Silent Documentaries after World War I

Silent Documentaries after World War I
Ponting and Curtis were pioneers of the modern documentary. The lecture format
they perfected became the most successful model for presenting documentary material
during the silent film era. Brownlow (1978) called it an “alternative cinema.” To avoid
using the term lecture, Burton Holmes, one of the earliest in the business, coined the
word travelogue. He filled halls of 2,000 people at a time, paying $2 a head. Lowell
Thomas gained a world reputation for his presentations on Palestine and Lawrence of
Arabia, filmed during the war. He performed at London’s Covent Garden and Albert
Hall, introduced by the band of the Welsh Guards. In the sound era his voice alone could
sell a picture. In 1922 and in 1924, Captain Noel, an experienced traveler in Tibet, was
hired by the Royal Geographical Society to film British attempts to climb Everest. With
the first, Climbing Mount Everest, Noel booked the same hall as Ponting had used, until
the movie trade realized the film would make money and put it on commercial release.
The second, The Epic of Everest, was a triumph of high mountain photography.

member of the expedition caught a tantalizing glimpse of the climbers George Mallory
and Andrew Irvine moving upward some distance from the summit. The two were never
seen alive again. The film was seen by over a million people in Britain and North
America (Brownlow 1978).
World War I, however, had crippled the French and weakened the British film
industries leaving Hollywood as the dominant film producing center in the world. To win
commercial distribution in America feature length nonfiction films had to appeal to
movie theater audiences looking for entertainment.
Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) is often cited as being the first to
succeed in this way, though the claim is questionable. One the first 25 films listed by the
Library of Congress as part of the national heritage, Nanook of the North is universally
recognized as a film classic. But its documentary claims are less certain. While it appears
to depict the actual life of a real family of Inuit Eskimos living in the Hudson Bay region
in northern Canada, it was a fictionalized version of a life that Flaherty imagined had
existed many years earlier. The names Flaherty gave to his characters were film names
only, the activities they took part in were staged, and nothing at all is learned from the
film about existing conditions for the people among whom Flaherty lived when he was
making the film.
Flaherty began his career in Canada exploring for iron ore deposits in the north
for his employer, Sir William MacKenzie. He had grown up with a still camera which he
used for portraits and to document geological formations he encountered. For an
expedition he planned to Hudson Bay in 1913 he added a motion picture camera to his
equipment, filming Inuit activities on Baffin Island. He showed this film, together with
photographs and Inuit drawings, in lectures he gave in Toronto in April 1915. Unable to
sell his film, Flaherty returned to Hudson Bay for further prospecting and more filming.
As Flaherty later described it, all of this documentary material, except a work print, went
up in smoke when the negative he was preparing to send to New York caught fire.
The year 1921 found Flaherty without a job and without career prospects.
Lecturing with his surviving work print had proved unrewarding. His fortune turned
when the French fur company Revillon Frères agreed to finance a new trip to Hudson
Bay to make a new film that would help promote the fur company.
The outcome of this project, which took Flaherty a year, was Nanook of the
North. At first Flaherty had difficulty finding a distributor, but eventually Pathé took it
on. The film was a success, establishing Flaherty’s reputation world-wide. In a series of
beautifully executed vignettes, he portrayed what purported to be typical activities in the
annual life of the Inuit - fishing, hunting, trapping, sledding, building igloos. Its intimate
images of Nanook and his pretended family acquired a kind of mythic status wherever the
film was shown.
On the strength of Nanook of the North, Jesse Lasky of Famous Players–
Paramount commissioned Flaherty to make another film in the South Seas. The result,
Moana (1926), was a beautiful film but not a commercial success. Flaherty was never
able to emulate the triumph of Nanook of the North.
No greater contrast to Flaherty could be imagined that the team of Martin and Osa
Johnson, extroverts whose films documented their own escapades in photographing
aboriginal people and wild animals in remote locations. Their first sortie was in 1917 to
the South Pacific islands of the New Hebrides to film cannibals. Two years later they
returned to the same island where, by means of a hand-cranked projector and a makeshift
screen, they showed the cannibal chief and his people the pictures they had taken on their
first visit, filming their reactions. The Johnsons made their way back to America via
Borneo, Ceylon and southern India, filming wherever they got the chance. The result was
a quantity of material from which several feature length films and 10-minute shorts (one
reelers) were made.
Though Martin Johnson prepared lecture versions of his films, he became hugely
popular through their commercial release, mostly after he and Osa had moved their
operations to Africa. Most of the Johnsons’ early titles are no longer available, but a list
at the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum gives an idea of their output: 1918, Among
the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific and Cannibals of the South Seas/Captured by
Cannibals; 1919, ten one reelers titled On the Borderland of Civilization; 1921, Jungle
Adventures; 1922, Head Hunters of the South Seas, East of Suez, and 17 one reelers titled
Martin Johnson’s Voyages; 

1923, Trailing African Wild Animals; 1928, Simba (which is
available in VHS format).
Critics have been hard on the Johnsons; their attitudes jar on modern viewers. But
as Brownlow (1978) has pointed out, they made an impact on audiences as well as on
professional filmmakers. Flaherty was an early admirer, seeing in Johnson’s early films a
model for what he wanted to do.
In their famous King Kong (1933) Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack
satirized documentary filmmakers like the Johnsons and their imitators. But they were
also thinking of themselves. Both men were adventurers, Cooper had been an aviator and
Schoedsack a combat photographer in World War I. Joined by a woman, Marguerite
Harrison, who invested money in the project and appeared in the finished film, the three
made Grass (1925), a record of the annual migration of 50,000 Bakhtiari tribes people
across the rivers and snow-covered mountain ranges of western Iran to their summer
pasture lands. The film’s images of sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, men, women and
children, taken on this hazardous journey, are among the most dramatic visual documents
ever made. Paramount released the film, and commissioned another, Chang (1927), a
drama with tigers and elephants shot in Siam (Thailand).
The non-fiction films of the silent era mark a period of adventure with the
documentary form itself. Two notable experiments in this form were Walter Ruttmann’s
feature length Berlin: die Symphonie einer Grosstadt (Berlin: The Symphony of a Great
City) (1927), a dawn to dusk portrait of Berlin before the advent of the Nazis, and the
short Rain (1929) by the Dutch film maker Joris Ivens, a study of the city and people of
Amsterdam caught in a rain shower. Ruttmann’s film now has great historical interest for
its visual documentation of the life of Berlin before its destruction in World War II. Both
films stand on their own without need of titles or a lecturer’s argument, illustrating Ivens’
comment that documentary is the poetry and fiction the prose of film making.  

Media center total solutions of content and raw wiki information source - The hulk library of knowledge world wide - sound library - Books library

bitcoin , reads , books , cord blood , attorneys , lawyers , domestic , local services , offshore companies , offshore lawyers , beyond the seas business , laws , enactions , jungle , ameriican eagle , america business , gas, gasoline , petrol , burn , films , new movies , stars , hollywood , stationary , offices , federal law , states divisions

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form