Moana and the Pacific: Chapter 2

It was wholly in Hollywood's character for the major distributing company that had spurned the first offer of Nanook to offer Flaherty the chance to produce his next film. A major reason was that Jesse L. Lasky, production head of Famous-Players-Lasky, the studio end of Paramount Pictures Corporation, was fascinated by exploration. [1] In his memoirs published in 1957, Lasky attributed this fascination to boyhood fishing trips with his father in Maine, later camping trips with Zane Grey, the writer of popular Westerns, and pack-trip vacations with hired guides in Alaska, the High Sierras, the Canadian Northwest, and down the Columbia River.

A second reason may have been that Paramount, like other American distributors, was finding that the overseas markets for its films were becoming very remunerative (Griffith 1953). Lasky may have realized that the picture Paramount had ignominiously rejected the year before was now doing good business in Europe and that it had cost peanuts to produce compared to the run-of-the-mill programme pictures coming from the studio. Lasky saw in Robert Flaherty an unusual filmmaker, who should receive more respect than the hack directors at his studio.

A third reason, suggested by John Grierson [2], was the influence exercised by twenty-nine-year-old Walter Wanger, then working as a producer under Lasky. "Wasn't Wanger somewhat responsible for those special excursions into realistic cinema by Lasky," writes Grierson. "About that period Wanger read a piece of mine, brought me in to see Lasky, exposed the financial returns of Paramount to me and invited me to make an analysis of the bearing of realism on box-office returns. It brought the first analysis of the difference between 'Western' and 'Epic.' Wanger was sort of impor-

52 Robert J. Flaherty

tant in all this. He was really interested in the new wave of criticism. He was the only intellectual they had on the Lasky level."

It is not clear whether Lasky went to see Flaherty, or whether he summoned Flaherty to come to him. It is known, however, that Lasky either wrote or spoke words to the effect of "I want you to go off somewhere and make me another Nanook. Go where you will, do what you like-I'll foot the bills. The world's your oyster." [3]

Flaherty, who presumably still considered himself an explorer rather than a professional filmmaker, must have been shaken. "I was elated," he wrote. When approached by Lasky during the winter of 1923, he was at his home in New Canaan working on writing. He promptly contacted Frederick O'Brien, whose book White Shadows in the South Seas had been a popular success in the United States since its publication in 1919. They arranged to meet for dinner at Flaherty's favorite haunt, the Coffee House Club near Times Square, to which representatives of Revillon Frères had introduced him. O'Brien brought George Biddle, a wealthy young man who had recently been painting in Tahiti, and it is said that Grace Moore, who was just beginning to sing at the Metropolitan, and Mrs. Flaherty were also present.

Before the evening was over, Flaherty had been convinced that, having spent so many years in the frozen North, the obvious and most sensible thing to do was to go to the opposite extreme. "You'll go south, to Polynesia," O'Brien is alleged to have said. "Study the islanders. You'll make a beautiful film" (Taylor 1949). Biddle and Grace Moore, both of whom had visited Tahiti, agreed with O'Brien. Samoa, the only place where a true Polynesian culture survived, was the location they recommended. "Go," said O'Brien, "to the village of Safune on the island of Savaii and you may still be in time to catch some of that beautiful old culture before it passes entirely away." [4]

Flaherty had made up his mind that at all costs his wife should accompany him on his next expedition. "But what about the children?" Mrs. Flaherty asked. They were six, four, and two years of age. Flaherty at once declared that they must go, too, to be schooled in the ways of nature. The decision that this time Frances Flaherty would go with her husband is important. For nearly ten years she had been living in different homes while Flaherty was in the North, first for Mackenzie and then making his film. She had been influential in the discussions on the editing of Nanook but had never before played an active role in filmmaking itself. She would become a gifted still photographer as well as a close collaborator on all future Flaherty films.

The expedition to Polynesia consisted of Flaherty, his wife, their three small daughters with a red-haired Irish nursemaid, and Flaherty's younger brother David, who was to be production manager. When called to join the

Moana and the Pacific 53

expedition, he was working in a coal and wood office in Port Arthur; he recalled that it was "the coldest winter on record." He first heard of the venture in a telegram that read approximately: "All arranged with Famous-Players-Lasky make film in South Seas STOP Sailing San Francisco for Samoa April 24th come earliest possible STOP Salary two hundred dollars a month-Bob."

"It changed the course of mv life," savs David Flaherty modestly, meaning that he was associated with making his brothers, films for many years and became a good filmmaker in his own right. "Within two weeks," he adds, "I had joined Bob and his family in New Canaan and within weeks we were on the bosom of the broad Pacific, far from the snow and ice, coal-dust and clinkers." [5]

Flaherty took an electric generating plant, developing outfit, and 35-mm projector. But he also took a Prizma color camera. It was the Prizma camera that filmed the Kinemacolour film The Delhi Durbar in India.[6] He took two Akeley No. 5 motion picture cameras with a gyro-head tripod such as he had used on Nanook, and several feature films for showing to the movie-unconscious Polynesians. Legend has it that a piano was part of the equipment, but fact confirms only the presence of the famous violin.

Before they set off, the Flahertys were given a dinner in New York at the old Waldorf-Astoria. Eminent and influential personages from big business, Washington, the arts, sciences, and various powerful American foundations were present. All, however belatedly, hailed the discovery of this new kind of filmmaking Flaherty had demonstrated in Nanook. Speeches proclaimed this new use of the motion picture as a means to unite the world's peoples to create better understanding and serve the cause of international relations. The Flahertys departed with the unanimous blessings of this distinguished gathering of American culture. [7] This dinner was to be of some importance two years later when Flaherty ran into problems over the distribution of his picture.

They sailed from San Francisco in April 1923 in an old steamer, the Sonoma, bound for Tahiti. Frances Flaherty recalls:

We were making a film for Hollywood, and we were very conscious of the fact. Bob had no illusions whatever as to what Paramount expected of him in the way of thrills and sensations for the box-office. All the way down on the steamer we talked about it, about the seamonsters there doubtless were down there around those islands; doubtless the Samoans had encounters, lights for their lives, with them. And when one day a report came in from another ship at sea that one of these monsters had been sighted-a giant octopus, its tentacles spread over the waters from a body the size of a whale-we were sure we were on the right track. [8]

54 Robert J. Flaherty

Before he left New York, Flaherty had been given a glowing description of Savaii by Frederick O'Brien. It was the last remaining island uncontaminated by modem civilization; its inhabitants, "an almost Grecian race," were as superlatively beautiful as the landscape; and in the village of Safune there lived one white man who knew the Polynesians and their language and would therefore be invaluable. To this man, a German trader named Felix David, O'Brien gave Flaherty a letter of introduction, which was to have strange and unexpected results.

O'Brien's glamorous description of Samoa was somewhat exaggerated. A more realistic account of both islands-Savaii and Upolu-at that time may be found in Newton A. Rowe's enthralling book, Samoa Under the Sailing Gods (1930). Rowe held the post of agricultural or district inspector and spent the years 1922-26 on the two islands. In his book, he not only recounts with sympathy and understanding his experiences with the native population, but he also provides a documented indictment of the administration under the mandate of the New Zealand government, to which I later refer. He describes the island to which the Flahertys were going as follows:

Savaii-said to be the cradle of the Polynesian race-the largest and most westerly of the Samoa group, is split up into separate parts, or natural fertile divisions, by three lava-fields which have flowed down fan-wise to the coast from the central wooded masses of the volcanic interior, which attain a height of 6000 feet. It is about 170 miles in circumference.... Between the lava-fields range long and fertile districts; and along their shores lie the bulk of the native villages, for there are but few settlements inland. Above the villages rise or straggle native coconut-plantations, penetrating the forest, from which are produced copra. In every village of any consequence, numerically, is a store or trading-station....The island is encircled by a fairly good road, which stops short, however, of the lava-fields. (Rowe 1930:147)

Both Flaherty and his wife wrote colorful descriptions of the two years they and their family spent preparing for and making the successor to Nanook. The account that follows has been put together from the writings of both of them, some written at the time and some in later years, together with subsequent notes supplied by David Flaherty.

They arrived at Pago-Pago in American Samoa in early May and then took the schooner to Apia, the main town on the island of Upolu, which with the nearby island of Savaii had been mandated by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the New Zealand government. After spending two or three weeks outfitting in Apia, they took another schooner to their final destination on Savaii, the village of Safune. Flaherty described the voyage:

Moana and the Pacific 55

I don't think that either of us will ever forget the morning we stood off the reefs at Safune waiting to get in. All that long we'd been crossing the sea, the boat rocking and rolling. We had to keep awake and watch the children from rolling like logs into the sea. All we could hear was the thunder of the sea-of big seas smashing.

We waited there a long time before at last daybreak came. I've never seen such big seas in my life. They were higher-and we reared higher-than the boat was long, How in the world we could get a passage through the reef I couldn't imagine because it looked like a solid wall of rearing water. [9] I however, our good skipper began maneuvering until a small lull opened between the seas. Then he opened up the engines and shot through a passage not much wider than the boat itself

When we got into the lagoon, we were like a cloud floating through the sky. The water was as clear as the air too. We could see down to the coral gardens, the slowly waving plants and fishes all colors of the rainbow. From the very first everything seemed fabulous-a fantasy. Here ahead of us was the gleaming crescent of the beach with the great coconut-trees towering above it. Nestled among the trees were the native huts, beautiful houses of bamboo and thatch shaded by the palms, red acacias and perfumed frangipanis, and among them a great trading-station, a white, weather-worn and greenshuttered structure. It had two flower-grown verandas, one around the main floor and one around the second story. Even from a distance, it was obvious that the lower floor was the store and the upper the living quarters of its occupants.

When the schooner finally berthed at the long, slender finger of a wharf, we could see the white-clad figure of the man we had come so far to meet. From the upper veranda he gazed at us through binoculars. The natives streamed down the wharf and gave us the friendly welcome that so endears one to the Polynesians.[10]

The landing party was conducted up the beach to the gates of the compound and then up the stairway to the upper veranda, where their host, the German trader Felix David, welcomed them. His hair was white, and he had a mustache in the Kaiser Wilhelm style. His face told at first glance of the many years of isolation he had chosen for himself. He called himself the king of the island.

The visitors were served a vast breakfast on the rear of the veranda, where a table was laden with food-mummy apples, breadfruit, pineapples, coconuts, roast wild pig, and the rarest of rare mangoes. Flaherty often recounted in later years the sumptuousness of this welcoming feast. Behind each chair stood a lovely Polynesian girl, naked to the waist, who

56 Robert J. Flaherty

fanned the guests, and in one corner a group of boys sang with their eyes half-closed and slapping their hands in rhythm.

"There were little bananas no bigger than your finger," says Flaherty, "and there were huge ones almost as long as your forearm. And I never tasted such pineapples. I don't think anyone who has never been in the tropics knows what a pineapple can taste like. Then there was a big fish the trader opened up for us to eat. He looked carefully inside first and picked out a silver shilling. If the shilling had been tarnished, we couldn't eat the fish."

The breakfast lasted for several hours, after which their host led them into the big living room, the great doors of which opened onto the blue sea. The white fringe of the eternally booming surf was visible in the distance. The atmosphere in the room was as unreal as their host. On the walls were old lithographs and chromos, framed photographs of great figures of the German stage and opera of the 1880's. Outstanding among this faded gallery was a painting of an imposing military figure, presumably Felix David's father, a rigid Prussian with fierce, upturned mustache, holding a sword in front of him. In one corner stood a piano of the same period, laden with tattered, fly-specked music scattered at random.

Felix David, to whom Flaherty had sent Frederick O'Briens letter in advance of arrival, told them that he had informed the island chiefs that a motion picture was going to be made about the people of Safune. None of them had ever seen a film, nor in fact had David, who had left Europe in his youth twenty-seven years before.

Every evening the trader entertained the natives of the island with a vocal concert. He had been trained as a young man to sing an operatic baritone but had been thwarted from pursuing a promising career by the firm objections of his Junker parent. As a result, the young Felix had shaken the dust of European civilization and culture from his feet and had installed himself on this island paradise, consoling himself with memories of what his career might have been had it not been for his father. His tour de force in the evening recitals to the peace-loving villagers of Safune was Siegfried's death scene from Götterdämmerung. Some of the older islanders had probably heard this powerful rendition five thousand times, but they always came back for more. [11]

The Flahertys began to settle in. They had come to make a picture of people to whom they were complete strangers-unlike the situation when Flahertv was making Nanook-and whose language they could not speak. Felix David would be invaluable as an intermediary. It appeared that the people obeyed his every command and that he ruled them in Teutonic style. Frances Flaherty recalled:

The people we met when we arrived were like creatures of another time. We remembered the words of Henry Adams, friend of

Moana and the Pacific 57

 

Robert Louis Stevenson, who with John LaFarge the painter, lived in Samoa in the 1880s: "It is a deep wonder to me that I have not been told that here is rustic Greece of the Golden Age, still alive, still to be looked at."

The villagers lived in about a hundred houses, which served mostly as shelters against tropical storms, since life was actually lived out-of-doors, on the beaches, in the clement sea that was as warm as the air, and in the palm jungles, where lurked no dangerous beasts except the wild boar, who kept himself to himself if left alone. Here men and women played through the long days like children. Time had no meaning. Life was a game, a dance, a frieze on a Grecian urn. (Griffith 1953:52)

Before their arrival on the island, the sixteen tons of equipment for the laboratory, the electric generator, the projector, and other apparatus had arrived. Because for insurance purposes high values had been assigned to the equipment, Flaherty was at once called the "Melikani Millionea." For several days a chain of natives carried boxes and bales up to an old, disused, and overgrown trading post which, after another team had made it habitable, was to be their headquarters. It was situated among giant palm trees within view of David's residence. It was the house where Frederick O'Brien had lived. In due course, a greensward was cleared away under the coconut trees so that a cinema screen could be erected at one end and the lighting plant and projector set up at the other. A little hut was built at the mouth of a cave that would be converted into a laboratory, sheltered by a huge, outspreading breadfruit tree.

David had arranged a meeting to introduce the Flahertys to the chiefs of the island. Some twenty-five chiefs, all of Safune, gathered in the village guesthouse to be told why the white visitors had come to Samoa, especially to Savaii and Safune, and how much Flaherty admired the Samoan people and their way of life. In return, the chiefs welcomed them, said that they hoped all would go well, and promised help. A great feast followed.

"Our big idea," said Frances Flaherty, "was that we should make a film after the pattern of Nanook of the North. We should find a man like Nanook the Eskimo, a sturdy, dignified chief and head of a family, and then build our picture round him, substituting the dangers of the sea, here in the South Pacific, for those of snow and ice in the North. We would present the drama of Samoan life as it unrolled itself naturally before us, as far as possible untouched by the hand of the missionary and the government. We began by trying to tell the Polynesians in a booklet about the Eskimos and the purpose behind filming Nanook" (Griffith 1953:54).

A graphic description was then unrolled by Flaherty of how he had lived with the Eskimo people and won their friendship and confidence. He had made the picture of them because "love overflowed in his heart for the

58 Robert J. Flaherty

people of that country, on account of their kindliness and their bravery, and also on account of their receiving him well, and because thy look very happy every day of their lives in a life most difficult to live in the whole world." The men in New York (i.e., the film's backers) had seen that Mr. Flaherty had done a very useful thing in making this picture. "Such pictures as this will create love and friendship among all the people of the world." Misunderstandings and quarrels among nations will cease, said Flaherty. And so the big men in New York (Hollywood was apparently not mentioned, perhaps because it might have given the islanders wrong ideas) had now sent Flaherty to Samoa to create another such picture among the descendants of the pure Polynesian race of ancient times as they were in the days before missionaries and traders had arrived to change their customs. (We wonder how Felix David liked interpreting these words.)

Frances Flaherty recalled, however, that the screening of Nanook some weeks later made little impression on the islanders. They appeared pleased to see something which Flaherty-or Lopati as he was now known-had made, but apart from that, Nanook's celluloid activities left them unmoved. "I do not believe," adds Mrs. Flaherty, "they had any sense of importance that we wanted to make a picture of them, too, for the benefit of some faraway country." One doubts, also, if Jesse Lasky, sitting in his executive suite some five thousand miles away, would have wholly subscribed to the altruistic motives that were said to be the reason why his studio was backing Flaherty's second production.

While the organization of the unit's headquarters and equipment went ahead, Flaherty was at pains to get to know Felix David better. He found time to go and have a glass or two of mummy beer and a chat at the trader's house. Felix continually showed his pleasure at Flaherty's presence. He was anxious to see the films that Flaherty had brought. "Ach, Gott!" he would exclaim. "The new art. Are we not brothers in the craft just as O'Brien had predicted." And the more beer he drank, the more he would sink into maudlin reminiscences of his frustrated career. In his eyes the considerable sums of money the film unit would pay him for his services were a small fortune.
In between his fits of despondency, Felix David was at first very helpful. His servants scoured the island for suitable subjects for filming, information, and whatever else Flaherty might need. But Flaherty was confronted with a problem which only he, with perhaps the aid of his wife and brother, could solve. What was to be the theme of his film?
"No sooner were we landed," writes Frances Flaherty, "than Bob began a search of the deep-sea caverns underlying the coral reefs which fringed the island, for giant octopuses and tiger sharks. For weeks and weeks he searched. And when at last he did not find them and had to admit they simply were not there . . . he just sat on our verandah with every thought falling away from him." [12]

Moana and the Pacific 59

 

Flaherty himself wrote of this period from the location itself.

During my first few weeks in Samoa, I was disgusted. The drenching heat did not help my feeling for the charm and spirit of the country; the natives I could only see as mobs and rabble. The fortunes of the film seemed low indeed. These reactions, however, were simply those of any superficial traveller hovering around Pago-Pago or Apia, the two ports of call. Only when I left the white man's settlements in this incredible spot, became acclimated and began personally to know the Samoans, to live amongst them, to have them in my house, to journey with them, did my interest and enthusiasm revive....

We are living in one of the finest native villages in all Samoa.... It stands within the shelter of the tall rocking coconuts. Beyond the screen of trees and the outline of the chocolate-topped thatched fale (house of the village chiefs), is the strip of sea, blue as blue, save for the single thin line of white which is the booming, grumbling reef (without which no South Sea island is complete).

It has been no easy task to get the right characters for the film. Like the Eskimo, the photographable [sic] types are few. Taioa, the taupou (village virgin) of Sasina was my first find. Here should follow the inevitable picture-raven hair, lips of coral, orbs (meaning eyes) etc., etc. But to you, not knowing the fine type of Polynesian, such a passage of words would mean nothing. I can only say that when, after a feast of pigs, taro, breadfruit, wild pigeons, mangoes and yams, to the accompaniment of sita sivas and Ta'alola,; hours and hours long, I bargained for and bought her face from the proud and haughty albeit canny chiefs of Sasina, and she and her handmaid came up the palm-lined trail to Safune, the old women here told her between their teeth that they would see she was killed by dawn. (Flaherty 1924:9-13)

He tells us elsewhere that when he met the chiefs of Safune, he found that they were so proud that their village had been chosen as the location for the film that they boasted of it to every other village on the island. [13] Every morning the Flahertys could see from their veranda all the chiefs walking in a solemn procession to their meetinghouse, wearing lava-lavai round their waists, their torsos gleaming in the sun from the coconut oil with which they had been anointed, fly-switches over their shoulders, and a big, blazing, red hibiscus tucked behind each ear, as was the custom in Samoa. They would go to their fono-fali and begin their ceremony for the day with the drinking of the kava.

The taupou in Samoa is a village's principal maiden, not only because of her rank but also, theoretically, because of her beauty. She is treated like a princess. She officiates at all ceremonies, especially the making of kava

60 Robert J. Flaherty

when visiting chiefs arrive. The higher the chief, the more important is the ceremony. All the chiefs plan one day to marry off their taupou to a visiting chief, the higher the better so that she may bring great prestige to her village.

Flahertv searched the village of Safune for a girl suitable to play the heroine in his film but without any success. The chiefs then came to him and offered him their taupou for the part-the highest honor they could pay him. Special arrangements could be made, they said, to make her available to Lopati. But Flaherty had already noted the taupou of Safune, who was far from young or even attractive. He solemnly thanked the chiefs for their offer but courteously declined to accept it.

Shortly after, he found the ideal girl for his film. She was the taupou of the nearby village of Sasina. He did not know, of course, that no two villages on the island of Savaii were as jealous of one another as Sasune and Sasina. He knew only that he had made up his mind that Sasina's taupou, whose name was Taioa, was perfect for the part. The chiefs of Safune received this news with a marked lack of enthusiasm. Flaherty turned to Trader David to solve the problem.

Two days later, the chiefs of Sasina brought the beautiful Taioa and graciously presented her to Flaherty for his film. He expressed gratitude but noticed none of the local Safunes were in sight. The blinds were drawn on their huts, and the village was as empty and still as a graveyard. After the Sasina chiefs had left, Flaherty asked Trader David how he had arranged for the girl to be brought. "It was simple," said Felix, I just asked the chiefs of Safune if they wanted you to go and make the picture at Sasina. They were so infuriated by this idea that they at once agreed to allow you to bring here and use the taupou from Sasina" (Flaherty 1924b).

Taioa was given a space for her sleeping mat on the Flahertys' veranda. There she sat by the hour, strumming her guitar and smiling. Camera tests were made, and Flaherty was delighted. He set about solving other problems. But one month later there was a vacancy on the veranda. All that was left was a piece of green velvet. Soon it was discovered that one of the boys from the village was gone, too. "And," said Flaherty, "the Safune chiefs just laughed and laughed."

Undismayed, the Flaherty's found another girl, Saulelia. She had less fascination than Taioa, admitted Flaherty, but she had beautiful long black hair. They began filming with her and were happy with the results. As time went on, Flaherty became more and more enthusiastic about Saulelia and shot some twenty thousand feet of film on her. But one morning she arrived for work with her hair cut as short as that of a man. Flaherty could not believe his eyes. Weeping, Saulelia revealed that she had been deserted by her lover and, fa'a Samoa, she must cut off her hair.

Finally, Flaherty had success with a third girl, Fa'angase. She had followed him around shyly wherever he had been filming. Occasionally she

Moana and the Pacific 61

would bring him a flower. She was very young, almost a child when they had first arrived at Safune, but as the months went by she was growing up. Fa'angase came from the other end of the village. Her father was a high chief. He agreed that his daughter should take part in the film but insisted that Lopati must treat her as if she were his own daughter. He explained that his end of the village was very high in rank, but the end where the Flahertys had their house was low and always had been so. Therefore the boys around the visitors house were not high class, and Flaherty must be very careful how they behaved when Fa'angase was around. Promises were given and filming began again with the new heroine.

Two boys had been trained to work in the laboratory that had been constructed in the cave. They had to work in semidarkness, and they made up jokes and sang and laughed to keep away the evil spirits. When Fa'angase was cast in the picture, the boys couldn't control their excitement. They teased her unmercifully When they emerged from the cave laboratory, having helped to process some film that had been shot of the young girl, they shouted, "0 Fa'angase, her legs are bowed, and her eyes-one looks one way and the other looks the other way." Happily, Fa'angase took it all in good humor.

One day, however, the joking and high spirits were missing. Wondering what was wrong, the Flahertys saw that the chiefs from their end of the village were huddled together in a meeting. Alarmed, Flaherty asked Trader David what was happening. The chiefs, it seemed, were angry. Trouble was brewing between the two ends of the village. The chiefs from the highclass end were coming to take Fa'angase away from the film. All work was stopped until the matter should be settled.

That night a procession of chiefs from the high-class end of the village approached the Flaherty house. Flaherty was dismayed at the prospect of losing his leading lady, upon whom he had spent thousands of feet of film. At that moment, Fialelei [14], the woman who acted as an interpreter for the visitors, arrived in great agitation. All the chiefs from the low-class end of the village, she said, were hiding among the coconut palms with knives in their hands. But by this time the procession of high-class chiefs had arrived at the house. With grave courtesy, they said they wished to ask a favor of Lopati: would he go with them down the path to the bridge across the river, which divided the village into its two halves, so that they could return in safety to their homes? Fa'angase was not mentioned. Flaherty hesitated a moment. Then he and Frances stepped forward and, with the chiefs between them, led the way down the path in the half-light to the bridge, over which the chiefs filed to their own end of the village. Not a sign or sound came from the men waiting with their knives in the shadow of the palm trees.

The next morning, Fialelei came to the Flahertys to say that Willy, the houseboy, wanted a holiday. "What for?" asked Flaherty. "Willy is married,"

62 Robert J. Flaherty

Fialelei replied. "Married?" exclaimed Mrs. Flaherty, in surprise. "To whom? And when?"

So the story came out. While all the trouble had been going on about Fa'angase, the boys who worked for Flaherty had gone across to the other end of the village and abducted a bride for Willy. Who should the bride be but the taupou whom the Flahertys had rejected for their first heroine!

Fa'angase stayed with the film until all the shooting had been finished to its maker's satisfaction.

The summer months of 1923 glided away. Flaherty was still searching for some of his characters and his theme but at the same time making innumerable tests of likely types. October came and still not a foot of film had been shot that would be of use in the final picture. Then two momentous events occurred, the first of great technical importance and the second of significance for the film's theme.

In addition to his two Akeley cameras for black-and-white work, Flaherty had taken with him a Prizma color camera, which required a film sensitive to color; some of the new panchromatic film had been shipped out for this purpose. This special stock was not in general use at that time, films being photographed on orthochromatic stock such as Flaherty had used for Nanook.

When they developed the orthochromatic tests made of scenes of Safune and possible characters and projected them at night, the Flahertys were disappointed with the results. The lovely golden bronze of the Samoans, the wide range of greens of the island's luxurious foliage, the red of the flowers which the villagers wore in their hair, all came out dark and shapeless and with none of the luminosity that made the location and its people so beautiful.

One day, for some unrecorded reason, maybe pure Flaherty cussed curiosity, Flaherty loaded an Akeley camera with a roll of the panchromatic stock intended for the color camera, which had broken down. The results were in black and white, of course, but the figures of the Samoans had a wonderful bronze quality, and the greens of the foliage appeared in a wide range of true tones. Flahertys enthusiasm was unbounded. As Frances Flaherty wrote, "The figures jumped right out of the screen. They had a roundness and modelling and looked alive and, because of the colour correction, retained their full beauty of texture. The setting immediately acquired a new significance....At last we had the solution to our problem. The drama of our picture should lie in its sheer beauty, the beauty of fa'a Samoa, rendered by panchromatic film" (Griffith 1953:54).

Panchromatic film stock had to be developed in total darkness, whereas orthochromatic, which is not sensitive to red, could be developed with the illumination of a red light. For this reason, using panchromatic, the work in the Flaherty field laboratory installed in the underground cave

Moana and the Pacific 63

would become doubly difficult. In addition, although the newly invented panchromatic stock had been used in Hollywood for special effects such as skyscapes with cloud formations, it had never been used for a full-length production. The manufacturers of the stock, Eastman-Kodak, had in fact warned Flaherty that it was tricky and good only for occasional use for cloud effects.

It was typical of Flahertys love of experiment that he made the momentous decision to ignore the experts' warnings and to shoot the whole of his picture on panchromatic stock. He scrapped all forty thousand feet he had already shot and cabled Eastman-Kodak for more panchromatic. But he did not inform Lasky. This decision was momentous not only for Flaherty and his final film, notable even today for the extreme loveliness of its photography, but the results when seen in Hollywood were without doubt a major factor in the general adoption of panchromatic in place of orthochromatic stock by the film industry in all countries.

A second factor not recorded in Flaherty or his wife's writings but about which Flaherty told me in London in 1931 was that he first experimented with the panchromatic stock at the time of day when the sun is low-either in the early morning or late afternoon. That is the time when the sun's low rays creep underneath foliage so that shadows are long and a stereoscopic effect is achieved on the screen. Flaherty said that whenever possible thereafter he filmed only in the early morning or late afternoon light (Rotha 1931:19).

It was this second discovery, just as important as the use of panchromatic stock for black-and-white photography, coupled with Flaherty's selection of pictorial compositions and mobility of camerawork that gave his completed film its famous visual beauty. [15]

Flaherty still had not found a theme for his film. Beautiful photographic effect is one thing; quite another is the story or theme the film intends to convey. It seemed as though for several months he expected something sensational to happen.

Mrs. Flaherty records:

From white old-timers we eagerly questioned at the beginning, we received little comfort. One by one our list of hopes-sharks, octopuses, robber-crabs-they negatived. A big octopus they had never seen-did not believe it existed, certainly not in Samoa. "Wait," said Bob to me, nothing daunted. He had had a similar experience among the Eskimos; one need not expect these aliens to know anything of the country except their own particular business in it. "Wait and question the natives, you'll see." (Griffith 1953:58)

Then one day the Safune chiefs gave the Flahertys a feast to celebrate the passing through of a party of chiefs (malanga) from villages along the

64 Robert J. Flaherty

coast of the island. Some of the party reported that a giant octopus had been spotted in the passage of the reef at Sataua. It was telelava, they said, with a body as big as one of the houses in the village here.

The Flahertys did not find the idea of such a creature incredible. They had heard once that the carcass of an octopus that was bigger than any known whale had washed up on the Madagascar coast. They had also heard that in the deepwater reef at Asau Bay on the way to Sataua there were tiger sharks. So they decided to scout the coast of the island westward and sent word of their coming by messengers.

When they arrived at Asau, all the chiefs were assembled to greet them, sitting cross-legged on mats. The usual welcoming ceremony and speeches took place. Each of the chiefs and guests drank in turn in an order of precedence that strictly adhered to tradition. Finally, when all the ceremony was done, they came down to business.

They agreed to do everything the Melikani Millionea requested. Sharks could easily be lured with bait placed on the rocks by the shore in the early morning. Armed with iron-pointed spears, they would await them. But, said the puzzled chiefs, why should the great Millionea bother himself with the pointless hunting of sharks when a special dance had been prepared for him? Thus the Flahertys involuntarily found themselves the guests at yet another massive feast followed by a series of wonderfully rhythmic dances which held them enthralled. The people of Asau, aware that the white visitors were going to proceed in due course to the villages of Vaisala and Sataua farther along the coast, were determined to present a performance that would outshine any that might be organized by the rival villages.

When they left in the morning, the Flahertys regretfully observed the hunters waiting in vain on the shore, the shark bait lying untouched on the rocks.

At Vaisala and Sataua, of course, exactly the same events took place-more kava, more feasting, more dancing, more promises, each village anxious to show off its best. But there were no sharks, no octopuses, no sign of drama from the sea. "We returned from our malanga without an additional foot of negative," sadly writes Mrs. Flaherty.

Sometime after this abortive search for what obviously did not exist, Flaherty must have concluded that his preconceived idea of making another Nanook, based on the struggle of the Polynesian people against the sea, could not be done. The drama of the fight for existence against hunger and climate, which had been easy, to find in the Canadian North, was not duplicated in the sunlit, peaceful Samoan islands. On the contrary, although food had to be hunted or fished, this was regarded more as a game than as a struggle to live. "Drama exists," writes Frances Flaherty, "but it is a very subtle thing, quite apart from everything we understand. It is to be

Moana and the Pacific 65

found in nothing more or less than custom-fa'a Samoa. Therein the people build their whole lives. If you break fa'a Samoa, you break their lives to pieces and they die" (Griffith 1953:62).

Flaherty had, however, learned much from the making of Nanook, most important, that to make a film interpretation of real people living their real lives it was first necessary to live with them and to get to know how and why they do the most simple everyday things. He had yet to realize that this simple everyday act of existence might in itself be the basis of drama, that it did not need heightening by fights with octopuses and sharks. Mrs. Flaherty perceived this in hindsight, as indicated in the above quotation, but Flaherty had not yet reached this solution to his problem. He had, however, shot many scenes of everyday incidents in village life, possibly with the intention of familiarizing the natives with his camera, for making tests for his own observation, and for processing experiments in the laboratory.

Among the islanders who came to visit the Flaherty house was a woman named Tu'ungaita, who later appeared in the finished film as the mother of Moana's family. She came to the house to offer for sale baskets which she made from strips of pandanus leaf dried in the sun. Mrs. Flaherty had the idea that it would be sensible if her own daughters also learned how to make baskets, and Tu'ungaita came to stay at the house with them.

The old lady was equally skilled in the process of making tapa, which was a bark-cloth used for siapos, that is, lava-lavas. It was even then a dying craft; most of the printed cloth used for lava-lavas already came from Manchester or Japan by way of traders at Apia. But to watch Tu'ungaita make tapa was to watch a beautiful exhibition of craftsmanship, and the younger women and girls in Safune would gather round her to watch in admiration. Flaherty, with his affection for traditional skills, was quick to observe the beauty of this time-worn process. He filmed it in loving detail, presumably first on orthochromatic stock. It occupies a beautiful sequence in the final film, however, so he must have retaken it later on panchromatic.

Possibly it was the screening of this tapa-making sequence and other similar scenes of everyday occurrences that finally opened Flaherty's eyes to the all-important fact that the real theme of his film lay right under his nose and fine blue eyes. He may still have gone octopus hunting, but when he ultimately made up his mind, he had either to confess failure and return to the United States or to recognize that his elusive theme was there and had been there all along. Mrs. Flaherty believed that the discovery of the rich potential of panchromatic stock gave Flaherty the clue to his theme. We agree that it may indeed have helped, but something other than a technical discovery differentiated this new film, when it was finished, from the earlier and more primitive Nanook. It was the dawning realization in Flaherty that the theme for which he had been searching for so many months

66 Robert J. Flaherty

was no more and no less than fa'a Samoa-the elaborate ritual custom of Samoan life. At some unrecorded moment, this vital recognition must have been seeded in Flaherty's mind.

In all, Flaherty exposed some 240,000 feet of negative in making his film of the Safune family. Today such length would not be considered excessive on a major feature film, but in the mid-1920s, it was a very great deal of film to be used by a single director-cameraman on one location. There is no record, however, that Lasky ever complained. What was surely remarkable was that this incredible amount of footage was developed and printed by hand in a remote cave and that the two laboratory hands were Samoan boys who had no previous experience with motion pictures. Flaherty must have trained them very well, and they in turn, like the Eskimos, must have been brilliant learners. But the value of using the local people in actually making the film had been firmly established in Flaherty's mind in Nanook. It was an integral part of his belief that the art of filmmaking was a one-man job on the actual location. The less he relied on industrial processes, the purer the film would be.

On Savaii, however, there were unexpected difficulties. After about twelve months' work, it was noticed that dark flashes appeared on the developed negative at regular intervals. When projected in the coconut theater, the positive film was clearly unusable. Was the panchromatic stock unreliable, as Eastman-Kodak had warned? Flaherty at once stopped shooting and carried out innumerable tests and experiments through June and July 1924 but failed to trace the cause of the defects. Morale sank low. Flaherty sent a young assistant whom he had hired in Apia, Lancelot Clarke (a Tasmanian and secretary to the resident commissioner in Savaii), to Hollywood and to Eastman-Kodak in Rochester, New York, to seek advice.

Meanwhile, back at Saftune, the filmmakers had an idea. On a trip to Apia on the other island, David Flaherty had told a government chemist of their problem. The chemist had suggested that the water in the cave which they had fitted up as the laboratory might be too salty and had given David some silver nitrate to make a salinity test.

In David's words, "We knew the cave water was saline but in desperation we made the test anyway, dipping the test-tube into the cave water. The silver nitrate gave a precipitate, proving salinity. Then Bob suggested we make another test, taking the water right from the bottom. This we did, and got the same precipitate. But this time the water had a foul chemical odor. We realized that the chemicals which came off the film when we washed it, instead of being flushed out with the change of tide from the sea as we had imagined, had been depositing themselves on each following batch of film. This must be the cause of the waver [16]." From then on they abandoned the cave water and washed the film in rainwater instead. The results, when projected, were perfect.

Moana and the Pacific 67

Henceforth, all would be well-but every foot of film that had been shot for the picture up to that time would have to be retaken. To do so would not take long because they knew now exactly what scenes they wanted and which of their characters to use. The whole of the film as we know it today was shot between July and December of 1924. Moreover, retakes are usually the bugbear of the film director.

The discovery of the reason for the spoiled negative had a second effect: it explained the strange illness to which Flaherty had succumbed during the expedition round the coast in the previous years' search for the big octopus and tiger sharks. No one had thought at the time that the sickness might have been due to Flaherty's casual habit of drinking the water in their cave laboratory.

Flaherty had suddenly taken ill at a small village called Tufu a long way from their house at Safune. He was unable to eat any food and became very weak. All he could do was to take regular doses of an opiate to ease the pain. But it was clear that something must be done. A messenger was dispatched to ask Trader David to send a boat to Falealupo; the nearest calling point to the village where Flaherty lay ill.

All Tufu was deeply concerned at the Millionea's strange illness. Five days must pass before the boat could arrive at Falealupo. Mrs. Flaherty gave instructions for a litter to be made ready on which Bob would be carried to Newton Rowes house at Falealupo.

A procession was formed to make the journey to Falealupo, headed by Rowe mounted on his horse and including a native missionary with an umbrella. All went well until Rowe suddenly became aware that the procession had stopped behind him. The missionary was insisting, with the assent of the Samoan members, that, ill as he was, Lopati must walk a short part of the way. Rowe was mystified but knew the people well enough to advise the Flahertys to agree to the request. Bob was assisted on foot for a short distance until a spot was reached where he was again placed on the litter.

Not until some time later did they find out the reason for this strange incident. It seemed that the place where Flaherty had been required to walk was a spirit path that led to a rock on the coast from which dead spirits had dived into the sea to find Polutu, their land of the dead. To have carried Lopati across that spirit path would have gravely endangered his life. Others had died that way, and the people loved him too dearly to allow such a risk. [17]

At Falealupo, Newton Rowe, an old captain, and a white-bearded Catholic missionary, Father Haller (whom the islanders wanted to burn), cared for Flaherty until the boat arrived with a Dr. Ritchie aboard [18]. On the way to Apia, Davia Flaherty was landed at Safune so that he could rejoin the three children who had been left in the care of their Irish nurse. Dr. Ritchie took Mr. and Mrs. Flaherty on to Apia, where proper medical attention could be

68 Robert J. Flaherty

found. A month later Bob was back at Safune safe and well. But it was not until the next year, when they discovered that the silver nitrate from the film had remained in the cave water and that Bob had been in the habit of drinking it, that the cause of his sickness was diagnosed. Flaherty said that he was never comfortable in the heat of the Samoan islands, probably because of having spent many years in the opposite extremes of the far North. By the time production was suspended because of the trouble with the negative, Flaherty had filmed most of what he wanted except for a final sequence in the film. Now he had to reshoot everything and, in addition, he still had to find a climax. The climax must be an incident that arose logically during the course of the people's existence. It was found in the ceremony of the tattoo, an idea that was first suggested to Flaherty by Newton Rowe. In his book, Rowe writes:

A Samoan who is not tattooed-it extends almost solid from the hips to the knees-it has been remarked, appears naked beside one who is; and in no way can the custom be considered disfiguring. Indeed, it enhances the appearance of a Samoan. The missionaries with the exception of the Catholics-hated it, and still hate it, as a relic of "heathenism." It matters nothing apparently to them that, while the custom stands, it militates against immature mating; and that it is the one test in these islands, where life is so easy, that the youth has to go through. (Rowe 1930:85)

"I remember discussing the importance of tattooing with Bob and Mrs. Flaherty," recalls Rowe, "and it was I who contacted the old tattooer in Asau and persuaded him to go to Flaherty in Safune. I remember it particularly because there was some slight coolness between this old bird and myself over government business, but his cupidity got the better of him [19]." In the sequences already made and retaken, Flaherty had spun a slim thread of love between Moana, his hero (played by Ta'avale) and his heroine (played by Fa'angase). But until he was tattooed, Moana was still a boy, no matter his age. Thus the ceremony of the tattoo was the turning point in his life, an event of the greatest importance, marked by much ritual and celebration.

Flaherty filmed the process in great detail. He had previously watched it being performed on two other villagers and thus knew exactly what would happen.

The process is very painful. Needle points of bone-like a finetooth comb, impregnated with dye-bite into the skin under the tap-tap of the hammer. The skin is held taut and the surplus dye and blood are wiped away as the needles tap along the line marked out for the pattern. The whole pattern, like breeches of fine blue silk, extends

 

Moana and the Pacific 69

from above the waist to below the knee, solidly. But only a little tattooing is done at a time, the amount depending on the strength of the subject. Tattooing is the beautification of the body by a race who, without metals, without clay, express their feelings for beauty in the perfection of their own glorious bodies. Deeper than that, however, is its spring in a common human need, the need for struggle and for some test of endurance, some supreme mark of individual worth and proof of the quality of the man. The Eskimo has struggle thrust upon him he could not escape it if he would. He meets it like a man and we admire him. In Polynesia, what is it that can keep alive the spirit of man but his own respect for what he is-the God that is within him? And so it is that tattooing stands for valor and courage and all those qualities in which man takes pride. (Griffith 1953:69-70)

The tattooing of Ta'avale took six weeks, and a further two weeks were needed for his body to recover. Flaherty kept filming at regular stages all through the ceremony, with the boy's "family" in attendance, soothing him and cooling his wounds. Ta'avale himself was said to have been proud of the ceremony.

Late in the year, during the final weeks of production, an incident took place that could have had ugly results for the film, involving the two boys, Samuelo, and Imo, who were doing the laboratory work. A young man from Sataua, who was one of a government malanga (traveling party) that was spending the night at Safune on its way round the island, made overtures to one of the girls in the village. She was the wife of the native missionary's son, and Samuelo and Imo, as a point of honor, the pride of their village, told the young man that he had committed a very wrong thing fa'a Samoa. In the heat of the ensuing quarrel, Imo thrust a bullet-tipped cane into the offender's neck. Within twenty-four hours the young man was dead, the thrust having reached his spine. He was not found dead on the beach (as some accounts of this incident state) but spent his dying hours in a Samoan fale, attended by the government's Samoan doctor, who was one of the malanga, and the sorrowing Safune chiefs.

In Samoa, the native law demands a life for a life. At any moment, therefore, the people from Sataua might be expected to invade Safune to take revenge. The village was cleared of all its women and children, while the men patrolled all night on guard. The Flahertys stayed behind their bungalow walls. The immense amount of film that had taken so long to shoot was stored in camphorwood chests on the veranda. The family members, armed with a shotgun, took turns guarding the chests.

One account of this affair states that Trader David was at the root of the trouble and had made the two boys drunk (Taylor 1949). According to David Flaherty, this was not true [20]. Felix David, however, had become

70 Robert J. Flaherty

a source of worry to the Flahertys. As the months passed, he had seen his influence over the island population increasingly stolen by the visitors. His manner toward Flaherty cooled considerably, and he began to drink deeper of his mummy-apple beer. He took a particular dislike to the evening screenings of films, which he saw as a threat to his own operatic performances.

Among the entertainment films which Flaherty had brought with him was a copy of the famous German picture Der Golem, which became the most popular. Other titles were It Pays to Advertise, The Miracle Man, and Sentimental Tommy, all Paramount pictures. The massive stone figure of the monster, as played by Paul Wegener, so caught the Imaginations of the Safune people that it is said that for some years later many children were named after Der Golem [21]. On more than one occasion the dominant figure of Felix David had risen up into the bright beam of the projector and shaken a fist at this rival attraction.

The killing of the young man from Sataua brought a confrontation. Imo and Samuelo were taken to Apia to the jail. The Flahertys wrote a letter on their behalf to the authorities, stressing their good character, previous good behavior, and faithful discharge of their duties. When Trader David heard of this letter, however, he reported to the resident commissioner of Savaii that the Flahertys were "obstructing the course of justice."

For some time the Flahertys had known that Felix David, half-insane with jealousy, would welcome any misfortune that befell them and given half a chance would even induce it. They had known, too, that he was in league with the resident commissioner, and it had lately been disclosed that the bond between them was that they were both homosexuals, committing their offenses against Samoan boys. But they knew, too, that both men were soon to be exposed.

The two laboratory boys were tried in Apia, their charge being reduced to manslaughter. Imo was sentenced to five years of imprisonment,
Samuelo to six months. Sataua was thus appeased and Safune freed from the fear of Sataua's vengeance. According to Newton Rowe, Father Haller stopped the boat party from leaving Sataua to attack Safune.

Not long after, the government launch from Apia with the justice authorities stopped first at Matautu, eleven miles along the coast from Safune, to investigate the charges against the resident commissioner. It was told that the administrator in Apia would give him the option of leaving the country, in which case the charges would be dropped. The commissioner gave the officials dinner, put them up for the night, and said he would give his reply in the morning. The next day they found his lifeless body slumped in a chair in his office with an army rifle, the trigger tied to his toe, lying on the floor.

The justice authorities went on to Safune and arrested Felix David. He

Moana and the Pacific 71

was taken to Apia and after trial banished forever from Savaii. He withered away and died a few years later. [22]

Finally, one day in December 1924, Flaherty decided that he had all the film he needed, and a date for departure was fixed. The 240,000 feet of film shot over two years (including all the wasted material) had uder Flaherty's instructions been reduced by Lancelot Clarke to the essential footage for taking back to Hollywood. The leave-taking was inevitably a sad moment. The Flaherty family had formed strong friendships with the cast of their film and the other inhabitants of Safune. The children especially had come to live almost like Samoans. They dressed like them, spoke their language, and had learned their songs and dances. It was a tearful and emotional moment when the
parting came. A great feast was held with much dancing.

At the last moment, as Flaherty records, there was nearly disaster:

The boat that was to take us away lay rolling outside the reef. Our all-in-all, family, film and everything, was in one canoe. The seas were mounting. We made the passage through the reef-at any time a dangerous journey-safely. We got up to the rolling ship waiting for the moment to close in, unload and climb aboard. Suddenly the ship rolled violently over towards us. As it did its counter caught the gun whale of our canoe. For a second we were sure we'd capsize, children, film and all. We were trembling when we climbed aboard. (Flaherty 1950:22-23)

At Pago-Pago they boarded the Sierra, bound for San Francisco; from there they went to Hollywood. They spent the next few months making a rough cut of the film. During this period Flaherty screened it in a very long version to Laurence Stallings, the journalist and playwright, who wrote a piece about it, titled "The Golden Bough," in his regular column in the New York World. Stallings wrote of the as-yet unfinished film: "I do not think a picture can be greater than this Samoan epic." As a result, Famous Players-Lasky's eastern office (Paramount) telegraphed Flaherty, to go at once to New York and complete the editing there. In New York, more months were spent editing the film. Famous Players assigned one of its top writers, Julian Johnson, to write the subtitles. The final screen credits read, "Edited and Titled by Julian Johnson," but we are assured by David Flaherty that Flaherty and his wife wrote the titles and edited the film [23]. Finally, twelve-reel cut of the picture was ready for screening to Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Walter Wanger, and other top brass of the studio. Their first reaction was enthusiastic, and they decided immediately to put out the film on a road-show release to play at selected key theaters at special increased admission prices. The film was,


72 Robert J. Flaherty

however, too long, and Flaherty was told to reduce it by approximately half. More months went by as this was done, and then the film was re-screened to the Paramount executives and salesmen.

This time, far from hailing it as a masterpiece and a worthy successor to Nanook-by then a world classic-the Paramount boys were bored and disappointed. "Where's the blizzard?" one of them asked. Lasky said only that the film was still too long. A publicity woman with a very long cigarette holder, who sat in the front row, complained that "there are not enough tits." Interest in Moana dropped below zero. The salesmen declared it had nothing to sell it to the great American-let alone the European-market-no octopuses, no tiger sharks, not even a hurricane or a typhoon. There was this time admittedly, a thin love interest, but the boy and the girl did not do anything. Any idea of road-showing the film was dropped.

Once again Flaherty realized that to spend more than two years making a film in immensely difficult circumstances was only half the battle. Once again, as with Nanook, he would have to persuade the one-track minds of the motion picture distributors and their salesmen that Moana was a picture people might want to see if they were given the opportunity. For months he argued futilely with the Paramount office. He screened the film to such influential men as William Allen White and Otis Skinner and persuaded them to write supportive letters to Paramount. At last he was told, "Look here, this is what we'll do. We'll make a test of the picture to see if you're right or not. We'll put the film out in six towns with no more and no less advertising than our usual run of pictures. These six towns will be the hardest-boiled on our list. If it gets by them, okay, we'll put the picture out on general release."

In order of importance, these six tough spots for movies were Poughkeepsie, New York, in the East; Lincoln, Nebraska, in the Midwest; Pueblo, Colorado, in the Far West; Austin, in the huge state of Texas; Jacksonville, Florida, in the deep South; and Asheville, North Carolina, in the mid-South. "There was a saying about Poughkeepsie in the theatrical world," remembers Flaherty. "If you think your act is good, try it on Poughkeepsie!" (Flaherty 1950:23).

Thus challenged, Flaherty was cornered. He knew full well that if his film was presented in these towns with no more publicity than Paramount's run-of-the-mill program pictures, it was bound to flop. So, without any reference to Paramount, he went to see Wilton Barrett, the head of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures in New York, and Colonel Joy of the Hays Organization. Both liked the picture and wanted to help. With Flaherty they concocted a plan. They obtained the mailing lists of various magazines and lecture societies, which consisted of people who were not habitual moviegoers. These people could be considered discriminating, what in recent years came to be called the "latent" audience. The National Board then had leaflets printed about Moana, describing it frankly and

Moana and the Pacific 73

telling how it differed from the routine movie and what Flaherty's aim had been in making it. Thousands of these leaflets were mailed to the names on the lists.

When the film was shown in Poughkeepsie, it did not flop as the Paramount executives had predicted, nor did it do record business. It had a week's run, which was rather better than average. Reports from the five other towns showed the same results as in Poughkeepsie.

At first Paramounts people were elated. They even momentarily revived the idea of road-showing the film, normally done only for very costly and spectacular productions, which Moana had no pretense to be. On second thought, however, they once again dropped this idea and decided to put out the film in the normal way without any special exploitation. The six-town experiment was wasted. Paramount advertised the film as "The Love-Life of a South Sea Siren." It was booked for an opening week at the Rialto Theatre on Broadway on February 7, 1926.

Flaherty was now forty-two years old.

 

II : Moana opens with a sequence reminiscent of Nanook but shown in greater detail and with many more individual shots. A tilt-down from the sky through luxuriant foliage reveals the girl, Fa'angase. The little boy, Pe'a (Flying Fox), is there, too. Moana is pulling taro roots. Presently they move off toward the village, laden with food they have gathered. A trap is set for a wild boar. The village of Safune is introduced by a lovely vista shot. A boar has been caught in the trap, and there is a struggle to catch and tie it up. Everyone returns to the village.

A fishing sequence follows, starting with the launching of a canoe. Fish are seen under the crystal-clear water. They are speared. The girl finds a giant clam. Everything is gay and carefree. Then in the quiet of the village, the mother, Tu'ungaita, is shown making bark-cloth. The process is seen in great detail with much use of close-ups. Finally, the cloth is ready to be used as a lava-lava.

The little boy twists a rope ring to use as a grip for his feet in order to climb a soaring coconut tree. The camera tilts up, following his movements, tilt by tilt, as he climbs higher and higher until he can twist off the fruit. The sea breaks over the reef into the lagoon, white spume shooting up through the blowholes. Moana, his elder brother Leupenga, and his young brother Pe'a, breast the waves in their outrigger canoe. The canoe is finally swamped, and its crew swim in the sea. They go off fishing along the rocky shore, the waves breaking over them.

Among the rocks, the little boy is busv searching for something. He makes a fire of coconut husk by rubbing two sticks together. A mystery is created by uncertainty over what he is trying to catch. It turns out to be

74 Robert J. Flaherty

a giant robber crab. Then follows a turtle hunt. A turtle is speared, and a hard struggle ensues to get it into the canoe. When they reach the shore, Moana drills a hole in the turtle's shelf and tethers it to a tree. Fa'angase strokes it like a pet.

A meal is now prepared with great care and ceremony. Coconuts are shredded, breadfruit made ready, and strange foods wrapped in palm leaves are baked in an oven of hot stones. As with the bark-cloth making, all is shown in detail and in close-ups.

Moana is now anointed with oil in preparation for his elaborate dressing for the siva dance. He and his betrothed perform their dance, the camera concentrating almost wholly on the boy, following his beautifully rhythmic movements.

The villagers gather for the ceremony of the tattoo. The old tufunga (tattooer) prepares. A long sequence shows the gradual tattooing of Moana, the tap-tapping of the needlepoints into the skin, the rubbing in of the dye, the sweat being wiped off the boy's brow, the mother fanning him with a palm leaf, and the grave, impassive face of the tattooer.

Meanwhile, the ritual of making the katia goes on. When it is made, the coconut shell from which it is drunk is passed by the chiefs from hand to hand in order of precedence. The people of Safune are now in full dance with their siva. The sun is getting low. The dancing gets faster and faster. Inside, the camera pans across the boy's parents to their youngest son, Pe'a; he is asleep. The mother covers him tenderly with a tapa cloth. Outside, Moana and Fa'angase dance their betrothal dance as the sun sinks over the mountain.

 

Between the making of Nanook and the completion of Moana, Flaherty not only stumbled upon the wonderful visual qualities of panchromatic stock but he also discovered the power of that fundamental attribute of the film medium-the close-up. In Nanook, a few close-ups occurred occasionally but only as if its director-cameraman thought the audience would want to see something or somebody close up. Most of the action of the film was shown in long or medium shots. Close-ups, when used, appeared in isolation, inserted into a long shot at random as is often seen in amateur films.

In Moana, Flahertv uses the close-up, sometimes very large indeed, in a succession of shots, not in isolation but in continuity, usually to show a process. The three outstanding and beautiful examples are the making of the bark-cloth, the preparation of the meal, and the ceremony of tile tattoo. In the last, the contraction of the boy's facial muscles at the pain of the bone needles and the anguished expression on his mothers face as she fans his tortured limbs and waist-all this was complete truth shown large on the screen, giving audiences a new experience. The way these se-

Moana and the Pacific 75

quences were shot, the choice of camera setups, and the camera movement could not be bettered today. In fact, it is doubtful if Flaherty himself ever surpassed them in his later work.

It may have been Flaherty's desire to select and throw on the screen in large visual images the countless significant details of the everyday life he was filming that led him to use close-ups. Every admirer of Flaherty's work-and their number is legion from Nanook to Louisiana Story-comes to admire his superb powers of observation. His fine, searching eyes missed nothing. We have said already that we believe his experiences in the North helped him to this end. In the tiny Samoan village, unlike the vast expanses of the North, the world was very close to him, and he reacted by using giant close-ups of the details of its life.

Moana shows, too, an increased use of camera movement, of panning and tilting to follow or anticipate action. Flaherty learned this technique from no one. It was an instinctive response through the lens of the camera. No other director-cameraman used such camera movement at that period. The Russians favored in the main a static camera. The Germans mounted their camera on wheels to give it mobility. The Americans copied the Germans but made the operation more complex. Only Flaherty used the camera itself on the gyro head to interpret his instinct for capturing movement. The little boy climbing the coconut tree has become a classic example of Flaherty's camera movement, but there are many others in Moana, culminating in the final slow pan shot from the parents to the sleeping boy

Long-focus lenses were also used more daringly than before, heralding Flaherty's frequent use of them in future films. His tendency to enlarge through the long-focus lens may have been associated with Flaherty's discovery of the close-up. When he found that he and his camera could not physically approach close to what he was shooting-such as the giant waves breaking over the reef and the canoes coming in on the surf-he used his long-focus lens for its proper photographic purpose.

Flaherty, it should always be remembered, made no claim to being a professional cinematographer. He did not then possess, nor did he ever attain, the expertise of the professional Hollywood cameraman. Both Frances and David Flaherty make the point that Flaherty was like an amateur. He learned by trial and error. He used only two filters in his camera all the time he was his own photographer as well as director.

The visual quality of Moana is very lovely. The panchromatic emulsion reveals the luminosity of the sun-drenched scene, the solidity and roundness of the bronze Samoan bodies, the wide range of greens of the luscious foliage, the depth of the blue sky. Seeing the film today, one feels no need for color.

It must also be observed that, as with Nanook and the seal, Flaherty again used the suspense element. The most notable example is when the

76 Robert J. Flaherty

little boy goes off to search for a robber crab. He spends endless time in smoking it out of the rocks, and what he is trying to catch is not revealed until the final act of capture. [24]

The film as a whole has a wonderful organic unity. Everything that happens in it is an integral part of the Samoan family's daily life. No extraneous incidents are introduced, no spectacular events, fabricated. It is a film of great calm and peace, reflecting Flahertys conception of the Samoan way of life. Even the sequences of the dances and the tattoo have no violent or aggressive qualities. There is no conflict, only the boy's suffering during the ritual of the tattoo.

The one extravagance, if such it could be called, Flaherty allowed himself was an almost unlimited supply of film stock. Film, he would rightly contend, is the raw material of the cinematographer, just as paper or canvas are the raw materials of the writer or painter. If nearly a quarter of a million feet of film were used to produce the six thousand feet that finally made up Moana, its use was justified. Nor must we forget that all the footage shot in the twelve months before the discovery of the spoiled negative in the summer of 1924 was wasted. The ratio between the length of the finished film and the amount of the footage shot after the source of the defects was found would be much smaller; but this is a figure for which we have no record. Yet whatever the total footage used, the result is what counts. And if film stock is costly when compared with paper or canvas, or clay or stone, it is nearly always one of the smallest items in a film's overall budget.

If the photographic quality of Moana still looks good today, it is a fine tribute to its maker, to the Samoan laboratory boys who handled the processing, and not least to tile manufacturers of the film stock, Eastman-Kodak. And we must also remember that the copies we screen today are taken from dupe negatives, perhaps made many years ago; and if we see it on 16 mm, the quality will have further lessened. We recall well the deep impression made by the photography when we saw the film for the first time in London in 1928. We had experienced nothing like it before.

Another important quality of Moana was the degree of intimacy which Flaherty achieved. For all its human feeling and warmth of approach, Nanook had a detached quality as if one were observing its characters from the outside. In Moana, Flaherty took the viewer in among the people to become one with them and no longer a detached observer. Partly by his camera setups and partly by his consistent use of close-ups, Flaherty developed this particular cinematic skill wholly out of his own experience. Moana was, after all, only his second film, and he was exploring the art and technique of the motion picture in a remote location without reference to what was taking place in the film world as a whole. At that time he could have known nothing of the new German camera techniques or the Russians' exciting discovery of the basic principles of film editing.

Moana and the Pacific 77

The intimacy with which Flaherty was able to invest his film was also attributable to two other factors. First, time was essential-time for him to study his subject at firsthand and to achieve an understanding with and win the confidence of the people who were to be the characters of his film. Second, very few people were needed to put the film onto the screen. Ony three people were involved: Flaherty was the combined director-photographer; David and Frances Flaherty helped him organize, gave ideas, and made the wheels of production turn smoothly. The processing of the negative was mainly a mechanical matter. In other words, Flaherty himself was able to reduce the technical mechanics that stood between him and his subject to a minimum. This fact is of great significance.

All filmmakers know from experience that if you are trying to catch through your camera the actions and thoughts of real people-not professionally trained actors-the more you can reduce the technical side of the task, the less likely are your subjects to be Inhibited, self-conscious, and camera-shy. Flaherty was able to achieve a degree of intimacy with his subjects which for many reasons, including the inflexible personnel requirements of British and American trade unions and the need for sound-recording equipment, has been rarely equaled since.

III: The fake palm trees that decorated the facade of the Rialto Theatre in New York were capped with snow when Moana was premiered on Februarv 7, 1926. But the weather was not to blind the critics and other influential persons who came to see what Paramount billed as "The Love-Life of a South Sea Siren."

Of all the many lavish reviews, some from well-known critics, the most important in historical perspective was one that appeared the next morning, under the pseudonym of "The Moviegoer." Grierson tells how he came to write this famous piece:

I first met Robert Flaherty around 1925. He had just come back from British Samoa with Moana, and he was having the difficulties he was always to have in the last stage of production. In this case it was Paramount that did not see it his way. There was talk of a grass-skirted dancing troupe at the Rialto on Broadway and a marquee offering of "The Love Life of a South Sea Siren."

I was doing an extra column at the time for the New York Sun, in which I was supposed to be a bit more highbrow than Cohen, the ranking film-editor, and the sort of odd body who looked after lost causes, including, as I remember, most of the people who happened to be good. I took Flaherty's case like a sort of critical attorney. [25]

78 Robert J. Flaherty

The review read as follows:

The golden beauty of primitive beings, of a South Seas island that is an earthly paradise, is caught and imprisoned in Robert J. Flaherty's Moana, which is being shown at the Rialto this week. The film is unquestionably a great one, a poetic record of Polynesian tribal life, its ease and beauty and its salvation through a painful rite. Moana deserves to rank with those few works of the screen that have the right to last, to live. It could only have been produced by a man with an artistic conscience and an intense poetic feeling which, in this case, finds an outlet through nature worship.

Of course Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value. But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island, washed by a marvellous sea, as warm as the balmy air. Moana is first of all beautiful as nature is beautiful. It is beautiful for the reason that the movements of the youth Moana and the other Polynesians are beautiful, and for the reason that trees and spraying surf and soft billowy clouds and distant horizons are beautiful.

And therefore I think Moana achieves greatness primarily through its poetic feeling for natural elements. It should be placed on the Idyllic shelf that includes all those poems which sing of the loveliness of sea and land and air-and of man when he is a part of beautiful surroundings, a figment of nature, an innocent primitive rather than a so-called intelligent being cooped up in the mire of so-called intelligent civilization....

Surely the writer was not the only member of the crowd that jammed the Rialto to the bursting point yesterday afternoon, who, as Moana shed its mellow, soft overtones, grew impatient with the grime of modem civilization and longed for a South Sea island on the leafy shores of which to fritter away life in what "civilized" people would call childish pursuits.

Moana, which was photographed over a period of some twenty months, reveals a far greater mastery of cinema techniques than Mr. Flaherty's previous photoplay, Nanook of the North. In the first place, it follows a better natural outline-that of Moana's daily pursuits, which culminate in the tattooing episode, and in the second, its camera angles, its composition, the design of almost every scene, are superb. The new panchromatic film used gives tonal values, lights and shading that have not been equalled.

After analyzing the structure of the film, Grierson discusses the sequence of the tattooing:

Moana and the Pacific 79

Possibly I should become pedantic about this symbolizing of the attainment of manhood. Perhaps I should draw diagrams in an effort to prove that it is simply another tribal manifestation of the coming of age? It is not necessary, for the episode is in itself a dramatic truthful thing. And if we regard the tattooing as a cruel procedure to which the Polynesians subject their young men-before they may take their place beside manhood-then let us reflect that perhaps it summons a bravery which is healthful to the race.

The film, time and time again, induces a philosophic attitude on the part of the spectator. It is real, that is why. The people, these easy, natural, childlike primitives, are enjoying themselves or suffering as the case may be before the camera. Moana, whom we begin to like during the first reel, is really tortured and it affects us as no acting could. Moana's life is dramatic in its primitive simplicity, its innocent pleasure and its equally innocent pain.

Lacking in the film was the pictorial transcriptions of the sex-life of these people. It is rarely referred to. Its absence mars its completeness.

The most beautiful scenes that Mr. Flaherty conjures up are (1) Moana's little brother in the act of climbing a tall, bending tree flung across the clear sky; (2) the vista showing the natives returning after the doer [sic] hunt; (3) Moana dancing the siva; (4) all the scenes in the surf and underwater; (5) the tribal dance.

I should not, perhaps, say that any group of scenes is any more beautiful than any other; for all are beautiful-and true. Moana is lovely beyond compare. (Grierson 1926)

In this review, Grierson used for the first time the word "documentary," derived from the French critics who thought up the word "documentaire" to describe serious travel and expedition films as distinct from boring travelogues. The word was to stick, to be widely defined, to be widely misapplied by critics and others who never troubled to search for its origins; but nevertheless to become a descriptive term not only in the cinema but in theater, fiction, radio, journalism, and television.

Of other contemporary reviews, the following epitomizes the outpourings of praise bestowed on Flaherty and his film:

Mr. Robert E. Sherwood wrote, "It has within it the soul of an admirable race." Said Mr. Austin Strong, Robert Louis Stevenson's son-in-law: "You have no protagonist nor have you betrayed us with a falsified story-instead, with the unerring instinct of the artist, you have weaved a pattern from Nature herself, from sky, clouds, water, trees, hills and the everyday simple acts of men, women and children. Theocritus did no more. He took the sky and clouds, trees, shepherds and maidens,

80 Robert J. Flaherty

and sang of goats and swineherds, and the hills of his beloved Sicily. Heaven knows I don't want to be fulsome, but as I told them list night, and they afterwards agreed with me, Moana reaches the dignity of an epic poem, and will always be a classic in the hearts of those who see it."

And Matthew Josephson added: "Flaherty has done more than give us only a beautiful spectacle. With his broad vision he has suddenly made us think seriously, in between the Florida boom and our hunting for bread and butter in Wall Street, about the art of life. Here, he says to us, are people who are successful in the art of life. Are we that, with our motor-cars, factories, skyscrapers, radio-receivers?" (Griffith 1953:71-72)

 

For all this rapturous reception, however, Moana was not chosen, as was Nanook, as one of the ten best films of the year. The Film Daily Yearbook of 1926 records the votes of 218 critics. The German film Variety (known in England and Europe as Vaudeville) headed the list with 169 votes; the Hollywood picture La Boheme was tenth with 49 votes. In between were Ben Hur, The Big Parade, The Black Pirate, Stella Dallas, The Volga Boatmen, What Price Glory? and The Sea Beast. Moana was included among the honorable mentions with 24 votes. On the other hand, like Nanook, Flaherty's new film was to receive high critical acclaim in Europe, this time especially in France and Sweden.

Finally, Flaherty received a letter from C. H. Hall, an Australian engineer based in Apia, who was keenly interested in photography. After advising the Flahertys about some of their problems, he had accepted an invitation to join them and was with them for most of the filming. When a group of chiefs came from Savaii to Apia to see the film, Hall was present:

The film possessed no new beauty [to them]. They watched silently the feats of climbing, swimming, pig-hunting, and canoe adventures as commonplace events in the old Samoan way of life. But they missed nothing of the scarcely perceptible gesture and detail of ceremony so full of significance to them.

The picture faded from the sheet, and they turned sadly away, knowing full well that never again would these things be. To my enquiries, the picture was lelei lava (good exceedingly). Their only other answer to my many questions was that it was fa'a Samoa; setting it aside at once as something sa (sacred) and beyond the comprehension of the alien papalangi. (Griffith 1953:72-73)

It is no real surprise that Moana did not do as well at the box office as its predecessor. Terry Ramsaye notes that it "grossed about $150,000 in

Moana and the Pacific 81

a period when Sidney Kent was distributing Gloria Swanson pictures for a million apiece" (1951). Because it will never be known what the film cost to make, its profit or loss cannot be calculated. Even if it made a minute profit, however, which is unlikely, we should remember that the motion picture industry is not, and never has been, interested in modest or even what any other industry would regard as reasonable profits. It wants 100 percent profit or more.

Paramount's head distribution executive told Flaherty later that if the studio had had a series of such good but modest-budget films as Moana, it might have developed a specialized form of distribution such as Flaherty had proved could be made to work. As it was, Moana was left to its own isolated fate. Its cost was but a drop in the ocean of the company's annual expenditure on production. It could easily have been written off among a half-dozen program pictures.

A further point regarding Moana's commercial value to Paramount came to light when in 1931 or 1932 David Flaherty went to a meeting of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The occasion was to welcome Sidney R. Kent, formerly Paramount's distribution wizard, who had recently been made head of 20th-Century Fox. Speaking of distribution problems, Kent said, "Now there are some pictures that are off the beaten track, pictures that don't jump out of the can, thread themselves into the projector and say, 'Here I am, go out and sell me.' These pictures require more effort and special handling. But if it weren't for pictures like these-pictures like Moana and Grass and Chang-where would our foreign distribution be today?" [26]

A postscript to this account of Moana's distribution is worth telling in view of the revolution in distribution methods that resulted from competition from television. Flaherty proposed to the Rockefeller Foundation in New York a plan for a permanent organization to do for any worthwhile "offbeat" film from any part of the world what had been done for Moana in the six tough towns-an exploitation aimed at the "latent" audience. The foundation's officers were impressed and arranged a meeting of their board in a club on Wall Street to discuss the project. Among those who were invited was one of the chief officers of the Hays Organization, the trade body that represented a domestic censorship for the industry. Without attacking the proposal, this gentleman maintained that any such interesting project should come within the province of the Hays Organization and not be the business of a foundation. Those words doomed Flahertys proposal for specialized distribution.

"Some years ago," wrote Flaherty in 1950, "fearing that the negative of Moana might somehow get lost, I wrote to Paramount and asked them if it would not be possible to turn it over to one of the film museums so that it might be preserved. The letter was never answered. And only recently, while getting the prints of Louisiana Story made at the company's labora-

82 Robert J. Flaherty

tories on Long island, I learned that the negative of Moana no longer existed; to make room, no doubt, for other newer films, it had been destroyed" [27] (Flaherty 1950:25).

 

IV: During the year 1925, after the completion of Moana but before its premiere in February 1926, Flaherty stayed either in New York or at his home in New Canaan, Connecticut. His reputation among the motion picture trade in Hollywood may not have rated high, but his status as an artist of the cinema was recognized and respected by the intelligentsia of New York. In the course of the year he made two short films for private sponsors.

7he Pottery-Maker was produced for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and sponsored by the actress Maude Adams, who was a great admirer of Flaherty's. It was a humble experiment using the new Mazda incandescent lamps, the first film to use them exclusively instead of mercury-vapor lamps, and was shot in the basement of the museum in collaboration with the arts and crafts department.

It opens with a title about the craft of the potter and then discloses a potter working in his shop. A little girl looks in through the window and then enters the workshop with her mother, who was played by the widow of General George Custer. They are dressed in late nineteenth-century costumes. The potter greets them and, to their delight, proceeds to demonstrate his craft. The little girl hops around the room, and while the potter's attention is distracted, she damages the pot he is molding. He cheerfully starts over again. The lady finally buys a pot, and the potter makes a present of another sample of his work to the little girl. They leave, and the potter goes on with his craft, firing the pot he has just made. [28]

The film runs to a full reel and conveys information only through a few subtitles. The action, such as there is in a small room, is broken down into numerous camera setups, with a good deal of close-up work on the little girl's feet and on the potter. In showing the latter at work, there is just a hint of camera movement following his hands, an anticipation of the famous camera movements that were to distinguish the pottery-making sequence in Industrial Britain five years later. But the film is not important to Flaherty's development as a filmmaker. Unless one knew, one would hardly recognize that it had been made by him.

Flaherty's collaboration with Maude Adams inspired that energetic lady to try to launch a film based on Kipling's Kim in India, to be made in color, but the project never got beyond wishful thinking.

The second film he made in 1926 was Twenty-Four Dollar Island, financed, we are told, by a "wealthy socialite," but no one seems to know for what purpose [29]. It consisted of a series of shots, some chosen with a good

Moana and the Pacific 83

sense of design, others pedestrian, of rooftop vistas of Manhattan Island and its harbor. A great many shots were taken with a long-focus lens from the tops of skyscrapers, producing a curious, flat, foreshortened effect. "The film," Flaherty is quoted as having said, "had a viewpoint of New York that people in the streets never have." He overlooked the fact that a large proportion of New Yorkers work in high buildings whose windows provide views similar to those he took with his camera. He added, "it gave the effect of deep, narrow canyons thronged with the minute creatures who had created this amazing city" (Weinberg 1946).

Herman Weinberg thought the film had some "wonderful shots of incoming liners via telephoto-lenses, poetic vistas of ships, smoke lines of rope, dock activities, etc. It also had much footage showing New York in 'abstract' compositions (in which the city looked like the one in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a cold, soulless mound of concrete, steel and glass). There were few people shown, except occasional workers on excavations and the like. [30]"

Lewis Jacobs thought highly of the film, which he called unique:

 

Flaherty conceived the film as a "camera poem, a sort of architectural lyric where people will be used only incidentally as part of the background." Flaherty's camera ... sought the Metropolitan spirit in silhouettes of buildings against the sky, deep narrow skyscraper canyons, sweeping spans of bridges, the flurry of pressing crowds, the reeling of subway lights. Flaherty also emphasized the semi-abstract pictorial values of the city: foreshortened viewpoints, patterns of mass and line, the contrast of sunlight and shadow. The result, as the director himself said, "was not a film of human-beings, but of the skyscrapers which they had erected, completely dwarfing humanity itself"

... Fascinated by the longer-focus lens, he made shots from the top of nearly every skyscraper in Manhattan. "I shot New York buildings from the East River bridges, from the ferries and from the Jersey shore looking up to the peaks of Manhattan. The effects obtained with my long-focus lenses amazed me. I remember shooting from the roof of the Telephone Building across the Jersey shore with an 8 in. lens and, even at that distance, obtaining stereoscopic effects that seemed magical. It was like drawing a veil from the beyond, revealing life scarcely visible to the naked eye." (Jacobs 1949:116).

 

The unknown sponsor of the film, however, did not have the same response as the appreciative Jacobs and Weinberg. In some devious way, the film came to be first shown as a backdrop for a stage ballet, The Sidewalks of New York, presented at the Roxy Theatre, but was drastically shortened to one reel for the purpose [31]. The original two-reel version has not been preserved, but a copy of a one-reel version is in the Museum of Mod-

84 Robert J. Flaherty

ern Art Film Library, New York. When screening it for reassessment in August 1957, we could not wholly subscribe to the above fulsome praise. Much of it seemed ordinary even for the time at which it had been shot and certainly most repetitive, but in fairness it must be recorded that Weinberg remarks that the best footage is missing from the one-reel version.

We do not favor the notion, however, that a potential minor masterpiece was the victim of vandalism, as implied by Jacobs and Weinberg. As John Grierson remarks-and he worked in a modest capacity with Flaherty on the film, "learning how to get behind a camera" [32] -Flaherty never intended it to be a complete film in itself, it was a notebook. He was loaned two cameras to shoot it, and the stock was supplied free, possibly by Eastman-Kodak.

With Manhatta (1921), made by Charles Seeler, the painter, and Paul Strand, the photographer, which was also a visual pattern expressive of New York City, Twenty-Four Dollar Island can certainly claim to be among the earliest of the city genre of films, later to be developed by Cavalcanti in Rien que les heures (1926-27) and Walter Ruttmann in Berlin: 7he Symphony of a City (1927) and followed by many others. It was without doubt an ambitious display of the peculiar properties of long-focus lenses, if not particularly imaginative in its conception.

When he was shooting this picture, Flaherty relaxed in the evenings at the Coffee House Club or some other favorite haunt. He often invited friends, or strangers met by chance, to come along the next morning to watch him at work on such-and-such a location. The following day, he either went to an entirely different location or he had forgotten the invitation and regarded the visitors with complete surprise.

Toward the end of 1926, Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin was given a spectacular premiere on Sunday, December 5, at the Biltmore Theatre with seats selling for $5 (Seton 1952:87). Flaherty attended the opening with Ernestine Evans and Maude Adams and, according to Miss Evans, he went to see it again several times. He said, "Potemkin is one of the most revolutionary steps forward ever made in the cinema" (Weinberg 1946).

In the summer of 1927, Flaherty was surprised to be again approached by Hollywood. His friend Howard Dietz, then in charge of publicity at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, first sounded him out and then with his agreement recommended him to Irving G. Thalberg, Hollywood's "boy genius," who was in charge of production for MGM at its Culver City studios in Hollywood [33]. Thalberg had bought the screen rights of Frederick O'Brien's White Shadows in the South Sea, a book that had made a deep impression on Flaherty.

By long-distance telephone, Thalberg asked Flaherty to co-direct the film with W S. Van Dyke II, one of MGM's staff directors, who had a reputation as a successful maker of Westerns. Mrs. Flaherty apparently viewed the offer with suspicion, but Flaherty, with the almost childlike and unbounded

Moana and the Pacific 85

enthusiasm for new propositions that characterized his entire life, accepted the invitation. If all worked out well, it was agreed that Frances and the children should join him in Tahiti, where the film was to be made.

Arriving In Hollywood, he soon found that, as often happens in the movie world, Thalberg had bought O'Brien's book only for its intriguing title. The book had no real story; it was a series of episodic but fascinating travel incidents by a sensitive writer aware of the exploitation of the Polynesians. Laurence Stallings was called in to collaborate with Flaherty in trying to work out a story line from the book. They tried instead to sell Thalberg the idea of making Typee, Melville's great story of the South Seas, but the young studio boss stuck to his choice of White Sbadows. Stallings apparently then quit the project and was replaced by Ray Doyle, an MGM staff writer, whose name is bracketed with Jack Cunningham's as co-author of the "original story" on the screen credits of the finished film.

While in Hollywood, Flaherty met Albert Lewin, who subsequently produced such films as 7he Good Earth, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Moon and Sixpence, but who was at that time a scriptwriter and assistant to Thalberg. He recollects that Flaherty, as well as writing the screenplay, was busy casting. Among those tested for the part was Francesca Bragiotti, a dancer, who later married John Lodge, the United States ambassador to Spain. Bob often went to Lewin's home. 'We had good times," says Lewin, "good food, drinks, singing, dancing and talk-lots of very eloquent and exciting talk." [34]

Headed by Van Dyke, a full-scale technical unit with assistants and assistants to the assistants, Clyde de Vinna as cameraman, and Raquel Torres and Monte Blue as the two stars set sail for Papeete. It was an armada compared with the little unit that had gone to Savaii. From the start, Flaherty must have found himself ill at ease with a group of technicians who were skilled only in Hollywood's synthetic methods of filmmaking. The inevitable happened, as described by Richard Griffith:

 

It was the behaviour of the men from Hollywood, when they got to Tahiti, that revealed to Flaherty that he would never succeed in making a film out of his friend's book. Civilization was creeping into Tahiti, but it was still a terrestrial paradise. The tropic moon shone down on the beach, the soft waters lapped it, the Tahitians sang Polynesian songs in the coconut groves beyond, and, down on their knees in the sand beside a tiny radio, the cameramen were listening to Abe Lyman and his orchestra from the Coconut Grove in Hollywood. "Why not go back to California and make the picture in the Coconut Grove there?" asked Flaherty. [35] (Griffith 1953:76)

 

It was not long before Flaherty told Van Dyke that he had seen enough to know they could not work together, that their viewpoints were diametri-

86 Robert J. Flaherty

cally opposed, and that he intended to return to Hollywood. He did so and tore up his remunerative contract with MGM.

About this time, early 1928, an American contributor to Close-Up reports having met him in Hollywood:

 

Flaherty is a humorous, sandy-haired, somewhat portly Irishman. He has the air of a harassed papa dumped unceremoniously down in a nest of madmen. By the time this is published, he may be in the South Seas, or in the Canadian Rockies, or in the insane asylum; but at the moment he is tearing his hair out by the roots in the M-G-M lot at Culver City, a dreadful suburb of Los Angeles. Moana was his last independent [sic] venture. In order to continue making pictures he was forced to accept a contract that would assure him money enough to go on with his experimental ideas. But he soon discovered that movie producers experiment with money, not with ideas. (Needham 1928:48-49)

 

Flaherty is also remembered in Hollywood about this time by Margery Lockett, who recalls that he was often in the company of a group of students from the Harvard Film Foundation. They formed a devoted entourage and brought encouragement to Flaherty after the debacle of White Shadows. "He could be found," says Miss Lockett, "out on the cliffs taking long-focus shots of the ocean," but she does not remember why he was shooting except for "experiment." [36] He usually ate, it seems, at the unfashionable Japanese seafood restaurants and was a vagrant in Hollywood. When Flaherty returned to his home, he accepted an advance royalty payment from his friend Maxwell Perkins, then with the publishing house of Scribner's, to write his autobiography. Flaherty always found writing about his experiences difficult, and although he had already published My Eskimo Friends and was later to write other books, it seems fairly safe to say that he did not write one word of the autobiography. It is said that one day Perkins and Flaherty collided in a club (presumably the Coffee House) and the latter said, "Why don't you put me in jail, Max?" to which Perkins astutely replied, "My dear fellow, the longer you wait, the more story I'll have" [37] (Taylor 1949).

After the debacle of his disagreement with MGM, Flaherty had every reason to believe that any working partnership between himself and Hollywood was inconceivable. Nevertheless, the Hollywood mind is perversely unpredictable. In the early summer of 1928, the Fox Corporation engaged him to make a film about the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. He went there with his wife, David, and Leon Shamroy as cameraman. Reports on what exactly happened vary. A gossip note at the time said, "Robert J. Flaherty is preparing another screen-opus, this time with the Hopi Indians

Moana and the Pacific 87

in New Mexico ... with headquarters established at Santa Fe, he is at present living among the people of this aboriginal pueblo tribe, securing scenes of their picturesque daily life and their ancient ceremonies" (Anonymous 1928:64).

According to Robert Lewis Taylor, the filming had begun before the Flahertys arrived.

 

He hurried out to join the unit. When he got off the train, he found that the work was clipping along nicely. The studio beauticians were greasing up a pair of fairly well-known Hollywood stars, who would provide the love-interest that, Flaherty learned, was to be the back bone of the Acoma study, and for the mob scenes the casting people were hiring all the Indians in sight, including large numbers of Navajos, Apaches and Utes. He stuck around for a week or so, made the acquaintance of two authentic but stunned Acomas, and then returned to the East, richer by no wampum. (Taylor 1949)

 

Like other parts of Taylor's readable "Profile," this fanciful account does not tally either with Weinberg's Film Index or with David Flaherty's recollections. Weinberg states-and we should remember that Flaherty collaborated in compiling his work-that the unit worked for a year on the picture and that much footage was shot but Flaherty abandoned the project when Fox wanted to inject a love story that was "incompatible with the film as planned.-(R.J.F)" (Weinberg 1946).

David Flaherty relates that he was taken off the picture and brought to Hollywood toward the end of 1928 to work as a technical adviser "on a film that Fox was going to make in Tahiti of a South Seas story my brother and I had written." Berthold Viertel, the German director, was already engaged on the script. David made a preliminary visit to Tahiti, and when he returned "a few months later and was about to rejoin the unit in New Mexico," he learned from F. W. Murnau, the distinguished German director also working for Fox, that the picture had been called off (D. Flaherty 1952).

Both these accounts suggest, therefore, that Flaherty spent at least seven or eight months on the Acoma Indian film. Richard Griffith simply remarks that "production was stopped when first rushes revealed that the film was beginning to center around a small Indian boy instead of the 'romaritic leads' (white) whom Fox had sent along to adorn the tale" (Griffith 1953:76). At some point during the production, David Flaherty recalls, Flaherty went down into Mexico proper to find a "star" for the film. It was there that he heard for the first time the story, said to be true, of the bull being "pardoned" in the bulring. When he returned to Santa Fe, he wrote the story, calling it "Bonito, the Bull" [38]

The Acoma Indian film was never completed, and no record exists

88 Robert J. Flaherty

as to what happened to the footage. It was almost certainly destroyed in one of those periodic turnings-out of film storage vaults which all studios make from time to time. This third flirtation with Hollywood was to be Flaherty's last.

 

V : It is a matter of film history that in the late 1920's there took place a big exodus from Germany to Hollywood. The world impact of the golden period of German cinema (1920-26) caused the Hollywood moguls to send a shower of tempting offers across the Atlantic, and a procession of directors, writers, cameramen, art directors and actors streamed into the big American studios.

One of the most talented of these was Friederich Wilhelm Murnau, a tall, thin Westphalian with keen eyes, a soft voice, and hair variously described as reddish or golden. A shy, sensitive, and lonely man, he was an absolute dictator and a perfectionist in his film work. At the time of his arrival in Hollywood, in July 1926, he was thirty-seven, five years younger than Flaherty. His film The Last Laugh, scripted by Carl Mayer and starring Emil Jannings, was already regarded as one of the great screen classics of all time and had made a deep impression in the United States, as had his two subsequent films, Tartuffe and Faust.

William Fox considered himself more than fortunate in having secured Murnau to direct a film in Hollywood. On Sunrise, from a script by Carl Mayer (who did not go to Hollywood), he spared no money. Despite vast sets and highly elaborate camera mechanics, Sunrise was only partially successful, an uneven mixture of Murnau's sincerity and Fox's pretentiousness. But Murnau's prestige with Fox remained high. His second Hollywood picture, The Four Devils, despite a dialogue sequence added at the last moment, was far less successful. Murnau then began his third and last film for the studio, Our Daily Bread, much of which was shot on a farm at Pendleton, Oregon. The aim was to make an epic film of life in the Dakota grainfields revolving around the farming customs and traditions, with wheat as the never-changing symbol. When it was nearly finished, Fox got cold feet. Talking sequences were added and comic gag incidents inserted, but to no avail. The film was eventually released as City Girl in an abbreviated version, but it never played New York or other big cities.

David Flaherty had met Murnau in 1928 with Berthold Viertel. On this occasion Murnau lavished praise on Robert Flaherty, saying, "Your brother makes the best films." He also indicated that he was getting impatient with Hollywood methods.

Their next meeting was so important that it is best told in David Flaherty's words:

Moana and the Pacific 89

A few months later, I was back in Hollywood from Tahiti. I had hardly checked in at a hotel near the Fox lot when there came a phone call from Murnau. "You must come along to dinner this evening," he said.

As it happened, I had just arranged to dine with one of my few friends in Hollywood, a Danish actor named Otto Matiesen. I said I was awfully sorry ... any other evening....

"But you must come!" Murnau protested. I could see he was used to having his own way.

"But I really can't," I said.

"All right, then. Tomorrow." He was obviously annoyed.

Murnau lived alone with his servants in a castle perched on the highest hill in Hollywood. I felt flattered to be the only guest at the long table which gave an eagle's eye view of the lights of Hollywood and Los Angeles far below. His face glowed as he told me that he had just purchased a yacht, a Gloucester fisherman. She was a beauty-there were pictures of her-The Pasqualito. But Murnau was changing the name to the Bali, for to that far paradise he would sail her.

Hollywood was taking too much out of him, all this pressure from the studio, all this artificiality. He would break out of this prison. On the way he'd stop at Tahiti.

"You'll never believe an island could be so beautiful, Mr. Murnau," I said, "I'll give you some letters."

He'd stop at Samoa, too: I could give him letters to people I knew there, too. Lord, how I envied him!

Then almost casually, he said, "Like to come along?"

When I recovered my speech, I stammered that I'd give my right arm to go along, only I had to get back to New Mexico and the Pueblo Indian film. Then he broke the news that the studio was about to call off the film. The camp near Tucson had been burned out, and besides that, Bob and the studio were not seeing eye to eye on the story-the studio wanted to work in a love-story and all that.

Now Murnau unfolded his plan. Bob was through in Hollywood. He himself was fed up with it. He had bought this yacht. He and Bob would join forces, go off to Tahiti, Samoa, Bali, and make their pictures far from the heavy hand of Hollywood. 39] We'd put in a call to Tucson. We'd drive the 500 miles there in Murnau's roadster and see Bob the next day

At Tucson, Bob told Murnau the story of a pearl-diver which had come out of his unhappy White Shadows experiences in Tahiti. Murnau was fascinated.

"This will be the first Murnau-Flaherty film," he said.

The news that Flaherty and Murnau were quitting Hollywood to

90 Robert J. Flaherty

make their own films in faraway places created quite a stir in the film capital. Murnau's technical excellence and Flaherty's nose for the drama in primitive peoples-these were not long in attracting capital to the enterprise. Murnau, whom Flaherty conceded was a better business man than he, signed the contract with Colorart, a young company which, like William Fox a few short years before, was hungry for prestige. (D. Flaherty 1952)

 

Thus Flaherty and Murnau formed a partnership to make, they hoped, a series of films under the banner of Murnau-Flaherty Productions, Inc., independent of the major studio companies. Flaherty's sole experience with studio work had been the little Pottery-Maker film in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum! Murnau's first recognition that the real scene might be more convincing than studio fabrication had occurred only the previous year in the wheatfields of Oregon after more than ten years of concentrated work in the controlled conditions of the efficiently equipped studios of Neubabelsberg and Hollywood! It was, to say the least, a curious collaboration of talents and outlooks. But the two men had one priceless virtue in common-integrity. [40]

Frances Flaherty had different ideas about the new setup, which had no connection with filmmaking. First, the three Flaherty daughters were growing up fast and Mrs. Flaherty believed that not on1y was American education very expensive but it might also fall short of European standards. Second, she remembers that she had the premonition that a gigantic economic collapse in the United States was not far ahead [41]. She was correct. The big crash on Wall Street came very shortly after she left with her three daughters for Germany.

The Bali, with Murnau and the film unit, including David, sailed from San Pedro late in April 1929. Flaherty followed the next month by mail steamer, but, since Murnau stopped at the Marquesas and the Paumotos, Flaherty reached Papeete well ahead of the Bali. The news Murnau gave them was not good. He was living on credit. Colorart had not sent the payments called for in the contract. There followed weeks of cabling back and forth, and at last they all had to accept the unhappy truth: Colorart was not a sound concern. They were stranded.

Murnau then did the only thing possible: he decided to finance the undertaking himself. Flaherty had no money. But the picture would have to be made as economically as possible. As a start, Murnau paid off the crew of his yacht and sent them back to California, replacing them with Tahitians. "Had Murnau been by nature prodigal," adds David Flaherty dryly, "and Bob frugal, the arrangement might have worked out well. But since Murnau was by nature frugal, and Bob notoriously the opposite, it brought little comfort to either. Neither one had asked for this situation;

Moana and the Pacific 91

there it was." But it was Murnau who now held the purse strings (D. Flaherty 1952).

Flaherty had a very clear idea of what he wanted the film to be about. "We'll make the kind of picture they wouldn't let me make of White Shadows.' It was not to be 'another Moana.' He did not want to record again the fading forms of fa'a Samoa, but the reasons why they were fading. It was a theme that had fascinated him for a long time-the impact of 'civilization' on primitive cultures" (Griffith 1953:77-78). In his many years in the North and again in Samoa and Tahiti, Flaherty had seen how contact between the exploring, trade-seeking white man and the indigenous native could bring out the worst in both their natures. Hence we can surmise that with sudden, new-found freedom from Hollywood control and an inspiring partnership with the sensitive, intelligent Murnau, Flaherty must have been passionately anxious to make Tabu, as the film was to be called, into an indictment of the impact of white civilization on the Polynesians.

In White Shadows in the South Seas, O'Brien had written of the Marquesans:

 

They were essentially a happy people, full of dramatic feeling, emotional, and with a keen sense of the ridiculous. The rule of the trader crushed all these native feelings. To this restraint was added the burden of the effort to live. With the entire Marquesan economic and social system disrupted, food was not so easily procurable, and they were driven to work by commands, taxes, fines and the novel and killing incentives of rum and opium. The whites taught the men to sell their lives, and the women to sell their charms. Happiness and health were destroyed because the white man came here only to gratify his cupidity. (O'Brien 1919)

 

This was the situation that Flaherty wanted to portray in the new film, and plenty of evidence was available in Tahiti.

In his now customary way, Flaherty set up a laboratory in a back-street shed in Papeete and trained a seventeen-year-old half-caste boy to carry out the film processing. Another half-caste, Bill Bambridge, a member of an influential commercial family, was engaged as a major-domo, interpreter, and (with David Flaherty) assistant director. Bill had performed in a similar capacity for the MGM units that made White Shadows in the South Seas and The Pagan, and he had proved to be an indispensable and invaluable member of the small unit. He also played a small part in Tabu as a culpable native policeman.

Though he had brought with him his Akeley camera, Flaherty was not this time to undertake the sole burden of the photography. During the frantic period of cabling back and forth with Colorart in Hollywood, that

92 Robert J. Flaherty

shaky company had sent out a Hollywood crew consisting of a professional cameraman, a laboratory man, and a unit manager. This trio, however, arrived in Papeete without any funds and found themselves stranded like the others. Murnau promptly sent them back to Hollywood on the next mail steamer.

When Murnau finally decided to break with Colorart and to finance the picture himself, the camerawork again devolved on Flaherty. But the Akeley camera was giving trouble. Around Christmas, when they were on location at Bora-Bora, it finally broke down altogether. David Flaherty remembers Murnau saying with wistful sadness, "If only Floyd Crosby were here with his Debrie camera!" (Murnau had met Crosby on the trip to Tucson, where the latter was working as second cameraman on the ill-fated Acoma Indian film.) The next day, by a remarkable coincidence, a schooner from Papeete brought a cabled message to Murnau and Flaherty: "Just finished filming in Caribbean STOP May I join you in Tahiti-Floyd Crosby." Crosby arrived with his Debrie camera on the next mail steamer [42]. One further member of the crew who was recruited was Bob Reese, a young American who was at loose ends on the islands and became a general assistant.

The divergence of views between the two creative partners must have occurred at an early stage. Flaherty, as in his previous films, sought a story that arose out of the Tahitians and their environment, the story of their exploitation, while Murnau was influenced by a career in which most of his films had depended on versions of stories with well-defined plots adapted from novels or plays. He wanted, therefore, a story with a well-defined plot rather than the Flaherty conception of creating a film around a slender but central theme. Murnau found his plot in a legend derived from the age-old Polynesian custom of the tabu, in which a maiden is consecrated to the gods and as a result is forbidden to all men. Tragedy must overwhelm any who try to violate the tabu, even if moved by love. The young pearl fisher who falls in love with the maiden is destined to be consumed by the sea. The gods win.

However much Flaherty revolted against this fictionalized story, he did not break openly with Murnau. He was far too gentle-natured to create trouble for a fellow creative artist. This situation was very different and far more difficult for him than the one with Van Dyke. Murnau was a gifted filmmaker whose work Flaherty admired; a man of sincerity and artistic talent. The problem was that their approaches to the subject of the film-to-be were utterly divergent. And Murnau, Flaherty must have known, was carrying the full burden of cost. What course could Flaherty take but tactfully and courteously to withdraw more and more into the background as the film progressed?

David Flaherty makes the historically important point that it was on the basis of Flaherty's original pearl-diver story told by him to Murnau at Tucson

Moana and the Pacific 93

that Colorart backed the venture. When Murnau and Flaherty learned in Tahiti that Colorart had withdrawn, Murnau decided to change the story "so that Colorart could have no grounds for suing Murnau-Flaherty Productions, Inc., for the money they had actually been advanced." [43]

Visitors to Tahiti at the time were Jack Hastings (later the earl of Huntingdon) and his wife, and their recollections are of interest:

 

Both my wife and I fell under Flaherty's spell, were charmed and loved to listen by the hour to his stories. He related them so vividly that I can still clearly see Flaherty driving his team of huskies with the inevitable violin tied to the top of the load. . . . I was puzzled how two people with such divergent points of view as Murnau and Flaherty had decided to make a picture in partnership. . . . Murnau thought that he had the certainty of a release for the film but only if it turned out to be the sort of picture which he considered would be acceptable and sure of a box-office success. Flaherty was only interested in making what he believed would be a work of art with integrity. He refused to compromise or have anything to do with a "dramatic" story; for him the drama was in the life of the islanders. [44]

 

To play the part of Red, the virginal maiden, they had found Anna Chevalier in a local bar. She was seventeen and very beautiful, with "Grecian features," according to Flaherty. She had, it would seem, none of the shyness and modesty of the Savaii girls whom Flaherty used or tried to use in Moana. On the contrary, once started on movie work, it was hard to curb her enthusiasm.

As production went ahead during 1930, Flaherty was less and less involved. In September he decided to sell Murnau his share in their company for a few thousand dollars, which he later received in irregular installments. Lord Huntingdon writes:

About this time, money was short and as I had call on some capital from a small film company of which I was a director, I decided to join Murnau and got the consent of the other directors to invest the cash in this project. [45] Murnau naturally kept complete control over the direction but I found him amenable to accepting another point of view though usually only after considerable argument. As far as I was aware, Flaherty never resented my joining with Murnau nor the ultimate success of the picture but it was a subject we simply did not discuss. Perhaps Flaherty was fortunate in not being in the partnership any longer because the whole project turned out to be unlucky. We went to Bora-Bora and Murnau insisted against the strong feelings of the islanders in using as a location a small atoll in the main lagoon called Motu Tapu which was exceedingly convenient and undisturbed

94 Robert J. Flaherty

but which the Polynesians were most reluctant to go near. By a strange coincidence, from then on everything went wrong. Film stock was lost, schooners failed to arrive on time, Reri (our leading-lady) became pregnant, we nearly all contracted mumps and Bob Reese, the young assistant, got so badly burned in an accident that he had to spend weeks in hospital. [46]

 

In spite of these mishaps, however, production was finished to Murnau's satisfaction toward the end of the year, and the whole unit, including Flaherty, sailed back to California on the mail steamer.

 

A resume of Tabu and our own reassessment of it are not included here because we do not regard it as a Flaherty film. It was essentially Murnau's work with very few of Flaherty's ideas or conceptions, and it revealed little of his influence. [47]

Flahertv stayed in Hollywood only a short time after returning from Tahiti and took no part in the editing of Tabu. He is rumored to have tried to set up a film based on his "Bonito the Bull" subject. Douglas Fairbanks and Alexander Korda were both reported to have been interested in the idea but nothing materialized (Weinberg 1946). Weinberg also mentions that Flaherty helped Eisenstein, who had fallen out with Jesse L. Lasky of Paramount, to obtain a visa for Mexico. This probably occurred when Eisenstein was arrested in Mexico City in December 1930, and several internationally known people, including Chaplin and Einstein, cabled the Mexican government on his behalf (Seton 1952:193).

By this time, Frances Flaherty was safely settled with the three girls at Odenwaldschule in southern Germany. Flaherty decided to join them and arrived in time to spend Christmas 1930 in the Bavarian Alps. He thought he might manage to get invited to make a film in Russia. When Flaherty left the United States, not to return for almost ten years, he was forty-six and had produced only two films, which had gained world renown-Nanook and Moana. David Flaherty remained in Hollywood and worked on some scripts for Murnau before the latter's fatal accident, but Robert Flaherty did not learn of Murnau's tragic death until he was in Germany.

 

In the 1950s when we touched down at Honolulu during a world flight, the first thing noticed outside the airport was a huge neon sign advertising a filling station. It blazed one word-MOANA. [48]


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