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 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
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
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
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-Pathé 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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