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The advent of sound brought technical

  The advent of sound brought technical as well as artistic challenges to all makers of nonfiction films. Production costs rose as did the r...


The advent of sound brought technical as well as artistic challenges to all makers of nonfiction films. Production costs rose as did the risk of not filling movie theaters. The Johnsons kept going, recycling their African safari act with sound effects and new attractions - a phonograph for pygmies to dance to and stalking gorillas in the Congo for Congorilla (1932), and flying into the bush with two Sikorsky planes specially adapted to their needs for Baboona (1935). Paramount sponsored Admiral Byrd’s 1928-30 and 1934 expeditions to Antarctica, making an 80 minute movie of the first which won an Academy Award, With Byrd At The South Pole, The Story of Little America (1930). The film ends with a (presumably) restaged version of Byrd’s flight over the Pole complete with racy narration: “easy on the stick, old scout! ” Michael Balcon at Gaumont British came to the rescue of Flaherty, who had made no major film since Moana, and backed Man of Aran (1934),

 shot on a windswept island off the Irish coast. A music track and supercharged commentary were the first response of nonfiction filmmakers to sound. But sound came to the movies at an inauspicious time, with economic recession in the United States, the rise of the Nazi party in Germany bringing Hitler to power in January 1933, and worldwide efforts by the Comintern under Stalin to subvert democracy. It is not surprising that the 1930s are best known for governmentfunded documentaries under the leadership of John Grierson in Britain and Pare Lorentz in America. A. John Grierson and the British Documentary Movement On a Rockefeller Fellowship in America after World War I, Grierson became a convert to film as a medium for public education. From 1927, when he became a film consultant at the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), he campaigned tirelessly for the British government to support what at first he called the “Natural cinema,” and the “cinema of public affairs.”

 “For we have to build on the actual. ... The medium itself insists on the actual,” he wrote. The EMB gave him limited backing. Grierson formed a small unit of filmmakers who began using the term “documentary” to describe their approach to nonfiction film. They formed a kind of film collective, managed by Grierson and funded by a parsimonious British Treasury. Flaherty joined them briefly. Other institutions commissioned similar films, often with men from Grierson’s unit. The Shell Oil Company was impressed enough to start its own film unit. In 1933 the EMB was closed down and Grierson, now a government films officer, moved with his unit to the General Post Office (GPO) where for the first time they acquired sound equipment. In 1937 he suddenly resigned and went on to help found the National Film Board of Canada, becoming its first Commissioner. Grierson’s energy and the enthusiasm of his followers resulted in a quantity of films, which are noteworthy for their experiments in the documentary form. Among the best known are Drifters (1929), directed by Grierson himself, a silent film about Britain’s 12 fishing industry; Industrial Britain (1933), which included shots of potters taken by Flaherty; The Song of Ceylon (1935), by Basil Wright, commissioned by the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, which won critical praise for the beauty of its scenes of the people and places of the island (now Sri Lanka). In one section, English voices are laid over a montage of business activities, some indigenous and some industrial, creating a sound image of the commercial importance of Ceylon to the British Empire. Also well known are Housing Problems (1935), by Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, commissioned by the Gas Light and Coke Company, in which men and women from London’s slums speak directly into the camera about their battle with rats, vermin, and decaying buildings; and the best known of all, Night Mail (1936), by Basil Wright and Harry Watt, a GPO film with music by Benjamin Britten and a script by W.H. Auden about the mail train that ran every night from London to Scotland picking up, sorting, and distributing mail on its way. Sound of the train’s wheels running on the rail track is laid behind scenes of mail workers shot in a studio. Dialogue is added. Auden’s script at one point becomes a rhythmic verse matching the pace of the train. In Britain, scholarly opinion is mixed on Grierson’s management of the documentary movement he initiated. After he left, the movement lost its sense of purpose and split up. With some exceptions, its films were not distributed commercially and made little impact on the public. As Grierson well knew, the British film industry exercised de facto political censorship over itself. In 1937, its head, Lord Tyrrell, one of Britain’s top experts in cultural propaganda, made a telling comment. He was speaking to the industry’s leaders: “We may take pride,” he said, “in observing that there is not a single film showing in London today which deals with any of the burning questions of the day” (cited in Pronay and Spring, 1982, 122) Grierson’s program of public education, like the contemporary radio broadcasts of the BBC, turned out to be as anemic as the British government’s response to the growing threat from Hitler’s Germany. B. Pare Lorentz and U. S. Government Documentaries Different agencies within the American government had been producing motion pictures for training and public information purposes since the first decade of the century. By 1935 scores of these were in use, with 22 federal agencies involved. Most were short films and not distributed commercially. A 1912 film, for example, The Making of An American, was designed to train immigrant workers in industrial safety practices. Behind the Scenes in the Machine Age, produced by the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, appeared in 1936. Pare Lorentz’s background was in film criticism and the arts, not filmmaking. An admirer of Franklin Roosevelt, he wanted to capture the spirit of the New Deal in a film. Unable to find backers, he turned his idea into a book, The Roosevelt Year: 1933, published in 1934. He next proposed a film about the dust bowl. Rexford Guy Tugwell, head of the Resettlement Administration, later the Farm Security Administration, was looking for someone to make a film on this very subject. It would complement the work of the documentary still photographers, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn among them, hired by the same agency. Lorentz became Tugwell’s man. The outcome was The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936), the first American government sponsored documentary film designed for the general movie-going public. Major distributors 13 refused to handle the film, but through Lorentz’s contacts and with the efforts of government information officers, it gradually reached many hundreds of movie theaters, especially in the Midwest. Paramount Pictures, however, agreed to distribute Lorentz’s next film, The River (1937), about the Mississippi River, which was widely screened throughout the country. In 1938 President Roosevelt created the U.S. Film Service by executive order, with Lorentz as its director, which spurred activity on a number of film projects, one of them with Flaherty, The Land (1942), which was not released. But over the next two years congressional opposition to the Film Service grew to the point where Roosevelt, occupied with mounting international concerns, allowed it to disappear. Lorentz’s approach to the documentary film was very different from Grierson’s. He chose striking images to symbolize epic themes: what man’s initiative and greed did to the land (in Plow); how visionary projects are called for to tame the mighty forces of nature (in The River). Music by Virgil Thomson and a commentary that sounded in places like a poem in free verse, gave these films a rhetorical style unlike any other documentaries of the time. Government-sponsored films of the kind produced by Grierson and Lorentz could not compete with fictional entertainment. During the sound era, the only documentary form that could be seen on a regular basis by the general public was the newsreel. But the newsreels produced by the Hollywood studios did not set out to challenge their audiences. An exception was the March of Timel. Begun in 1935 by Roy Larsen and Louis de Rochemont as a film version of the radio program Larsen had introduced in 1931, March of Time quickly established itself as a new form of hard hitting “pictorial journalism,” as the two men called it. Its style soon became famous. Participants reenacted events and actors impersonated statesmen and celebrities, a practice Henry Luce, the owner of Time, 

defended as “fakery in allegiance to the truth.” The commentary, spoken by Westbrook Van Voorhis, was distinctive, urgent, and melodious, blending into short headline-like bridging texts backed by strong music. Issues appeared every month, at first with several topics and then settling into a single topic per issue. March of Time was dynamic, opinionated, exciting to watch and listen to, and popular. By 1937 it was being seen by some 24 million moviegoers each month in about 10,000 American movie theaters. Its British version was admired by Grierson’s followers, some of whom worked for it. In 1942 March of Time’s distribution arrangement with RKO came to an end and RKO-Path√© began production of This is America, a rival but less controversial series that ran until 1951. Its attempt to portray the life and needs of home town America during the war years and their aftermath lacked the drama of March of Time but provided, nonetheless, valid coverage of domestic issues. They were well made but they often fell into the preaching style of Willard van Dyke’s and Ralph Steiner’s The City (1939), a film sponsored by the American Institute of City Planners.

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