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On the Margin: Documentary and Hollywood

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Defenders of documentary in the 1930s frequently accused Hollywood of indifference or hostility to the values documentary filmmakers espoused. For many critics on the Left, this was axiomatic; the commercial film industry, owned by corporate interests and a purveyor of fantasy and escape, could not be expected to confront social realities or illuminate a path to social reform. The struggle of documentarists to produce and distribute their work in the face of Hollywood’s massive domination of resources and theatrical markets lent credibility and a degree of moral fervor to the charge. Yet the political compass of the film industry was broader than the concerns of its financial backers; as a social institution, Hollywood was itself the site of conflicting interests and motives. Talent groups, for example, sought to influence studio practices in concentrated, if circumscribed, ways, and an ambition to earn prestige or a favorable hearing in Washington could counter the reflexive caution of studio executives. Bosley Crowther reported in 1940 that conservatives in Hollywood “bridled fiercely” at the very mention of documentary, a word that spelled “anathema, revolution or, at best, presumptuous ‘art,’” but that the influence of documentary nevertheless was evident to a remarkable degree in recent Hollywood productions. 48 Indeed, it can be argued that the greatest threat posed to social documentarists by the studio system was less indifference or hostility than Hollywood’s capacity to absorb the marketable aspects of this cinema in ways that cut documentary filmmakers out of the deal. Perhaps what these filmmakers most had to fear, then, was an embrace by Hollywood on its own terms.

Interaction between studio executives and documentary filmmakers, it is useful to keep in mind, dates back at least as far as the work of Robert Flaherty in the 1920s. Financed with money from a French fur company, Revillon Frères, and released in the United States by an independent distributor, Pathé Exchange, NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922) enjoyed sufficient critical and commercial success to inspire Jesse Lasky at Paramount to back Flaherty’s subsequent trip to the South Seas to film MOANA (1926). 49 Lasky also arranged distribution deals for two exotic travelogue features by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack—GRASS, filmed in Turkey and Persia in 1925, and CHANG, shot in Siam in 1927. Over the next few years, the expense of converting studios to sound drove some independent production companies out of business, but those specializing in narrative travelogues were less at risk, since their films could be shot silent, with sound effects, music, and commentary added during postproduction. Works of this kind continued to enjoy studio release on into the 1930s. Paramount, for example, heavily promoted Schoedsack’s RANGO (1931), as well as films of Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s first and second expeditions to the South Pole, WITH BYRD AT THE SOUTH POLE (1930) and LITTLE AMERICA (1935). Fox released H. A. Snow’s THE GREAT WHITE NORTH (1928) and two African adventure films by veteran travelogue filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson, CONGORILLA (1932) and BABOONA (1935). Columbia distributed AFRICA SPEAKS, filmed by the Colorado African Expedition in 1930. Universal produced and distributed IGLOO, modeled   after NANOOK OF THE NORTH, in 1932. B. F. Zeidman’s SAMARANG, a narrative documentary featuring South Seas natives, was distributed by United Artists in 1933. And Frank Buck’s BRING ‘EM BACK ALIVE, shot in the Malaysian jungle for the Van Beuren Corporation, was one of RKO’s most profitable releases in 1932. Over the next few years, Van Beuren continued to supply RKO with exotic travel features, including INDIA SPEAKS (1933), ADVENTURE GIRL (1934), and two Frank Buck sequels, WILD CARGO (1934) and FANG AND CLAW (1935). Hollywood studios, in short, were not averse to marketing exotic documentaries, especially if independent filmmakers were willing to travel to remote settings and bear the risks of location shooting.

Social documentaries, however, raised domestic political issues that exotic travel narratives did not and thus were likely to meet greater resistance from studio executives. Although support for labor-Left organizations grew among workers in Hollywood as the Depression took root, political film work by these groups was at first a marginal, if not at times subterranean, activity. Industry technicians in part staffed the Los Angeles branch of the Film and Photo League, and writers, directors, cinematographers, and editors sympathetic to left-wing causes lent their services to political projects such as THE STRANGE CASE OF TOM MOONEY (1933), a documentary account of the San Francisco labor leader’s seventeen-year incarceration in San Quentin, produced by B-unit director Bryan Foy, or MILLIONS OF US (1936), a tale of labor solidarity filmed by studio workers who sought anonymity out of fear of reprisals from their employers.

As Popular Front strategies shifted attention to anti-fascist causes, film work on the Left increasingly came above ground and gained a broader base of support. In July 1935, Joris Ivens screened his European documentaries in Hollywood, reportedly to great acclaim. 52 The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, formed in 1936, attracted a wide membership, ranging from studio producers, such as Carl Laemmle and Jack Warner, to screenwriters affiliated with the Communist party, such as John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz. For the next three years, the league provided an effective political base for coordinating a cluster of anti-fascist projects, including fund-raising initiatives for documentary films on the fascist threat in Spain and Czechoslovakia. The Motion Picture Democratic Committee, formed in June 1938 to support the California gubernatorial campaign of liberal Democrat Culbert Olson, also drew on industry talent for the production of a campaign film, CALIFORNIA SPEAKS. In the wake of Olson’s election, the group committed itself to civil rights and antifascist causes, and established the Motion Picture Guild to produce ancillary films, with Floyd Crosby named president. 53 And the concurrent success of Pare Lorentz and the U.S. Film Service in gaining studio release of New Deal films augured new era of cooperation between Washington and Hollywood in support of documentary production and distribution.

In the main, however, social-documentary filmmakers were not to benefit from these new alliances. This is attributable in part to the unraveling of Popular Front unity at the close of the decade. A mutual nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union signed in August 1939 fractured Popular Front coalitions, as pro-Soviet Communists abruptly reversed course and argued for nonintervention in the “phony war” in Europe. Liberal members of the Anti-Nazi League and the Motion Picture Democratic Committee openly sought to distance themselves from apologists for the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and an investigation   of alleged Communist subversion in Hollywood, launched by Martin Dies’s House Un-American Activities Committee the year before, gained new momentum. When congressional attacks on the U.S. Film Service mounted in the spring of 1940, the political affiliations of social-documentary filmmakers who had worked for the government were also called into question.

Meanwhile, film markets across the Atlantic closed, nullifying the impact of lost revenues that partisan political filmmaking could engender. Studio executives in greater numbers were hence willing to embrace the Allied cause in Europe, and “public service” at a time of international crisis became a new catchphrase in studio public relations. Following the fall of France in July 1940, producers from various studios formed the Motion Picture Committee Cooperating for the National Defense, under the direction of Darryl F. Zanuck, and offered the Roosevelt administration the assistance of the industry in the production and distribution of government films. Transformed into the War Activities Committee after Pearl Harbor, the group cleared the way for open collaboration between Hollywood and Washington throughout the war years. Thus, even as New Deal documentary production was curtailed by Congress, wartime filmmaking, targeting a foreign foe rather than domestic ailments, was undertaken in a spirit of national consensus.

Modest opportunities opened up for experienced social documentarists: Van Dyke, Lerner, Meyers, and Ferno all were recruited to make films for audiences overseas, first in support of the government’s Good Neighbor policy in Latin America and then as part of a campaign by the Office of War Information (OWI) to present a favorable picture of American life to allies and conquered nations abroad. But prestigious military assignments were awarded to Hollywood directors (notably Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, and John Huston), most of whom had no previous training on documentary films. Moreover, by 1943 the center of government filmmaking had shifted to the West Coast as Hollywood assumed primary responsibility for the production of all domestic films for the OWI. 54 With this shift, much of the rhetoric of the social-documentary movement of the 1930s—with its calls for political commitment and unified action, and testimonies to the power of cinema to vivify and explain social events—was taken up by the commercial film industry. Furthermore, the form and style of social documentaries from the 1930s served as models for many wartime productions, as experiments in narrative construction, vocal commentary, sound effects, and patterns of conceptual and rhythmic editing were absorbed and extended by filmmakers working on documentaries for the first time.

Fiction films, too, bore the stamp of documentary’s impact on studio practices. Here again interaction with Hollywood can be traced back to the popularity of the travel documentary in the 1920s. Critics increasingly praised location cinematography for the enhanced sense of realism it supplied, and travelogue narratives, together with celebrated epic dramas such as THE COVERED WAGON (1923), served to establish new norms of verisimilitude for fiction filmmakers. For example, the industry’s conversion from orthochromatic to panchromatic film stock, which rendered darkened skies and cloud formations with enhanced pictorial clarity and richness, was accelerated by its effective use by Flaherty on MOANA in 1926. 55 The following year, Karl Brown, cinematographer on THE COVERED WAGON and a long-term collaborator with D. W. Griffith, won the support of Lasky to film STARK LOVE, a story rural mountain life, on location in North Carolina with a cast of native mountaineers in supporting parts and an amateur actor and actress as leads. With Robert Flaherty as consultant, MGM shipped a star cast and crew to Tahiti to film WHITE SHADOWS OF THE SOUTH SEAS in 1928, and again (without Flaherty) to Africa for TRADER HORN in 1931, forging a hybrid form out of travelogue footage and conventional Hollywood dramaturgy. In 1933, Cooper and Schoedsack, now under contract to RKO, embarked on their own variant of the jungle picture when they grafted special effects onto the genre with great commercial success in KING KONG.

Social-problem fiction similarly absorbed aspects of documentary form and style. While at Warners in the early 1930s, producer Darryl F. Zanuck, recognizing the potential box-office draw of contemporary political material, pressed for topical, “headline” stories told in a punchy journalistic style. In such films, passages shot in the manner of a documentary “city film” could quickly establish an urban location and set a dynamic pace for the drama to follow. Slavko Vorkapich, an avant-garde filmmaker, studio editor, and anonymous contributor to MILLIONS OF US, gained a reputation in Hollywood as a specialist in transitional montage passages, often constructed from stock footage and indebted to experimental documentary techniques. The climactic ending to King Vidor’s OUR DAILY BREAD (1934), in which water pours through an aqueduct to irrigate the land of a new agrarian collective, likewise draws on a montage aesthetic, anticipating by three years Lorentz’s use of rhythmic editing to evoke the rising power of floodwaters in THE RIVER. 56 When Zanuck undertook an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel THE GRAPES OF WRATH at 20th Century-Fox in 1939, the Farm Security Administration’s documentary photo unit supplied Zanuck and director John Ford with pictures of the dust bowl and the westward migration of uprooted farmers to aid in the visual design of the work. 57 In a similar vein, an image early in Lewis Milestone’s OF MICE AND MEN (1940), adapted from Steinbeck’s novella and play of the same title, replicates a familiar photo by Dorothea Lange, FSA photographer and consultant to Lorentz on THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS. CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY, an antifascist treatise directed by Anatole Litvak for Warner Bros. in 1939 (and screened as the final film in the ADFP retrospective), interpolates newsreel footage and fabricates a documentary style to generate a sense of verisimilitude. By the end of the decade, topical imagery thus circulated through social-problem fiction and documentary photobooks and films.

The widespread impact of The March of Time at its debut in movie theaters in 1935 further blurred any hard and fast distinctions between the separate domains of pictorial journalism, social documentary, and Hollywood fiction. Produced in New York under the corporate sponsorship of Time magazine, with guaranteed distribution (from its fifth issue on) through the auspices of RKO, The March of Time occupied a position in the exhibition program roughly equivalent to commercial newsreels. Yet March of Time issues appeared monthly rather than twice weekly and typically were twenty minutes long, double the running time of conventional newsreels. Like social documentaries, The March of Time interpreted and dramatized controversial political topics—most notably and consistently the rise of fascism abroad—and in 1938 adopted a single-story format that permitted subject matter to be probed in greater depth. Under the supervision of producer Louis de Rochemont, the series also ventured boldly into feature production in 1940 with THE RAMPARTS WE WATCH, a dramatization of the   impact of World War I on a small American city that was shot on location in New London, Connecticut, and mixed newsreel footage with scripted performances by townspeople. Three years later, de Rochemont left The March of Time to join Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox, where he oversaw the production of a feature-length documentary for the U.S. Navy, THE FIGHTING LADY (1944), and then wedded investigative journalism and foreign-espionage fiction in THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), in pursuit of a new “semidocumentary” form.

The war years in particular offered a fertile setting for experiments of this kind as numerous Hollywood producers, directors, writers, and cinematographers were assigned to documentary projects for the first time and borrowed elements of a documentary style for fictional works with wartime themes. Cinematographer James Wong Howe observed in 1943 that documentary coverage of the war had so powerfully shaped notions of pictorial realism for modern viewers that he now favored “natural” compositions and sources of lighting in his images and preferred actors to work without makeup. Furthermore, Howe declared “mechanical movements of the camera” and “shots from impossible angles” taboo on the ground that they violated a contemporary viewer’s sense of filmic realism. 59 The social commitments of documentary filmmakers also occasionally were found compelling by wartime initiates to the genre. In 1946, recounting his experiences as a documentary producer for the OWI during the war, screenwriter Philip Dunne noted a trend in Hollywood “toward a more frequent selection of factual American themes, toward the theory that motion pictures should not only entertain and make money, but should also give expression to the American and democratic ideals, to ‘the truth’ as we, the citizens of democracy, accept it.” The exposure of Hollywood filmmakers to the tenets and common practices of documentary production, Dunne predicted, would profoundly shape the course of the motion-picture industry in the postwar period.

Only a few documentary filmmakers, however, found a new home in Hollywood. Indeed, for surviving filmmakers on the Left, the motion-picture industry in the era of cold-war politics and red-baiting was an even less hospitable environment than the Hollywood of the 1930s. 61 Nor did all documentary filmmakers aspire to acceptance in Hollywood: documentary stylistics, after all, could be diluted in a hybrid aesthetic concocted for mass commercial appeal, and the documentary filmmaker stripped of his or her power to mount a fundamental social critique. Yet, if we take as a measure not the trajectory of individual careers but rather the norms of institutional practice, the impact of thirties documentary looms large. Documentary films and photobooks were central to new representations of social reality—the way the world looked, sounded, seemed to hang together—serving as a benchmark against which verisimilar fictions were measured. Under the pressure of political events, as well as economic gain, Hollywood filmmakers would find attractive a style that seemed to bear a privileged relation to contemporary social life and would embrace the notion of the public interest that cultural discourses on documentary in the 1930s actively fostered. Moreover, Hollywood would mount an argument for the motion-picture theater—in lieu of the union hall, church basement, classroom, or chambers of Congress—as a logical site for civic enlightenment as well as popular amusement, with the neighborhood theater as the new American town hall.

The New York World’s Fair of 1939 suggested other possibilities. The address of President Roosevelt at the opening ceremonies of a fair devoted to the World of Tomorrow occasioned the first live televised news event in the United States, as the new optical technology of the Radio Corporation of America was put into operation. A few months later Pare Lorentz, complaining of Hollywood’s myopic disinclination to train new filmmakers or furnish funds for documentary work and anticipating a day when seed money from schools, foundations, and the federal government might render documentary production self-sufficient, added a deadpan afterthought: “Or, of course, perhaps by then we’ll have television and won’t have to worry about movies at all.” 62 In a few short years, a system for televisual coverage of current events indeed would flourish under conditions of profitable corporate sponsorship. In the process, the attention devoted to motion pictures as the central instrument of mass enlightenment and propaganda would be displaced, and a system of corporate networks, emerging from television’s direct antecedent, radio, would redefine production and distribution channels and transplant the site of reception of pictures of the world from the social space of the theater to the home. Broadcast journalism absorbed the topical register of documentary practices, but not those notions of artistic autonomy and expression that accompanied documentary theory and practice throughout the 1930s. With its emphasis on the spontaneous and instantaneous—the uncontrolled performance, the unrehearsed interview, the event caught "live"—television eventually altered a sense of social reality for a new generation of documentary filmmakers who, armed with new lightweight camera-microphone equipment, cast off many of the conventions of the 1930s and 1940s in pursuit of a new documentary style.

Yet much of the conceptual field first staked out by documentarists in the 1930s has remained pertinent to debates throughout the intervening decades. If broadcast journalism has emerged as the dominant mode for producing and delivering nonfiction images and sounds to a mass audience, documentary cinema (and now video) sustains work at the margins of this media system, sometimes penetrating it to inflect mainstream practices. Links between avantgarde and documentary filmmaking, articulated anew with the emergence of an “underground” cinema in the 1960s, have endured in the experimental work of film and video artists who engage unfamiliar or disturbing topics and rework familiar forms, sometimes mixing conventions of fiction and nonfiction. The evolution of political filmmaking in the 1930s from the radical work of the Film and Photo League to the Popular Front initiatives of Frontier finds an echo in the recent histories of newsreel collectives in New York and San Francisco, which emerged out of a culture of political agitation in the late 1960s, splintered under the pressure of competing factions in the 1970s, and have re-formed to cater to a liberal-Left educational film and video market in recent years. State, philanthropic, and corporate sponsorship for documentary films persists as well, reconfigured in a constellation of government agencies, foundations, and social-interest groups that underwrite, often in concert, documentary projects. An impulse to inform, enlighten, persuade, or provoke, to make visible the unseen or audible the unheard, still propels much work in this field. Moreover, patterns of institutional support and constraint, transformed by new technologies and the corporate structures that promote and adopt them, remain central to any effort to Page 386  assess the social impact of documentary within histories of cinema more broadly viewed. From this perspective, the legacy of thirties documentary consists not simply of a body of films serving as historical artifacts of the Depression decade but of a set of concepts and questions about the possible forms and functions of documentary—indeed, the very name for one way of thinking about film images and sounds and the worlds to which we imagine they refer.

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