first narrative films ever made. Alice is one of the first to utilize many film techniques, including close-ups, handed-tinted color and synchronized sound.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing, unintelligible).

FOSTER: Guy resigns from Gaumont to accompany her husband to the U.S. Alice returns to filmmaking and founds her own company. She directs and manages all aspects of production. Following a two-decade career in two countries comprised a thousand films that she wrote, directed or produced...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing, unintelligible)

FOSTER: ...Alice disappears from filmmaking.

BIANCULLI: My only complaint about "Be Natural" is that it doesn't include more complete examples of Guy-Blache's surviving film work. But incompleteness is not a complaint I can level at the other recently released DVD, "Tom Lehrer: Live In Copenhagen." This DVD is nothing but full-length works, more than a dozen songs written and performed by Tom Lehrer before an attentive audience in a tiny Danish TV studio.

Lehrer, who provided "That Was The Week That Was" with such wildly funny songs as "Pollution," "The Vatican Rag" and "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park," released popular record albums with all those songs but never appeared on that show himself. But on Live In Copenhagen, Lehrer plays piano, sings and offers a running commentary.

On one of his famous songs, "The Elements," in which he borrows a familiar melody from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to accompany a list of the elements in the periodic table, he even provides an update to his material.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOM LEHRER: LIVE IN COPENHAGEN")

TOM LEHRER: Here's a song I always get requests for, but I can't understand, for the life of me, why. It's simply the names of the chemical elements set to a Gilbert and Sullivan tune. I think the only reason I do it is to see if I still can. I'll try.

(Singing) There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium and nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium and iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium, europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium, and lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium and gold, protactinium and indium and gallium and iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium. There's yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium and boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium. There's strontium and silicon and silver and samarium. And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium, and barium.

I left out one, actually. A new one was discovered since the song was written. It's called lawrencium. So those of you who are taking notes can write it down in your programs.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: And as an added bonus, at the end of that same song, Lehrer tops his new update by providing an older one, a sort of brief musical prequel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOM LEHRER: LIVE IN COPENHAGEN")

LEHRER: Thank you. You may be interested to know that there is an older, much earlier version of that song, which is due to Aristotle, and which goes like this. (Singing) There's earth and air and fire and water.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: To a Tom Lehrer fan - and I am one - hearing these long-buried jams and alternate lyrics is like listening to one of the new multi-CD remastered releases of vintage Beatle albums. After more than 50 years, we're getting to enjoy newly released treasures from the vaults. And Lehrer was recording the same time as the Beatles. In Tom Lehrer's case, this concert was an absolute rarity for the reclusive mathematician who retired from performing after only a few years. And in the "Be Natural" DVD, the treasures unearthed are more than a century old.

Both of these artists, the forgotten Alice Guy-Blache and the reclusive Tom Lehrer, would themselves make wonderful subjects for scripted movie biographies. In the meantime, we have a rich sampler of their respective works, and that's a great start.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "Be Natural: The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blache" and "Tom Lehrer: Live In Copenhagen."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOM LEHRER: LIVE IN COPENHAGEN")

LEHRER: As inspired by our great American scientists such as Dr. Wernher von Braun.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

LEHRER: (Singing) Gather 'round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun, a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience. Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown. Nazi schmazi (ph), says Wernher von Braun. Don't say that he's hypocritical. Say, rather, that he's apolitical. Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?

(LAUGHTER)

LEHRER: (Singing) That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.

DAVIES: On Monday's show, our guest will be journalist Stephen Kinzer, whose new book "Poisoner In Chief" is about the man behind the CIA's secret experiments with LSD and other drugs in the '50s and '60s in search of a drug that could be used to control the minds of enemies. Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey were introduced to LSD through the program, but other unwitting subjects in prisons and detention centers were subjected to psychological torture. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S BOOM TIC BOOM'S "WELCOME HOTEL")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S BOOM TIC BOOM'S "WELCOME HOTEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.