Louisiana Story Chapter 6

I : Flaherty tells us how, in 1944, he began his next project:

It was a day in spring . . . . I was resting on my farm in Vermont with no particular plans in mind when a note came from a friend of a friend of mine in the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.

The note put a proposition to me: Would I be interested in making a film which would project the difficulties and risk of getting oil out of the ground-admittedly an industrial film, yet one which would have enough story and entertainment value to play in standard motion picture houses at an admission-price?

On my next trip to New York, I had the first of a series of luncheon conferences with people in the Jersey company in the course of these luncheons they managed to communicate to me some of the excitement and fascination that surrounds the oil-business. The upshot of it was that I agreed to spend three months finding out whether I thought I could make an interesting picture about oil.

Mrs. Flaherty and I set out in our car for the southwest. We drove thousands of miles. We visited boom-towns and ghost-towns and listened to tales spun by old-timers. We found limitless plains dotted with derricks. But we kept reminding ourselves that even in Westerns, horses galloped. In the oil country the derricks stood straight and rigid against the sky. Nothing moved. We couldn't get it out of our minds that the real drama of oil was taking place deep in the earth at that very moment, concealed from the eye of the camera.

In the course of our wanderings we came to the bayou country

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of Louisiana. We were enchanted by the gentle, gay and picturesque people of French descent who inhabit this little-known section of the United States; a people who have managed to preserve the individual flavor of their culture. We were delighted with their customs, their superstitions, their folk-tales of werewolves and mermaids, handed down from generation to generation. But we weren't getting any closer to a film about oil.

Then one day we stopped the car for lunch near the edge of a bayou. Suddenly, over the heads of the marsh grass, an oil-derrick came into our view. It was moving up the bayou, towed by a launch. In motion, this familiar structure suddenly became poetry, its slim lines rising clean and taut above the unending flatness of the marshes.

I looked at Frances. She looked at me. We knew then that we had our picture.

Almost immediately a story began to take shape in our minds. It was a story built around that derrick which moved so silently, so majestically into the wilderness; probed for oil beneath the watery ooze, and then moved on again, leaving the land as untouched as before it came.

But we had to translate our thesis-the impact of science on a simple, rural community-into terms of people. For our hero, we dreamed up a half-wild Cajun boy of the woods and bayous. To personalize the impact of industry, we developed the character of a driller who would become a friend to the boy, eventually overcoming his shyness and reticence. The other characters in the film developed naturally around these two. All the parts would be played not by professional actors but by people who had never faced a camera . . . .

The story almost wrote itself. We shot it up to New York and got an okay from Jersey's board of directors. Only at that point did we make a definite deal to go ahead with the film. [1]


In their customary manner, the Flahertys established themselves and the unit in Abbeville, Louisiana, in an old rented house. They converted a vast closet in the house into a darkroom, turned the front porch into a make-shift cutting room, installed a silent film projector, and acquired both a station wagon with a camera platform on top and a cabin cruiser to move around in the bayous. For one of their most important locations they were loaned the use of Avery Island, which was owned by Colonel Ned McIlhenny, an internationally known explorer and sportsman. It is one of the showplaces of the South, a magnificent preserve teeming with wildlife, including alligators. For the oil derrick and drilling sequences, the Humble Oil and Refining Company (a New Jersey affiliate) put at Flaherty's disposal the crew of Humble Rig Petite Anse No. 1.

As in all earlier films, the first task was to find the main characters. The

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company broke up into parties and searched the countryside for types which Flaherty had in mind, taking hundreds of still photographs of likely people. They were looking mainly for the boy and his father. Flaherty writes:


Mrs. Flaherty and Richard Leacock, our cameraman, heard about a promising boy in a remote parish, and decided to drive over and have a look at him. On the way they stopped at a cabin to ask directions, and there, staring at them from a photograph on top of the radio-set, was the face of Joseph Boudreaux . . . . But Joseph had gone to the nearest town for an ice-cream cone, walking the twelve miles barefoot. My wife and Ricky immediately got into the car and went to look for him, afraid to get too excited until they had seen the necessary tests. They found him resting on a curbstone, took the necessary shots, and hurried home. [2]


The tests were highly successful and so Joseph Boudreaux became Alexander Napoleon Ulysses Latour for the purpose of the film. "From that time on," says Frances Flaherty, "Bob was insistent that no one should show any affection for the boy except himself. He wanted sole control over him, as he had done with Sabu and Mikeleen." [3] To play the boy's father, Flaherty settled for Lionel LeBlanc, an experienced trapper, who was also the overseer at Colonel McIlhennys estate. For the part of Tom Smith, the driller on the oil derrick, they found a "natural" in Frank Hardy, a Texan, who was one of the crew of the Petite Anse No. 1.

Before leaving New York, Flaherty signed up the editor, Helen van Dongen, who was also to act as an associate producer, a combined status that gave her more say over haw the picture should be shaped and shot.

Flaherty had hired a professional cameraman to shoot the picture. Richard Leacock, however, was not a tough professional of the Hollywood school but a sensitive and modest cameraman who at that time had done notable work on some documentaries, mainly in the eastern states. [4] Flaherty had wanted to use Osmond Borradaile, who shot Elephant Boy, again, but Borradaile was already committed to go to Australia to shoot The 0ut1anders for Harry Watt.

For all the silent shooting, which was by far the greater part of the film, Flaherty and Leacock used two Arriflex cameras. A Mitchell sound camera was brought down for the synchronized dialogue shooting at the end. This time, however, processing was not to be done on the spot but the exposed negative was sent to the Pathé Laboratories in New York and the rushes returned to Abbeville a few days later, the negative being retained at the laboratory.

The contract with Standard Oil was unique in the history of sponsored documentary films. The company paid in advance the sum of $175,000, the

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estimated cost of the film. Flaherty was to be the sole owner of the distribution rights, with no obligation to refund the cost of production and with absolute control aver all revenue. No reference to Standard Oil need appear on the titles of the film. It was to be a Robert J. Flaherty production. The company would be satisfied, in a highly imaginative public relations manner, with what editorial publicity it might reap from the film when made. It was without question the most generous and favorable assignment any producer of documentary films has ever had. But who shall say that Flaherty did not deserve it? He had waited long enough for such confidence in his artistry.

Richard Griffith remembers that Flaherty called him up just before taking off for Louisiana and said, "Come on down to the Colonial Trust Company's Bank and help me berth the check. You can't just deposit it in the ordinary way-it's too big. I need some tugs to help me roll her into the slip. Come along!" [5]


Production began in May 1946, with tests and material to provide background atmosphere. As on the earlier pictures, the Flahertys had many visitors. One of them, Edward Sammis, an official of Standard Oil, went down there several times and has given a colorful account of what he found:


Nothing like Bob Flaherty had ever happened to Abbeville. . . . Bob and the Abbeville folk had an immediate affinity to each other. They were "Cajuns" (a contraction of French Canadians) by lineage. They were imaginative, poetical, a race of story-tellers who would describe to you the depredations of werewolves in as matter-of-fact a manner as city people might speak of the atom bomb.

The Flaherty's [sic] had moved in . . . to a cool and cavernous old house on the edge of the town. I don't think anyone ever counted the manifold rooms. Certainly no one ever counted the guests that inhabited them, a heterogeneous lot, drawn from all over the world by the warmth and compulsion of Bob's personality. . . . One night there would be no one at table for dinner, all having vanished into the vastness of the bayous. The next, there might be seventeen, appearing as suddenly and mysteriously as the guests had disappeared the night before. The talk at that long table was of life in London and New York and Paris and Tahiti and Mysore; of films and stage and actors and life, and the dubious fate of man on this difficult planet. There was always the guest who had flown in from Shannon that morning on his way to Honolulu, side by side with the trapper from the bayous and the oil driller just off his rig. Bob saw to it that each had his turn with a tale, which gave to the conversation an extraordinary richness and flavor.

Bob's day started about five in the morning, and with it the day of

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the whole caravanserai. The night before, right after dinner, he would have started sniffing out the weather, listening avidly to reports on the radio, going out to study the clouds. "It's going to be fine tomorrow," he would invariably pronounce, "Good day for shooting. Luck of the Irish." A few hours sleep seemed to suffice him when he was working. [6] He would go through the house roaring at everybody to get to bed. Then he himself would sit up, reading, half the night. Again his voice was the first one heard in the morning, bellowing at everybody to rise and shine. . . .

Every trip down the bayou was a new adventure, every coral snake on the bank, every trapper's shanty, an unending source of fascination. "Location" was a fabulous long shanty built on an island, on a peak of clam shells, and known as Trapper Jake's place. Bob rented it from Trapper Jake, who moved further down the bayou for the location. Watching the shooting in that cabin was a memorable experience. . . .

Bob never showed to better advantage than when he was directing dialogue. The silent film was his natural medium, but here he had to make actors overnight out of reticent, shy people. . . . The end of the day would find the actors exhilarated and Bob as limp as a rag. He had sweated it out for all of them. . . .

"Luck of the Irish," he would say afterwards, sitting at his favorite card-table in the living-room of the Abbeville house, a cigarette dangling from his grin, his great frame shaking with silent laughter.

An engaging and typical sidelight was the mesmeric effect Bob had on the local telephone-exchange. He lived by the telephone. It was the instrument that kept him in touch with his cronies all over the world. You would come down first thing in the morning, and Bob would already be on the phone to London. You could hear him bellowing genially, as though to make his voice carry across the Atlantic. "How's the weather over there? You must come over and see us. Fly over. We've got plenty of room." It never bothered him that the house was busting at the seams already. . . .

Bob must have known the toll that Louisiana Story was taking, working as he did, day after day in the dank heat of the bayous. But, with his overwhelming confidence in his boundless physical energy, he never spared himself. (Sammis 1951)


Helen van Dongen joined the unit in August. She kept a combined personal and production diary from that date until shooting was almost finished at the end of March 1947. We are able, therefore, to draw on a firsthand account of the production and its problems by quoting selected extracts from this diary. [7]

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Abbeville, August 10, 1946: I was greeted by the entire family, official and unofficial, with great glasses of Scotch. Bob and Frances, of course; Barbara (van Inge); Ricky Leacock and his wife, Happy; Sidney Smith, just out of the navy since two days: If he can't get a place in college he'll stay on in one capacity or another; while continually around and forming part of the crew are Joseph Latour, [he is referred to by the initials J.L. all through the diary]-he is our Cajun boy actor, also accompanied by his cousin, Clarence, who takes care of him and is also assistant to Ricky. Then there is Burnell, a little brother of Clarence, who has no function at all but who cried so hard when he heard that his brother was leaving for Abbeville that Flaherty had pity on him and let him come along too. These three live in a boardinghouse in the town. Then there is Mr. Herbert, the carpenter, who makes things almost as fast as you can ask for them.

Then in walks Lionel LeBlanc, whose screen-test I already saw in New York. He will play J. L.'s father. A good-looking man, powerful, one of the best hunters and trappers in this part of the country. Later on he told with great care about how alligators were caught. A sequence in the film calls for the trapping of a 9ft. alligator. "I'm not going in the water after him, no sir. If he's on land, I'll see first." Lionel speaks a beautiful, precise, careful English which should be excellent for recording. We screened several reels for him of what had already been shot. Also a reel from Nanook in which the Eskimos catch the walrus. He liked it, and undoubtedly understood better than anyone "how hard work it was." After that everyone disappeared to the local movie, while I slept.

Bob's standing joke: "What is the longest distance between two points?" Answer: "A motion picture."

August 12: Screened six reels of unassembled alligator material. Damned old fashioned projection-machine with parallel reels, I ought to join the projectionist's union just for being able to run the damned thing. The screen is buckled and half the silver from the mirror behind the bulb is gone. Bulb too weak and old, giving yellow light. All that with film printed on safety stock which is already slighty, brownish. . . .

After dinner, temperature cooled off sufficiently to make working in the outside cutting-room inviting. . . . Fan perpetually going. Moviola not arrived yet. Looking temporally at stuff through a viewer. Very much involved in close-ups of ferocious-looking alligators, hissing and snapping at their as-yet unexisting victim. Suddenly an accompaniment of a Grieg Sonata! For piano and violin. Strangest combination-alligators and trembling violin. When I stole a look, the


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artists were Frances and Bob, with Barbara sitting in a corner drawing a picture of her father playing the fiddle. The Sonata continued for at least half-an-hour, with the humidity so great that the fiddle was slightly out of tune. And I think the piano was too.

August 19: New projector and screen arrive. Ricky and Sidney are figuring it out. "Half the work (if making a motion picture is opening packages." Suggested slogan to be painted on projector: "Let your light so shine before men that all may see your good works." Lionel LeBlanc signed his contract.

August 20: Shooting alligator going for bait. Alligator grabs bait, gets hook in his mouth, but refuses to put up a fight even though Sidney admitted that he had put a big plank on its tail and was dancing up and down on it to make him mad. Nothing doing. Lionel LeBlanc puts a beam between alligator's jaws and frees him from hook. . . . Moviola arrived.

August 22: While shooting around alligator sequence and everything is at last set, Colonel McIlhenny arrives and tells Mr. Flaherty that he did not want any of his alligators killed-though he had previously consented to have one killed which we would eventually replace. Now what? We'll have to stop shooting this sequence until the problem is solved. In the afternoon, Mr. LeBlanc arrives with his son and nephew. These two will go off for one week deep into the interior of the marshes and catch an alligator, which then will be taken to some place where there is enough water and light to film this scene.

August 28: Puzzle: coon in pirogue (wooden carved-out canoe) when introduced what does he do? When lost-if lost-how found? Possible introduction when surveyor comes to home of J.L. Coon with family in kitchen. J.L. takes it with him on first trip to oil derrick shows it to Tom Smith, the driller. Does not always take it with him because animals are too lively and might distract attention from J.L. Coon in pirogue when J.L. in pond looking for alligator. Disappears when J.L. disturbs alligator's nest. Did alligator eat it? Question unsolved. J.L. takes revenge on alligator for eating his coon? Or does J. L. only think so? Does J.L. tell his parents that coon has disappeared? Most probably since it is his pet and he broke down and cried in cypress forest. When does coon appear again? Does J.L. go on looking for him? As planned, J.L. gets coon back at end of film. It is Tom Smith who found him and returned him to J. L. But what caused Tom Smith to find coon? Coon got lost in pond or cypress swamp. Tom Smith is driller-has no reason to be in cypress forest, nor would

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coon think of going to vicinity of oil-derrick. Does J. L.'s persistence make him find coon himself?

The above entry is typical of many such, all illustrating the countless avenues that were explored for the many action sequences in the film. Despite the merits of spontaneity and naturalism of Flaherty's off-the-cuff method of shooting, it remained a headache for the editor of the hundreds of shots to find a logical way of using them in continuity to express what slight story there was. Thus Helen van Dongen's assembling of the footage as shooting proceeded was a more integral part of the film's construction than in any previous Flaherty film. John Goldman, it will be recalled, roughly edited only the storm sequence of Man of Aran while the film was actually being shot. Helen van Dongen's diary continues:


New problem: a new pirogue. Beautiful little thing, only 18 inches wide, hewn from half a cypress-log. It took six weeks to find someone who could make it, after having bought log through oil company. J.L. will now have to learn to paddle it! But most of the shooting for introduction of the film-cypress swamp, going around on lily pond and setting bait for and catching alligator has already been shot with the old pirogue! Can we match shots with old and new pirogues at random? I don't think so. New one is so much more slender and beautiful. If impossible to match, new pirogue can only be used for unfilmed sequences, but that would leave nothing but the end of the film, which is a pity. Also it will be necessary to find plausible excuse to introduce new pirogue. Or can make establishing shots where both pirogues are visible so that it is acceptable to audience that boy uses both pirogues at random? Only other alternative: reshoot everything with the new pirogue!

Best half of cypress-log unused; first pirogue made from less good part to experiment with. So now Flaherty wants same man to make another pirogue from second half of log and to film the whole procedure. Obviously no doubt that process of making pirogue is of extreme interest and beauty, but Bob wants to incorporate it in the film. "His father is building it for him. Every young boy in the audience will envy him." No doubt, but seems to me at the moment that it means changing the script too much. Are we going to make the same mistakes as Hollywood, cramming six stories and three generations into one picture?

Entire film cannot list more than one-and-a-half hours in my opinion. I want time enough in editing to give each sequence its chance and be able to put suspense in it. . . . We can always film the pirogue-making and make a short little film of it later. But will budget support such escapades?

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Went out yesterday to location. Saw place where cypress swamps were filmed earlier, and alligators 1 and 2's nest. Was expecting to be dragged into Louisiana wilds. Instead to Avery Island, Colonel McIlhenny home, branched off to tropical jungle-park with mown lawns and beautifully cultivated flowers and bushes. So the camera never lies? Well, then the artistry of director and cameraman can darned well change location from an appealing jungle back to a forboding, weird and eerie swamp. The cypress swamp, which looks so expansive and monumental on the screen in the rushes, is in reality nothing but a little pool with a few cypress trees!

September 3: Someone dropped a magazine with exposed film in it. This is the second time we'll have to reshoot. Certainly brought R. F.'s disposition to a low point and his irritation brought on first collision. . . .

The frog and salt bag, carried by J.L. inside his shirt as protection against werewolves, appear for first time in film in cypress swamp. [10] They do not appear again until oil-derrick sequence later, when Tom Smith says to J. L., "What are you always scratching yourself for?" Fundamental principle:. words alone do not carry story line. Question: Even though we do not see frog, will J.L. ever scratch himself in intervening sequences to justify Tom Smith's question? Such scratching not to be emphasized as carrying action but seen just enough unobtrusively because the frog is damned well itching him! Answer: Complete blow-up by R. F. and disagreeable humor for rest of day, aggravated by Arnold Eagle, [11] who comes in six minutes too late for dinner and is not invited to sit down, and by Lionel LeBlanc who comes in five minutes after that and is told to serve himself a drink and wait in the sitting-room. Both disappear, but without a drink!

September 5: Broke down script into separate sequences to see for myself how much we jump around. Script is written beautifully, but very often only just as you would tell a story When it comes to breaking it down in such a fashion that you can see how the sequences run, and plan how they should be shot, then you find many discrepancies. Also, very often nice sequences occur with either animals or humans who are supposed to be part and parcel of the life of the character but who appear nowhere before the script. For example, the pet coon does not turn up in the script until much later, somewhere on the oil-derrick, yet the coon is the constant pet of J.L. and is supposed to have been eaten by the alligator . . . also coon is found back and returned to J.L. just before the end of the film-but by whom, and why, and how, and when?

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Another thing: as script is written now, jean Latour (J.L.'s father) speaks the language of simple-minded man, who does not know the value of money. Also, he speaks a sort of pidgin-English translated supposedly from the Acadian French, which is rather primitive in the script. is this a left-over from behavior of primitive people such as the Eskimos in Nanook or the Samoans in Moana? This may be the result of Flaherty's writing the script in New York without having had any contact on his research here with real Acadians-therefore this primitive talk.

Yet, since having talked to several of them, and actually having worked with them daily either as actor, or as carpenter, or boatman, RE still tells the sequences the same way as they were written. Take, for example, Lionel LeBlanc, who plays the father. He knows the value of money and makes an excellent living with Colonel McIlhenny He speaks a beautiful, precise, well-pronounced English. If he would sign a lease on his land with the oil company (as in the script) for wildcat drilling, he might certainly think that the oil-people are crazy but he would nevertheless study the contract and lease before signing itjust in case, and when receiving a cheque, he'd know damn well that he could cash It-with or without the Company finding oil! lbough money to these people does not have as much importance as it has to people in large cities, they know damn well the value of land.

Eventually these things may get corrected in the film, but the big problem will be to begin a discussion with Flaherty about them. He has a tendency to take every point that is brought up as a criticism, even if presented to him in the mildest form as a question. It is hardly possible to have an exchange of ideas with him, merely in the interests of the film. This is one of the hardest parts of this job. Never a discussion, never an exchange of ideas about incongruities or possibilities or form, for that matter. Never an exchange of ideas about anything, be it politics or a way of living. A curious one-track mind. To get it to change to a slightly different idea is almost the slow process of an evolution.

September 10: Bob and I start screening. At 8 A.M. the projector breaks down for the nth. time. Takes nearly all day to try and fix it. As day progresses Bob gets more and more impatient, approaching Sidney first every halfhour and then every five minutes with, "How's she doing, Sid?" by 5 P.M. Bob's humor is far below freezing point. Better not come too close. I hide in the cutting-room and keep busy figuring out how we can have four alligator sequences and not be repetitious? If this continues, we'll need a 20-reel picture to give oil a chance to tell its story in the last reel. . . .

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September 12: Flaherty: The art of the motion picture is the art of exclusion.

September 13: In Memoriam: One baby-alligator-as yet nameless.
Lost: two possums.
Rushes of oil blow-up on Avery Island came in. They stink.
Flaherty repeats again: "To know what to do, you have to know what not to do."
Everyone gone to the oil-derrick again. Ran all rushes of J.L. tying rope to tree and watching for alligator, and the ones of Lionel rushing up to J.L. and looking at his hands. Exposure problems terrific; high lights too high, rest under exposed. . . . Wish Flaherty would make some shots of J.L. watching motionlessly instead of this continuous head-turning movement. Crew returned at 6:30 P.M. waited all day. Nothing happened.
[On September 26, Mrs. Flaherty went to New York and Flaherty followed by plane, to see their daughter, Barbara, back off to India.]

September 26: I have now a new job. Am house-keeper and cook: completely new and strange task to plan three meals a day for three hungry guys who eat the strangest of things,

October 2: No meat, no fish, no vegetables, no nothing. Planning three meals a day with nothing to buy in this town. Film-making is a strange profession. Life isolated here. No newspapers, no radio, no exchange ideas. Only diversion: baseball game for which I don't care. Bob returns Sunday. If we continue at this pace, film will take another year-and-a-half. . .

October 5: Unplaced sequence: J.L.'s pet coon which he takes along when shooting. Sometimes coon does nice things, which are filmed if seen in time, such as towing the pirogue, or climbing trees. We would use these shots in the film but do not know how yet. Thought develops to make coon actor in film. . . .This thought results in shooting new sequence: J.L. looking for coon.
Editor's note: only two sorts of shots. J.L. running in cypress swamps dwarfed by trees, excellent material, and close-up of J.L.'s face looking around and purring for coon.
Editor's headache: where is coon?
Screenings and discussion: now decided that coon is an audience catcher. Should be played up more. How to introduce him? Who finds, and where, and why?
Believe-it-or-not department: it takes trappers years to learn how to hook alligators and it's a pretty dangerous job. When we planned

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this sequence, we decided to have Lionel LeBlanc come in very early. However, on the day of shooting, Lionel was not available and, credible or not, J.L. did pull in that alligator alone, though in an unorthodox way. We did not stage the scene.
Editor's note: a hell of a way to try making a sequence when still so many shots are missing! No use shooting all facial expressions of J.L. either because we change the plan so often. Vicious circle: no use shooting until story of sequence is right: not possible to edit sequence properly until shots are made! Story won't be good until it runs so simply on the screen that it seems as if it never could have been written otherwise in the first place.

October 20: Mr. George Freiermouth, New York head of public relations department of Standard Oil arrived yesterday. We showed him about 20,000 ft. (i.e. approximately 33/4 hours of screen time) of organized but uncut material until he was cross-eyed, and generally gave him a good time. He seemed pleased when he left.
Discussion: As usual, Bob does not formulate exactly how he wants sequence but leaves composition of first cut entirely to me. Frances wants, much hubbub around that big oil derrick to make it seem overpowering. J.L in pirogue stays at safe distance to take it all in.
Editor's opinion: I want to take material back to cutting-room and screen it ten times over to myself and to let the material tell its own story without additions yet of any foreign material. Once the foundations are laid, one can embellish it. In my opinion, it's no good to start with the frills: you'll find out after a while that you have only frills, no floor. In stubbornness, we all match each other well: the Irish, the Bostonian and the Dutch! But what the hell of a spot to put an editor in! Maybe R.F. never intended to become a co-ordinator, diplomat and father-confessor all in one?

October 23: Difficulty of keeping film authentic: sequences such as the catching of the alligator, or J.L. disturbing alligator nest, which are staged and planned by us, could be shot according to a preconceived shooting-script covering the action from every angle, with far shots, medium-shots, and close-ups, in order to have sufficient cutting material. When trying to do so, it turned out however, that the sequence when edited told you that a camera had been ever-present. No matter how naturally and beautifully played, the ever-present camera ruins the authenticity of the scene. Films like Louisiana Story should be shot in such a way as if the camera were accidentally present to record the action while it happened without the subject being aware that a camera is present. This precludes automatically coverage from every

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angle or with more than two lenses. Obviously this makes the editing of such a sequence sometimes extremely difficult.

Dear Mr. Director:
Please invent some other way of shooting little boy and give him something to do. He is always wiggling his head from one side to another and he is always "looking"-looking at alligators, looking at nests, looking at the coon, looking at trees, looking at birds. . . . In one word-just looking alla time. I know we want to tell the story from the boy's point of view and we want to have the audience see things through his eyes. In each sequence separately he is fine. But if you string all the sequences together, I'm getting damned tired of him! Will you please think of something-anything-to keep him busy in the film? I know I am a nuisance, but please think up something. . . .
Your Editor.

December 8: Rushes came in of J.L. crying over lost coon. Not much can be used. Forest looks much emptier than in shots made earlier this season. Not mysterious enough atmosphere. J.L. does not look tired enough. We must also use more glycerine or other medicant to make his eyes look more swimmy. When he looks up (after burying his head in his arms), he should look in opposite direction. Shots of alligator eating bird will work very well. They look already evil in temporary cut. David Flaherty arrives on 22nd.


Just before Christmas, Helen van Dongen went back to New York intending not to return to Abbeville. The strain of "collisions" had taken its toll; after one such, she had felt her professional status as the film's editor was jeopardized. After long-distance telephone calls from Flaherty, however, during which he promised that such a situation would not recur, she returned on January 14, 1947, and started editing again.

January 18: Rewriting the script. Some parts better, some not so good yet. Having hard time saying "Yes" all the time, since I'm doing the typing as well. Many sequences changed. Flaherty asked my opinion. Read it all again. As usual, extremely difficult to give honest opinion. R.F.: too sensitive to any discussions (not even criticism). I brought up subject of oil-derrick blowing-up. Analyzing script, and putting aside all the oil sequences, we have told the whole story of oil we want to tell, ending with phantasmagoria of oil-world, like dreamworld where nothing is impossible. All we have left to tell is that the well we have been drilling brings in oil as climax to our story. However, since this is a film, disaster always strikes just before accomplishment. Therefore, here is mechanically right place to have oil-well

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blow-up. Moreover, fading-out on oil-dream sequence and fading-in on people staring at something that presumably happens at the well, then cutting to Tom Smith speaking into telephone explaining to person at other end of line what disaster has befallen them-this gives the whole story away.

Bob violently disagrees. He says it's dramatically correct to show blow-out only at the last moment that creates suspense. I say it does not. You give the whole story away by the mechanical device of a telephone conversation. When you finally do see well blow-up, there is no suspense left. . . . Then will people stop looking at this damned picture?

I still do not like the letter Jean Latour writes to the oil-scout at the end of the film. I never liked that letter. The more I stay here, the less I like it. The trappers here may be illiterate, they may not know correct English, but they are competent trappers. Words like "boss-man at the bank" are in my opinion the sort of pidgin-English always used to make natives ridiculous in the eyes of "superior" white people. It is condescending and uncalled for. If the character of Jean Latour in our film is correct and consistent, it is of no importance whether he can read, write or speak English. The audience would (or should, it the film is any good), accept him as a man who knows his job. They should not take him for a simple idiot who does not know the value of a cheque once written and signed..

Bob gets mad at this discussion. Calls it an isolated case. People here are that simple, he says, the ones that live in the marshes.


January 26: Almost finished with rewrite of script; now waiting to reread the whole. . . . Some good, some the same. The sequences written after the cut film are the best, but that is because they are simply a description of a finished sequence. I still do not agree with the long dialogue between Latour and the oil scout, nor do I like the letter at the end. Also think that the long conversation between the boilerman and the driller is forced and gives the whole surprise away that the well is going to blow up. Bob admitted today for the first time that I was right on the first points. . . .


February 20: Made location maps. Having shot the sequences helter-skelter, and on as many different locations as possible, it became increasingly difficult to tell Bob from which direction to shoot and which way J.L. and others should enter and exit. Made camera-positions of sequences, tried to put these together like a jig-saw puzzle and filled in the rest. Now we have a complete location map for all sequences. This has been very hard to make for someone who always reads and draws maps upside down!

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March 19: Discussion yesterday about off-stage voice. I am so deeply convinced we need a commentator for major sequences-outside of the few lines called "off-stage" voice in the script-that I added the costs for it subconsciously to the budget. Yesterday Bob said, "No commentator at all!" I do not see how certain sequences can be sustained without one. Justifiable conflict of opinion between "suspense" and "confusion." Not knowing at all and revealing much too late throws an audience into confusion. Bob and Frances call it "suspense." Lennie Stark arrived today with the Mitchell camera for synchdialogue sequences.


Helen van Dongen's diary (of which only about one-eighth is quoted here) ends toward the close of March, when only a few days of shooting with sound remained to be done. Since there were no projection facilities for sound film at Abbeville, she returned to New York to screen the dialogue rushes there and to begin work on the vast task of finally editing the film. Estimates of the total amount of picture footage shot on the film vary. Van Dongen, through whose hands every foot passed, puts it at "close on to 200,000 ft," while Flaherty himself says it was nearly 30,000 feet. [13] There is, however, also a substantial discrepancy in their respective reports on the final cut length of the completed film. Van Dongen puts it at "about 8,000 ft" a reel, while Flaherty records it as being "some 7,000 ft."

Before leaving the shooting period of the film, it is worth repeating several incidents which Flaherty himself has described:


We worked day after day shooting reams of stuff. But somehow we never could make that pesky derrick come alive. We could not recapture that exhilaration we had felt when we first saw it moving slowly up the bayou. Then we hit on it. At night! That's when it came alive! At night with the derrick's lights dancing and flickering on the dark surface of the water, the excitement that is the very essence of drilling for oil became visual. So we threw our daytime footage into the ash-can and started in all over again to shoot our drilling scenes against a night background.

So far, so good to make an unusual picture, we needed something out of the ordinary, something which does not occur in the usual run of events. But major disturbances seldom happen in the scientific, carefully controlled activity that is the modern oil business.

I've been lucky in my motion pictures. But I believe in making your luck, too. So I set out to make my own luck. I arranged with one of the state conservation officers and with the tool-pushers of the Humble Company, who get around a lot, that if anything were to go wrong anywhere within reach, they were to let me know immediately. For weeks nothing happened. Then about 2 o'clock one morning we

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got a phone call. A well at Atchafalaya Bay about sixty miles away had had a gas blow

We were dressed and aboard our cabin cruiser in record time. We reached the well about 10 A.M. She was still spouting gas, water and mud. With the temerity born of ignorance, we clambered aboard and began to shoot. We got on the upper-floor of the derrick, and shooting from there, got some magnificent footage looking right down into the spouting gas.

Finally one of the rig bosses came up and looked curiously at the camera. When he saw its electric-motor, his hair stood up almost straight on end. He asked us courteously but firmly to get off the derrick at once. When we were at a safe distance, he explained that if the motor on our camera had generated a spark, with all that gas floating in the air, we could have been blown to Kingdom Come. [14] (Flaherty 1950)


As fate would have it, two magazines of that day's work, so vital to the film, were fogged by the laboratories and thus made useless!

Flaherty shot dialogue on location for the first time in Louisiana Story. Of this experience, we again have recourse to Helen van Dongen.


Flaherty had written specific dialogue lines for those sequences which were going to be shot with asynchronous.picture-sound camera. (The Mitchell operated by Leonard Stark.) He soon realized how hard it was for non-actors to learn prepared lines by heart. If they don't forget them during the shooting of the scenes, they concentrate so much on remembering their lines that their performance becomes stultified. Flaherty solved this part of the problem by explaining to the group of "actors" (father, mother and son) the action to be "played" and the content of the dialogue to be spoken. One of the sequences in which this happened is the one "played" in the kitchen after the well has struck oil.

Flaherty told the group of "actors" that, to celebrate the event, the father went on one of his rare visits to the nearest village to do some necessary shopping. He has now returned to the kitchen, starts unpacking the food and then remarks that he has also brought some presents. He asks the boy to hand one of the packages from the big box to his mother, who unpacks it and finds a new double-boiler. The boy gets a little impatient waiting for his own present, and asks the father what he has brought for him? The father scolds him at first for being unruly and then eventually hands him the present. (This is only a rough description and does no justice to Flaherty's subtle direction.)

To make it easier for the "actors," Flaherty, after explaining to them the content of their dialogue, allowed them to use their own

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words. When "playing" this scene, they added a few unexpected twists and phrases. They also spoke in their own patois-French instead of using English. Not having to remember precise lines, their "acting" was excellent, but however beautifully this scene was played it could not be left all in one shot in the, final film. Certain parts of the sequence had to be re-enacted for other camera-angles and lenses, so that, in the final sequences, we should get a more intimate response to some of the lines spoken. . . .

It was only when starting to edit the "presents-in-the-kitchen" sequence that I became acutely aware that, although the dialogue in each retake was similar in content, not once did the "actors" use exactly the same words or sentence-formation. And here was where a great problem arose. [15] (van Dongen 1951:64-65)


Van Dongen then goes on to relate how the problem, which is technically complicated, was solved in the cutting room. She does not say, however, that the problem would not have arisen at all if Flaherty had had a little more experience shooting dialogue, or if he had had someone to check and record such discrepancies at the time of shooting.

Although in various accounts of making the film, Flaherty tells with enthusiasm about recording of "wildtrack" sound effects on location, which would later be edited in the sound track in as subtle a way as the visuals, Helen van Dongen recalls that he did not appear at the time to be very interested in the recording of them. She and the sound recordist, Benjamin Donniger, went out and got most of them, including the dozens of separate sounds which were recorded of the oil derrick at work and which later were edited and "mixed" in relation to the visuals in several highly complicated sequences.

The final editing period of the film lasted from April 1947 to July of the next year, when the first show print was ready. Flaherty had Helen van Dongen work out an estimate of what the film would now cost to finish, including music, recording, optical work and so on. The contract also included some subsidiary films made from the leftover footage. [16] She found that the entire contract price of $175,000 had already been spent at Abbeville. A supplementary budget to complete the film was prepared and submitted by van Dongen to Standard Oil on Flaherty's behalf. Fortunately, it was accepted. It brought the total cost up to $258,000.

It had been clear that music was going to play an integral part in the film. Virgil Thomson was asked to compose the score, and it was sensibly agreed to invite him in at a fairly early stage. One of America's most talented composers, he had considerable experience with the problems of writing film music for documentaries. He had, in addition, an unrivaled knowledge of American folk songs, national melodies, and traditional dance tunes. [17] He was shown a version of the film just before Christmas,

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The score written by Thomson was very subtle and was worked out in consultation with Helen van Dongen in immensely elaborate detail. Special themes were written for and allocated to the characters. Far from being a musical background in the conventional Hollywood style, the music grew with the film as it assumed its final shape in the cutting room and projection theater. Its relation to the complex sound-effects track which had been compiled by van Dongen from hundreds of sounds recorded "wild" on location was especially skillful. [18] It was perhaps one of the most successful scores ever to be written for a motion picture, not only musically but in its integration with the film and the rest of its sound track.

To conclude this account of the making of Louisiana Story, we quote again from Helen van Dongen's notes:

During the making of The Land, I had noticed how important it was to watch Flaherty during the screenings of rushes and of assembled reels. During Louisiana Story, he hardly ever entered the cutting-room itself. His world was on the screen. Having edited a sequence, I knew, of course, its composition and effect through repeated screenings to myself on the Moviola. When satisfied at a certain stage, I would screen it to him, watching with one eye on the screen and the other on Flaherty. What he does not say in discussions is written all over his face during a screening. The way he puts his hand through his hair, or smokes his eternal cigarette, or shuffles on his chair, speak more than a torrent of words.

. . . Flaherty inspires the skill and creative ability of his fellow-workers; that is why working with him is such an experience. Leacock is an excellent cameraman but, going on his own to Louisiana to film the story, without Flaherty's continuous presence, he would have photographed differently and different things. Had I myself gone to direct Flaherty's story, it would have looked quite different. But working with already filmed material, filmed under the influence of Flaherty, I would have maybe altered a little here and there but essentially my editing would have resulted in approximately the same story and form. This would have been inevitable because, to use the random material to full value, the editor has to discover not only the inherent qualities of each shot but also must know the how's and why's, the director's reasoning behind each shot, or must know that no one else but Flaherty would have shot such a scene. To make such a remark and then set the shot aside, would be criminal. Having observed that here is a shot that only a Flaherty would think of filming, it is obviously intended to be used and should be used the way Flaherty intended it and no other. [19]


The evening on which a final work print of Louisiana Story was shown to Standard Oil, Flaherty had a small audience to dinner first at the

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Coffee House Club. Ernestine Evans, that very old-time friend, was among the privileged guests. The main topic of conversation across the dinner table, she recalls, was the Kimsey Report, which had just been published. Flaherty was disgusted. [20]


II : The film opens in a dark, eerie swamp, with strange birds, alligators, and many, many fantastic growths. Huge lotus leaves float on the surface of the bayous. Giant cypress trees drape their beardlike streamers of Spanish moss. Everywhere there is dark water, with mysterious bubbles rising to the surface. An alligator glides by smoothly and dangerously, A narrator's (Flaherty's) voice tells us where we are.

But there is something else gliding by, too, half-hidden among the hanging Spanish moss and creepers. A pirogue-a little slender dugout canoe-and in it, standing up as he paddles, a boy, skillfully guiding his boat among the giant trees and large floating leaves. He is Alexander Napoleon Ulysses Latour, a Cajun boy of twelve or so, who lives and hunts and roams the Petite Anse bayou country in Louisiana. He believes in werewolves with long noses and red eyes and in mermaids with green hair who swim into these lagoons from the sea. To protect himself from their evils, he carries a little bag of salt tied to his waist and a mysterious something which he keeps inside his shirt.

A huge water snake zigzags through the water. An alligator rears its snout. The boy hears something, is worried, and looks around him furtively. Then he smiles. It is only a false alarm. Presently he sees a wild raccoon in the branches of a cypress tree. He calls to it, imitating the noise it makes. Then he leaves the swamp, tying up his canoe. He takes his rusty rifle with him and sets out on a hunting expedition among the tall reeds. He sees something and raises his rifle to take aim. Just as he is about to fire, there is an explosion. Before he has time to think what it can be, he hears another sound and sees a strange amphibious monster, a "swamp-buggy," on caterpillar treads, climbing up the bank out of the water. It crashes into the reeds close to where he is hiding. The boy is scared. He races back to his pirogue and paddles swiftly home.

In a cabin at the edge of the bayou, the boy's father, Jean Latour, is talking with a visitor, a stranger. A tale is told and an old Irish song is sung-"I eat when I'm hungry, I drink when I'm dry" [21] The boy reaches his home, where coonskins and enormous alligator hides hang on the outside wall of the cabin. He stares in wonderment at the strangers beautiful motor launch moored to the bank. He goes up to the door of the cabin and listens.

Jean Latour is signing a document the stranger has brought. The stranger is an oil scout. The paper is an agreement to give the oil company

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permission to drill for oil on Latour's property. Latour is skeptical about there being any oil but signs the agreement.

Soon the oilmen arrive and start their operations. Surveys are made. The oil scout's fast launch sends waves skimming across the water. There are more explosions. Latour hands out his raccoon skins, taking little notice of it all. One day the boy is climbing around in the cypress trees, playing with Jo-Jo, his pet raccoon. Suddenly he looks up. He sees something towering high above the tallest trees. A graceful, slender structure has appeared, its metal girders glinting like silver in the sun. It moves slowly and majestically up the bayou toward him. He races to the cabin to tell his father. Finally, the oil derrick comes to rest in the bayou not far from the Latours' cabin. It is going to probe deep through the water into the earth two, maybe three miles down.

For some time the boy is too shy to go near the derrick, but one day he approaches cautiously in his canoe. Two of the oilmen call out to him to "come aboard." But he is too scared.

After some banter between the boy and the oil driller and his boiler-man on the derrick, the boy shows them a catfish he has caught. One of the men says, "You must have used some bait to catch that fellow." The boy replies, "It's not the bait. Watch! I show you how to catch a big catfish." He spits on his hook, drops the line, and in a moment pulls up a fish, but only a tiny one. The men have a good laugh. The boy again refuses their invitation to come aboard and paddles away in his pirogue. One evening, however, he plucks up enough courage to approach the brilliantly lit, strange monster, and as he grows close, the reflections of the shining steel derrick flicker and dance on the surface of the lagoon. He hears the strangest sounds he has ever heard in his life coming from within it. Ninety-foot lengths of pipe are being joined end-to-end and driven through the water down into the earth. The boy stealthily climbs aboard. Tom Smith, the driller, calls out, "Come on over!"

In the deafening noise, the boy goes over and fearfully and apprehensively watches the long pipes, one after another, plunging down into the earth. He is struck with wonder at the magic of this monster, but he wants Tom to know that he, too, has some magic. He shows his bag of salt to the driller. But the boy's father has been searching for him and appears on the derrick ready to scold him. Tom, however, cries out that he's glad to have the boy aboard.

Then we are back again in the cypress swamp. The boy is paddling his pirogue; with him is his pet coon, Jo-Jo. The boy is obviously intent on an errand-something that might be dangerous. And he is keeping an eye and an ear open for his enemies, the werewolves, and their accomplices, the alligators. Presently he lands the canoe, ties it up, and ties up Jo-Jo, too. He goes off into the deep forest, leaving the coon chattering away and fearful, trying to break loose.

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An alligator slithers into the water. The boy clutches his bag of salt. He watches the creature disappear, then he stealthily approaches a mound of earth in a clearing. Down on his knees, he scrapes away the earth and reveals some alligator eggs. He picks up one of them. A baby alligator is breaking out of its shell. He holds it in his, hand and is so fascinated by it that he does not see the mother alligator slowly coming out of the water and up the bank toward him. As the alligator lunges at him the boy jumps clear just in time and runs for his life.

When he gets back to his pirogue, he finds it empty. Jo-Jo has broken away. The boy goes back into the forest searching everywhere for the coon and calling to him. But all he hears are the birds mocking back at him. With tears in his eyes for the loss of his pet, the boy returns to the pirogue. Suddenly, he sees an alligator rushing through the water like a speedboat toward a large bird standing on a branch in the water. The alligators jaws snap and the egret is between them. As the boy watches this act of sudden death, he realizes what must have happened to his coon. He makes up his mind to have his revenge.

Out in the water, the boy sets a trap-a hook baited with beefsteak-and then waits half-hidden by leaves at the end of a fifty-foot line attached to the trap. The alligator sees the bait and moves slowly and sinisterly toward it. At last it snatches the bait, the line pulls tight, and the fight is on. A fierce tug-of-war takes place between the boy and the alligator. The boy is dragged into the water, sliding further and further in through the slime. But his father has heard his cries and the noise of the battle and comes to the rescue just in time to prevent the boy from being pulled under the water. As he leads him away, the boy says, "He killed my coon." "Never mind," says his father, "we'll get him," and he points in the direction of the escaped alligator.

All this while, the oil crew has been drilling deeper and deeper. Latour and the boy, in their launch, pass the derrick. The boy displays the alligator's hide. "The boy got him," calls the father. "All by himself, too."

Then one day the b~, who is quite at home now aboard the machine that once terrified him, is out on the derrick, fishing. The boiler-man grins at him as the boy spits on his bait and throws the hook into the water. Out on the marshes, Latour is setting his traps.

Tom Smith, the driller, has been telling the boy stories of the mishaps that sometimes occur with oil drilling. To the boy this is all magic: everything about the huge device is magic. But he knows what really makes the trouble at the bottom of the deep hole-it is the werewolves. The boy is still fishing from the derrick and the boilerman still watching him. Suddenly the boy looks up. The boilerman looks up, too. He begins to run. Other men run. Is it possible? It is happening: a blow-up. The boy runs for his life.

Newspaper headlines tell of the wildcat blow-out.

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The derrick is now lying idle, the crew standing by, waiting to hear whether it is going to be abandoned. The boy is wandering about on the slippery derrick. He is very sad. His father calls out to him from the bank to come along home and goes off himself. But the boy creeps down onto the deserted floor of the derrick. He walks slowly across to the abandoned borehole down which they were drilling. He looks round to see that he is not being watched. Then he takes out his little bag of salt and lets it stream into the borehole. Then he puts his hand into his shirt front and takes out the "something" we have been wondering about for a long time. It is a live frog-his extra protection against the werewolves. For one moment he thinks he will drop this precious charm down the borehole as well. But he cannot bring himself to do it, and he puts the tiny creature back into his shirt. He starts to go away when another thought strikes him. He takes a furtive glance round and then, for good measure, spits down the hole.

The boy now goes down to the deck, where the idle crew are hanging around. The boilerman sees him. "Well, look who's here! What have you been up to? Lost your salt? Have those things been after you again?" The boy is hurt by the way they laugh at him, particularly his friend Tom. In all his life he has never felt so hurt. The men joke, saying that they could use some of that magic salt of his for the well. Tom snaps his fingers. "I've got it! Why don't we get him to do what he did to his bait?" The boy shyly says, "I did." They laugh raucously and the boy, deeply hurt, goes away.

The next day, the boy is at home in the cabin, peeling potatoes for his mother. His father is preparing some traps. The boy is sad. The derrick will be going away any time now. Suddenly, they all hear a sound. It is the derrick's pump working again. The boy is overjoyed. He knew all along that his magic would work. Now at last the derrick crew will strike oil. It will come gushing up. And it does.

This means, of course, that the Latour family can now afford some much needed things for their home. Jean Latour returns from town to the cabin with stocks of food and some presents. He brings a shining new boiling pan for the mother. The boy asks if there is anything for him. His father says that he has been too naughty to have a present and starts unwrapping a parcel, which he says is a new pump. But it turns out to be a new rifle the one thing the boy has been longing for. He goes outside on the porch and sits down to examine it. While he is sitting there, he hears a familiar sound. It is the cry of Jo-Jo, the coon. He was not killed by the alligator after all. He has been wandering about in the forest and the swamp but has now found his way home.

The oil derrick, that fabulous structure which once amazed the boy so much, has now done its work. The tugs are towing it away down the lagoon. It moves slowly, imperiously, out of sight. Taking his coon with him, the boy goes to wave good-bye to his friends. The bore has been capped with a "Christmas tree." The boy clambers up onto it, with his coon in his

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arms. He calls out and waves to Tom Smith for the last time. He spits into the water to remind the oilmen that it was his magic, not theirs, which brought the oil. [22]


III: Louisiana Story had its world premiere on August 22, 1948, at the Edinburgh Film Festival in the Caley Cinema to an audience of about two thousand people. Flaherty was not there, but Helen van Dongen was. Its reception was extremely enthusiastic. At the Venice Film Festival the same year, it was awarded a prize for its "lyrical valor." In September, it opened at the Sutton Theatre, New York. Virgil Thomson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for film music in 1949, the first time this prize was given to a film score. At all these occasions, the film won unanimous praise. [23] Of all Flaherty's work, Louisiana Story received more critical acclaim than any previous film. Perhaps the only sour note that hurt Flaherty was when the Children's Film Foundation In England made the fatuous and wholly inexplicable decision that it was not suitable for child audiences! The film was taken for distribution in the United Kingdom by the British Lion Film Corporation (with which Korda was closely associated), and it opened at the Rialto Cinema, London, on June 27, 1949, in a version slightly shorter than had been shown at Edinburgh and Venice but with Flaherty's approval. He himself did the shortening and arranged the distribution contract. [24] "It could not have been too successful commercially in Britain," says David Flaherty, "since Bob never received anything more than the £5000 Korda paid him at the outset for distribution rights which included the whole world with the exception of North and South America, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Austria, Korea and Japan for seven years." [25]

On the other hand, we must remember that Standard Oil had assigned all takings to Flaherty and thus the £5,000 from the English market was wholly profit. In the United States it had a moderately successful distribution through Lopert Films, mostly in art houses. In 1952, it was released as a second feature under the title of Cajun to Armand Denis's film Watussi. Only a few hundred dollars came from this deal. Subsequently, it has achieved a large nontheatrical distribution in many countries and is still being booked. It was televised in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

For the first time we cannot call on a full appraisal of the film by the "critical attorney." His only recorded sentiment is that the film was "yet another brilliant evocation of the damn-fool sense of innocence this wonderful old character pursues: his eye keener than ever, sensibility ever softer and so on" (Grierson 1948).

Richard Griffith, on the other hand, wrote, "It is time to put an end to the perennial attempt to force Flaherty into the mould of social criticism,

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or alternatively to cast him into outer darkness as an irrelevant reactionary. Both alternatives are false because they do not relate to the record. The record shows that Flaherty's role has been that of proclaiming to the world what a marvel the movie-camera can be when it is turned on real life" (Rotha 1952:321).

The film contains a great deal more, as we hope will emerge in our final assessment. Of the many appreciative reviews of Louisiana Story, we prefer one written by Iaian Hamilton, who was not then a professional film critic and who saw the film at its first showing at Edinburgh:

He [Flaherty] has pitched away the last mechanics of prose, and the result is an undiluted poetry. For this reason alone his latest film is likely to be attacked; there are those, "social realists" and others, who can barely endure ten seconds of poetry, still less eighty minutes. . . . Like many a long poem in print it is remembered in part rather than in the whole, but to say that is to say nothing." [26]

This is elegy. Its theme is the wonder of childhood-Wordsworth's great theme; the setting, the swamp land of Louisiana: the players, American oil-men and a family of French Canadians who have settled among the bayous. With the clear, true vision of a child, Flaherty contemplates place, people, animal and machine; and the lyrical intensity of his art evolves a slow statement of the marvel of life. How inadequate is the word "documentary" to describe such a work. It is like calling the ode "an article in verse. . . . " [27]

There is no comment, no propaganda, no uplift. There is scarcely any dialogue. The actions of those people, as Virginia Woolf once wrote of Homeric characters, "seem laden with beauty because they do not know that they are beautiful." In every sequence where human beings are under the lens love is evoked. The machine is exhibited calmly, without hysteria. The floating derrick makes its stately arrival; oil is found and the well is capped; the derrick and its engineers depart; and Alexander Napoleon Ulysses Latour remains, a little enriched by the visitation.

How sane is this, calm and sane and filled with meaning, like a deep pool in which now and then one glimpses the flicker and dart of fins. It is the very essence of romanticism. The Marxist critic, who would have us glued body and soul to the hot hob of our political and economic existence, will rage at its "escapism." But he is concerned with the false world. Here, from a remote corner of a remote state, is Flaherty showing us the true world, the source-and it is bathed, like the work of any true poet, in "the master light of our seeing." The allusion is not extravagant. Works like this redeem the cinema, and burn up like chaff the memory of its screaming vulgarities, its too solid mediocrities. (Hamilton 1948)

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In our own view, the essential simplicity of the film is deceptive. At first sight, it tells us that the drilling for oil is a dramatic, fascinating, and even frightening process, especially to a half-wild boy who lives In a half-dream world filled with werewolves and green-haired mermaids as well as with real alligators that bring sudden death. But beneath all this, so superbly observed and photographed, lies a series of conflicts and contrasts. First is conflict between the people themselves. Then there is the barefooted swamp boy, who will tangle with an alligator with his bare hands and whose bag of salt, hidden frog, and rusty rifle are his sole protection against the enemies of the swamps; on the other hand, the khaki-clad oil drillers, with their laconic banter and their calm confidence in the efficiency of their vast machine. The aging and dignified father, skilled in his art of trapping, skeptical that the oilmen will find oil but careful to safeguard his interest so that if they do, he will not lose out, is contrasted with the know-how of the oil scout, with his experience of machines and mineralogy. The power of the monster machine, with its clangor of noise and its smooth beauty of operation, stands against the quietness of the cypress cathedrals with their lily-budded waters, draping Spanish moss, and spreading lotus leaves.

The Acadian family-the mother a shadowy figure in the background-are not hostile to the strangers who invade their land. The two exist together while the oil derrick is there, each going its own way, but there is no common ground between them-except through the boy. The men of the oil crew and their mammoth symbol of the industrialized, technological world arrive, they do their job, meeting failure and then success, and they depart leaving all unchanged save for the shining "Christmas tree" sticking up out of the lagoon and the family enriched materially by household goods. But will the boy ever be the same again? That question is left unanswered, and in this case rightly so. [28]

The genius of Flaherty's conception is that the drama-he himself calls it a fantasy-is revealed entirely through the eyes and the thoughts of the boy. Alexander Napoleon Ulysses Latour comes alive as a character in the round far more vividly and centrally than did Mikeleen or Sabu. This Cajun boy, living in a real but at the same time half-imagined world, is the film-not an appendage. With beautiful clarity of perception we are shown the slow life of the lagoons and creeks, mysterious and awesome, the curving slither of a snake, the miraculous spinning of a spider, the sudden savagery of the alligator. Although the boy knows the dark backwaters like the back of his hand, his innate curiosity about all life is ever-present and becomes the viewer's curiosity. The same devices of suspense, of not letting the audience into the secrets, are here as they were in the earlier films but with greater purpose. They are more deeply integrated into the film, not superficial devices.

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The appearance of the machine is heralded by explosions and by its outriders-the swift motor launch of the oil scout, the juggernaut advance of the swamp-buggy. Then the impassive structure of the oil derrick calmly floats into view to take up its position. At first it is static and harmless, but then it springs to life, powerful and dynamic. It has one single, repetitive process, driving deeper and deeper into the earth through the water, thrusting down pipe after pipe with a grim insistence punctuated by its rhythmic chorus of harsh sounds. To the men who work and control it, the job is routine but always carries the risk of a mishap. They are laconic, quietly tough, sure of themselves. To the boy, the derrick is a magic symbol. At first he ventures near it timidly, frightened by its unknown power, shy of the men who care for it. But as with any child, familiarity brings confidence, until he is completely at ease on its slippery decks. And then begins his discovery of the great machine.

From this moment on, the oil derrick seems to come alive. At first it works magnificently and ruthlessly, its drills thrust down into the earth with inflexible might, its giant claw seizing the shafts and driving them down and down. But suddenly it revolts against its masters. It will work no longer. It blows up. It creates havoc. And then, without warning, it resumes its regular functions and even produces oil. True, you and I and the boy know that it returns to life, only because it's ill-humor has been placated by the salt and the spit and almost the frog. In this way, Flaherty makes a beautiful, even ironic comment on the supposedly unbreakable efficiency of the modern machine of our technological world.

But always our attention returns to the boy where he goes, we go. Flaherty is anxious that we shall not laugh at his superstitions. The werewolves and mermaids become very real. This is no longer the Flaherty of Man Against the Sky. It is no recreation of primitive struggles for existence. It is rather a synthesis of old and new wedded together and interpreted through the boy. Into the old comes the new, to do its work and to pass on, leaving hardly a scar. The slow pulse and rhythm of the boy's life-fishing, discovering, learning, occasionally fighting-are placed in contrast with the dynamism, the controlled, monstrous strength of the invading machine. The film does not attempt to analyze, to dissect; it is content to reveal by contrast and by finding loveliness in both the swamp and the machine.

The angry critics of Flaherty's escapism and romanticism who were so noisy in the 1930s were significantly silent about Louisiana Story. We can find no review on the record from those who were so vociferous about the "social" elements missing from Man of Aran. There are, of course, certain criticisms, the chief of which is that the mother remains too shadowy, too much in the background. Mrs. Latour is almost an unknown quantity compared with Maggie in the Aran film, and she, it will be remembered, did

260 RobertJ Flaberty

not register very strongly. Perhaps Flaherty was unable to find a woman suitable for the role. We are also in agreement with the film's editor, who believed that it is a serious weakness to rely on such clichés as a letter and a newspaper insert to help the story on its way. Flaherty used these devices because he failed to grasp the needs of cinematic continuity, a failure all the skill of Helen van Dongen's editing could not overcome; she was aware of and noted these shortcomings in her diary during the course of the filming. The dialogue is stilted and halting, which may be true to character, but it holds up the action, which elsewhere flows smoothly. An exception is the scene in which the father gives the boy the present of the rifle; here the halting speech and broken phrases achieve a spontaneous sense of pathos. But in general we do not agree with Edward Sammis's remarks that the acted scenes with dialogue reveal Flaherty's mastery of direction; if anything, they do precisely the opposite.

Although the film's conception, approach, and inspiration are wholly Flaherty's, each of his fellow workers made a special contribution to the whole. In spite of all Helen van Dongen's misgivings and headaches during the shooting, she achieved a brilliant piece of editing. She solved many continuity blemishes, which were inevitable given Flaherty's way of working, with a miraculous skill. Her composition of the sound track was particularly masterly. Its interrelation with Virgil Thomson's magnificent music is a classic example of creative collaboration. In his photography, Ricky Leacock caught and understood Flaherty's visual conceptions with an astonishing skill. These three-editor, cameraman, and composer welded their special talents into an integrated whole to interpret Flaherty's overall conception. The result is lyrical simplicity, a poetic quality that is very rare in the history of motion picture art. Had Louisiana Story been photographed in color, its superb visual qualities would have been no better.

When Louisiana Story was finished and had been shown in New York, Flaherty is quoted as saying: "Documentaries haven't begun to be what they could be. They are a wonderful art form. But they need a segregated audience-the sheep from the goats-television will do the segregating, then we'll see" (Flaherty 1948). He did not mean that the future of documentary would lie with television but that television as the new form of mass entertainment would allow the cinema to appeal to more specialized and more selective audiences. It was his continued, unheeded message.

After the Hollywood premiere of Louisiana Story, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, and Dudley Nichols sent Flaherty a cable: "Do this again and you will be immortal and excommunicated from Hollywood which is a good fate." Well-intentioned as this message was, it must have seemed ironic to Flaherty He had, after all, been excommunicated from Hollywood since 1929; and even after the worldwide critical success of Louisi-

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ana Story, no worthwhile offers for his services came as he sat in the Hotel Chelsea or up at Black Mountain.


IV: The considerable growth in the number of art theaters-or specialized cinemas, as they are called in England-in the United States after World War II not only opened up a limited but important market for some of the best European feature films such as Open City and Shoeshine but it also created an interest in what have been misnamed "art films." Films about art would be a fairer definition. In Italy, France, and Germany such films had been made just before and during the war in increasing numbers. One reason for their popularity among European filmmakers may have been that production of films admiring the work of the classic "accepted" painters and sculptors of the past enabled them to avoid political commitments. The production of "art films" increased after the war. They were made in all countries, including the United States and Britain, and they found an outlet in television as well as in the art theaters. Most of these European films, however, needed adapting and revoicing for English-speaking audiences, and their chances of commercial success were improved if a special publicity angle could be devised to attract critical attention.

One such film was Michelangelo, directed in Italy in 1939 by that well-known producer of German kulturfilms, Curt Oertel. [29] For the American market this film was thought to be too long: it needed reediting and revoicing and "presenting" under distinguished auspices. As Arthur Knight reminds us, one of Flaherty's favorite sayings was, "One good film deserves another" (Knight 1957:287). The film was first offered to John Grierson by the American OSS as captured enemy property, but Grierson refused to reedit what he considered to be another filmmaker's creative work. Helen van Dongen also turned it down.

Flaherty, however, associated himself with the American presentation. The new version of Oertel's film was retitled The Titan, "presented by Robert J. Flaherty" and issued in 1950. There is no doubt that Flaherty's association with the film did much to ensure its success and also to draw attention to films about the arts. But it also created a certain amount of confusion. Helen van Dongen comments:

I saw Michelangelo in Europe in its original form. It was at least thirty minutes longer. It had background music and the commentator spoke almost incessantly. Though its original execution may have been less original than the new version, and did not make use of a very creative sound-track, we should not forget that Curt Oertel made

262 RobertJ Flaherty

his film in 1939 and that in the eleven subsequent years we have learned a great deal about sound-effects, narrations, music etc. Now to me, personally, Oertel is still the creator of The Titan-Michelangelo-and in its original form the film was extraordinarily impressive. Undoubtedly that is also why Flaherty was so attracted to it and wanted to bring it to public attention in the United States.

The form in which the film is now presented can be called a "modernization" of the old form, though the "modernization" is actually a more artistic presentation of the old, with the use of music and sound-effects. As well as being shortened, the film has also had certain sequences changed around to make it more palatable to the ordinary audience. In general, I find it an improvement on the original although I miss the lingering over certain of the statues and other things. . . .

The remakers have done their work in good taste and with artistic feeling, but what has happened? How many people haven't asked me, "Did you also work on Michelangelo with Flaherty? When did he shoot it all?" The question was not entirely misplaced because I had spent some twelve months in Europe after Louisiana Story and had actually been in Rome, Florence, Sienna etc. where the film had originally been shot by Oertal. Had there been no continuous publicity in the Press that Flaherty was going to bring out this film, or had there been no title of "Flaherty presents" (repeated and printed in all advertising matter), would their reviews have been so laudatory? Flaherty's artistic success with Louisiana Story was still fresh in the minds of critics and certain audience-groups and it was obviously good exploitation to link the names Michelangelo and Flaherty; but Curt Oertel has all but been forgotten. [30]


Flaherty's interest in using his movie camera to "reveal" a painting in a way that the ordinary spectator would miss was demonstrated by some footage he made of Picasso's famous mural Guernica in 1948. The rushes he shot, at the financial invitation of Hemisphere Films at the instigation of Iris Barry of the Museum of Modern Art, were later assembled by David Flaherty into a single ten-minute reel, which bore the following preliminary title:

Robert Flaherty was deeply moved by the compelling statement of Picasso's famous mural GUERNICA. In the spring of 1949 he planned to film it from a script by William S. Lieberman. Before attempting a detailed analysis, Flaherty wanted to try the mural from various angles as it is installed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. You are about to see a photographer's first experiments in looking at a painting.

Louisiana Story 263I

The meaning of Picasso's nightmare allegory of the bombing of a Spanish town particularly interested Flaherty. His camera concentrates on the element of the bull, the anguished horse, the fallen warrior, the woman with a lamp, a body afire as it falls, a woman panic-stricken and dazed, a mother holding a limp body of her child. The film remained unfinished at Flaherty's death. A tentative study and not a complete film, it consists of exploratory camera-movements, some of them several times repeated.


Arthur Knight comments:


This writer recently had the good fortune to watch the veteran documentarian Robert Flaherty photographing Picasso's Guernica mural-not to make a film but to see if a film could be made from that giant canvas. Flaherty was moved by the painting, impressed by it, but was not certain why. He wanted to get behind his camera and feel around with it, to work out the structure and meaning of the mural through a medium he knew and understood. With greater and greater excitement he tried out each new camera set-up, each new camera-movement. "Now lets try this," he would say, squinting through his viewfinder, not until the uncut reels of film were run-off in a projection-room could he say of what he had taken, what he could use, what would have to be thrown away. But what came out of his camera even, in that crude state, was as much the raw material of a work of art as the Picasso sketches that preceded Guernica. (Knight 1949)


The reel as assembled opens and closes with an overall shot of the entire mural. In the foreground are two spectators, Frances Flaherty and Iris Barry, with their backs to the camera, seated on a couch to give scale to the painting. The camera then moves in close to explore details of the mural; it creeps, it slides, and it probes in close-ups in the characteristic Flaherty style. The total effect creates a remarkable microcosm of what is already a microcosm of the bloody tragedy of the Spanish Civil War. [31]

Had he attempted to make a complete film, however, Flaherty could have done little more than to take further shots of other parts of the painting and then added a voice, music, and sound track.

The director John Huston tells an anecdote from this period which is very characteristic of Flaherty:


I have heard from men who have worked with him about Bob's wonderful ways with primitive people; how he would step into a critical, sometimes dangerous, situation and resolve the conflict through

264 Robert J. Flaherty

his powers of sympathy and understanding. I can well believe this, having been present at a demonstration of those powers.

One night, Bob and I were coming away from a late party. I preceded him into the rainy street and stopped a cab. As I went to get in, somebody grabbed my arm. Turning: I beheld a dark little man, brandishing a toad-stabber. He was shouting something about the cab being his and my thinking I was better than he was because I was white. I stood very still and tried a rhythmic breathing exercise, while the toad-stabber described semi-circles near my throat.

"I'm going to kill you," he said.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Bob approaching. When he got up to us he asked what was going on, and the little dark man replied that he was going to kill me because I thought I was better than he was.

"Nothing of the sort," Bob said. "And put that knife away this instant, d'you hear?"

The little man shifted his look from me to Bob and, taking the opportunity, I swung on him, knocking him down. The knife fell out of his hand and I picked it up. It was the kind where you touch a button to release a double-edged blade. It was for cutting throats nothing else.

Bob helped the little dark man to his feet. "You ought to be ashamed," Bob said, "Pulling a knife! What made you do such a thing?"

"He called me a nigger."

"No such thing," Bob said. "This gentleman," indicating me, "is without racial prejudice."

The little man began to cry "Call a policeman," he said. "Get me arrested. Have them send me to the Tombs. I want to go there, anyway, to be with my poor brother."

"What's that?" Bob said.

"My brother is in the Tombs. I must see him. That's where I wanted to go in the cab."

"He says his brother is in the Tombs," Bob said, as though that threw an entirely different light on the matter.

"Call a policeman," the little dark man sobbed.

"Get into the cab, young man," Bob said. "We'll drop you off."

"The hell we will," I said. "I'm tired and I want to go to bed and this little ape is coked to the eyeballs, can't you see?"

"See what I mean? He thinks he is better than I am."

"Have you been taking drugs?" Bob asked.

The little man nodded.

"Get into the cab," Bob said. "You too, John. We'll drop you off."

We told the driver my address. His manner towards me was a

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little cold, as though I were the culprit-which, according to Bob's morality I was, for I was being ungenerous towards a human being in distress. I felt sure Bob was thinking that it had not been necessary for me to strike a blow; the little man would have put his knife away in due course, anyway. Bob was disappointed in me for having resorted to violence. He deplored violence among men. It was against the Divine will that we should do injury to one another. All his work bears this out; the conflicts in his pictures are those in which man engages his fundamental enemies-storm, hunger, cold. They are never between man and man.

Naturally Bob was on the little dark man's side. He was the miserable one. He was wet from the rain, his brother was in jail, he was a victim of the drug habit, he was of an underprivileged race, and he had lost his knife.

"Give his knife back to him, John," Bob said. It was his way of giving me the chance to redeem myself for having added to the little dark man's misfortunes-and perhaps for the sin of occupying a cab with him yet being so dry, so tearless.

"He's all coked up," I said. "He might use it on you."

"I want you to promise me," Bob said to the little man, "that if your knife is returned to you, you won't go about doing harm with it."

"Sure, I promise," he said.

Bob took the toad-stabber out of my hand and gave it to him.

"I don't think you should go down to the Tombs tonight, though," Bob said. "For one thing, they wouldn't let you see your brother at this hour and, for another, they'd probably arrest you on a narcotics charge. Have you got a place to sleep?"

"I will get out on 14th Street, and go to the all-night picture show," the little man said.

By this time we'd reached my door. As I was getting out, Bob said, "How about lunch tomorrow at the Coffee House Club?"

"Sure," I said. "And if, by chance, you don't show up, I can tell Oliver and everybody just how it happened."

Bob ignored this and, leaning forward to the driver, said: "Down to 14th Street." [32] (Huston 1952)


In the spring of 1949, Flaherty was asked by the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont Development Commission to make a short 16-mm color film about the state of Vermont. He was, however, about to go to London and Europe to promote the distribution of Louisiana Story, for Standard Oil. Thus David Flaherty was delegated to direct the film with Leonard Stark as cameraman and Stefan Bodnariuk as editor. Called Green

266 Robert J Flaherty

Mountain Land, the film was issued in the fall of 1950 and was taken by the State Department for worldwide release in some thirty languages. Robert Flaherty took credit as producer.


During 1949, Mr. and Mrs. Flaherty visited London, Edinburgh, Paris, and the Cannes Film Festival. Flaherty went alone to Stockholm and subsequently attended a special screening of Louisiana Story at the Brussels Film Festival, where he had one of his greatest triumphs. "He was," says Winifred Holmes, who was present, "moved to tears by the reception they gave him and his film." [33] Everywhere he was received with the respect and prestige he richly deserved.

In London, Flaherty led a quieter life than he had in the 1930s. His old haunts were either closed or changed beyond recognition so he made his social headquarters at Olwen Vaughan's Le Petit Club Français, off St. James's Street. There on the first floor, with a flagon of red wine to dispense and the inevitable box of fifty cigarettes, he held audience to those who liked to come and renew friendship and to make new friends. Sometime that summer the Flahertys also revisited Aran.

Between June and October, he made several recordings at the BBC for the producers Eileen Moloney and Michael Bell, some of which were used, some not. Bell remembers him as being very nervous in front of the microphone even if he knew his talk was only being recorded and not transmitted. He discussed all his scripts in detail beforehand with Frances, and she participated in some of the recordings. Bell finally found that the best way to get results was to send a stenographer to the hotel and let Flaherty dictate at his leisure. [34] Despite his nervousness, Flaherty took a lively interest in the techniques of radio recording and talked about the use of sound effects in Louisiana Story. [35]

Among those who renewed their friendship with the Flahertys was Winifred Holmes, and through her Flaherty became acquainted with the high commissioner for Ceylon in London, Sir Oliver Goonatilleke (then governor general). Both the high commissioner and Flaherty wanted him to go to Ceylon to make a film, but unfortunately no funds were available. While in London, he was interviewed by Penelope Houston, a member of the new generation of serious film critics. She wrote as follows about their meeting:


He [Flahertyj remains the great individualist of the cinema. By all the odds, Flaherty should be remembered only as an old-fashioned,
impecunious eccentric, turning up from the wilds every few years with a film altogether devoid of fashionable influences; a figure to be
patronized by critics and ignored by audiences. That this is not the case, that his reputation is now at its height, is a justification at once of the serious cinema, and of Robert Flaherty. . . .

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Flaherty cannot afford the luxury of living in the future. He has to sell his own films, to carry them around with him, to cut them for the exigencies of the double-feature program. He says that he is unable to escape from work that should be over and done with. This is the price of independence; it is no light price, and it is bound to color his outlook.

Flaherty looks rather like one of the massive, impressive, almost self-consciously patriarchal figures from one of his own films (the father in Louisiana Story, perhaps); he talks with a leisurely determination that reminds one that he has spent most of his life making himself understood in the more primitive parts of the world. . . .

Meanwhile, "All the reputation in the world won't buy anyone a ham sandwich," and he refuses to talk of a future so dependent on circumstances. We may regret this dependence but, in sympathizing with Flaherty, we are wasting time; he has made the films he wanted to make and will go on making them. [36] (Houston 1949)


But the interviewer did not say how her prophecy would be fulfilled. Flaherty certainly did not want anyone's sympathy; what he wanted was an opportunity to make another film and the help of all serious followers of the cinema in pursuing that honorable cause.

Flaherty did not return to New York until the end of the year. Word of his success and prestige in Europe had by then reached the alert ears of the State Department in Washington. He had hardly been back in the United States for a month when the State Department thought up the imaginative idea of sending him to Germany as an unofficial goodwill ambassador. According to Griffith:


Here, they reasoned, was an American creative figure of whom the right sort of symbol could be made, a figure nobody could identify with the alleged vulgarities of American industrial civilization, and who certainly could not be confused with high finance. He stood for art for art's sake and nothing else but, and, as such, would be the most perfect antidote to certain unjust but widely held notions about life in the United States.

The calculation proved correct. The Germans knew all about Robert Flaherty and what he stood for. His tour of the American zone was one of the positive achievements of the State Department. True, he said very little about American know-how, free enterprise, and so forth. He said, indeed, very little at all since he knew no German but had to speak through a translator. This proved to be no barrier to his achieving the desired effect. The Germans in any case did not want to hear from him about America, they wanted to hear about his life and

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travels-to shut out the cold gray world of their defeat and go with him vicariously to Samoa and India and the Louisiana bayous. (Griffith 1953:158)


His headquarters were fixed at Frankfurt, where his wife joined him in March. Taking with him Nanook, Man of Aran, and Louisiana Story, he visited Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, Munich, Augsberg, Mainz, and Hamburg. In April, he was the guest of honor at a meeting of German film clubs at Schluchsee.

The State Department expressed satisfaction with the visit:


The tour program consisted of American Haus screenings of Man of Aran, press and radio-interviews, personal appearances at theatres, round-table discussions with professional people, film-club sessions, meetings with civic, religious and professional leaders and private as well as public screenings of Louisiana Story and Man of Aran. The schedule was tight and widespread. It was perhaps a trifle too strenuous. In Hamburg Mr. Flaherty contracted bronchial pneumonia and, unfortunately, had to cancel his appearance in Bremen. But this was the only place in which he did not appear. The audience reaction to these films was extraordinary. In some places the applause for the film lasted two minutes. It is the considered opinion of the writer that Mr. Flaherty's personal appearance in Germany plus the exhibition of his films exceeded in prestige value to the United States anything that has been done heretofore in this field. [37]


On their return to the United States, the Flahertys went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the University of Michigan conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts. Thus was the self-education of the explorer-cinematographer acknowledged. During that summer, in Washington there was talk of asking him to make a film for the Division of Motion Pictures, which is charged with the task of making the "American Way of Life" known to the world. The thought was that Flaherty might find an ideal subject in Hawaii, where so many people of different races and nationalities exist peacefully under the American banner.

To that end, Flaherty submitted a memorandum headed "To the International Motion Picture Division, Department of State, November 10, 1950." The working title for the projected film was East Is West; its purpose and specific objective were described as "to show the successful amalgamation of races of the Far East (Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans), with their different cultural backgrounds, in a progressive western democracy. The American territory of Hawaii, 'crossroads of the Pacific,' is the

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scene. Such a film would be an implicit refutation of the Communist line that Asiatic peoples are ruthlessly exploited by 'American imperialists.'"

The memorandum continued:


Everyone born in the island, of whatever race, has the rights of citizenship. These citizens of Hawaii refer to our country not as the United States, but as the mainland! Though the territory has not yet been granted statehood, its people feel they are a part of the United States. The various racial groups and mixtures which comprise Hawaii's population of more than half-a-million respect each other, and rightly so, for their racial cultures are proud ones, not to be lost or discarded in the process of assimilation. A Buddhist temple is not at all incongruous among Christian churches, nor is a thatched Samoan village not far from modern Honolulu. One does not apply the term "Colonials" to the peoples of Hawaii, nor "natives" to the indigenous Polynesians. . . . Democracy really works in Hawaii . . . and democracy does not breed condescension. . . .

The pictorial and human resources for a film to express these important truths would seem to be limitless. The greatest task would be one of selection. From the handsome pure Hawaiians through the many fascinating mixtures of Polynesian with Japanese, Chinese and Caucasian blood, some wonderfully attractive types are surely to be found; and the more memorable the film's leading characters are, the better will a film achieve its purpose.

The main target area must not be lost sight of. Peoples of the Far East must see their descendants portrayed with sympathy and dignity in their successful assimilation into the new life which democracy offers them. They will see the reality of a bridge between East and West. [38]


Negotiations for the film dragged on and on. Flaherty got neither younger nor wealthier. Under the system of financing proposed by the State Department, the Flahertys would have had to raise more than $20,000 before the Department paid anything. "A State Department contract," they were told, "is legal tender at any bank." But the Flahertys found in practice that a State Department film contract was about the last thing on which any bank would advance money. [39] So the Hawaiian memorandum remained unfulfilled.

If this project, about which Flaherty was very enthusiastic, had materialized-if someone in the State Departments Motion Picture Division had been a little more realistic-Flaherty would not have forced himself to embark on a project which without question hastened his death and which was alien to his outlook and established way of working.

270 RobertJ Flaherty

In late 1950 the announcement was made that Flaherty had formed a company consisting of a group of film workers "to extend the Flaherty film traditions to short, institutional and public relations films for industry." [40] Appropriately, it was called Robert Flaherty Film Associates, Incorporated, with offices in West 52nd Street. David Fiaherty was vice-president. The press release continued:


Through the years, Flaherty as become convinced that there are stories of vital human interest in almost every industry which are only waiting to be sought out by the sympathetic camera-eye. The question of the value of such films to their sponsors is not always easy to answer concretely-especially in advance as the sponsor would prefer. Flaherty and his associates feel, however, that the evidence brought in by the decades since Nanook of the effectiveness of worthwhile and entertaining institutional films points to the high value of the subtle approach to the industrial subject-notably where long-range goodwill is desired. (D. Flaherty 1949:13)


The announcement was similar to those British documentary companies in the 1930s presented to potential sponsors all over the United Kingdom. Its final statement, however, is enlightening: "Heretofore, Flaherty has generally preferred to select his assistants particularly for each production; hence the organization of a permanent group to work under him represents something of an innovation."

It would seem that Flaherty's name and reputation were the halt and that the group of technicians associated with the project would make the films under his producership. No films were ever actually made by this new corporation, but it would have been used if the Hawaiian film had materialized.

In January 1951, the Screen Directors Guild honored Flaherty with a film festival of his work on three nights at the Museum of Modern Arts
auditorium in New York. Flaherty appeared on each evening and was presented with a special award from his fellow Guild members at the final performance. On January 9, Man of Aran and Louisiana Story were shown; on January 10, Industrial Britain, The Land, and Moana; and on
January 11, Elephant Boy and Nanook of the North. Tributes to Flaherty as "The Father of Documentary" from European, British, and American film personalities came, in the order they were listed in the Guild's magazine, from Alexander Korda, Lewis Jacobs, Roger Manvell, John Grierson, Iris Barry, Paul Rotha, Jean Renoir, Richard de Rochemont, Arthur L. Mayer, Arthur Knight, Basil Wright, Howard Barnes, et al.

Griffith describes the scene at Flaherty's suite at the Hotel Chelsea on 23rd Street about this time:

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The shabby old rooms were stocked with the loot of years of travel. Sunshine filtered in through dusty windows on cameras and tripods lined against the wall. Stills from the films were propped up on the mantelpiece for me to look at. On the coffee-stained worktable was a pile of messages from passers-through New York who wanted to give him a hail. He had lived there six years on and off, but it looked like a camp that might be struck at dawn. As ever, he was poised for flight.

Where to, this time? He paced the room as I quizzed him on future film plans about which he was vague. I was persistent: I wanted to know exactly what he saw ahead of him. Suddenly he sat down and looked at me and said, "Well say what you will, there's one thing they can't take away from us, the way we've lived these thirty years." [41] (Griffith 1953:157)


Then came the most grotesque irony of Flaherty's life as an individualist, a director-cameraman, a lone-wolf cinematographer, who had always tried to operate in the simplest manner and had stripped the film medium down to its essentials. "Cinerama," one of the complicated devices (using three projectors to fill its gigantic wide screen), which the American movie industry had tooled up as an answer to television's inroads on cinema audiences, was to claim his services. While the State Department dithered about financing the Hawaiian film, the late Mike Todd and the news and travel film commentator Lowell Thomas asked Flaherty, who was then sixty-seven, to go out into the wide, wide world and use their mammoth apparatus!

According to Frances Flaherty,


Bob realized that Cinerama stood for everything against which he had fought all his movie life. He went into it solely because he needed urgently to earn a living, for no other reason. He continually quarreled with Mike Todd and Lowell Thomas, who represented the exact opposite to all that Bob believed in and had worked for. The great two-ton camera bore him to the ground. Added to this, the first subject allocated to him-to film the triumphal return from Korea of General MacArthur to Chicago on April 26-was utterly alien to Bob's whole outlook. It was just a newsreel item. The finished film was supposed to run to 60 minutes. The Big Screen, 3-D, Color, Cinerama, they could give Flaherty absolutely nothing. [42]


"About Cinerama," Flaherty said to Griffith, "I'm working now to destroy everything I've spent my life to build up." Mrs. Flaherty and Richard

272 RobertJ Flaherty

Griffith saw the rushes. "They revealed nothing of any interest and could have been shot by anyone" was their verdict.

Two accounts of the events, following the visit to Chicago are available. First, there is Herman Weinberg's reminiscence:


It was to be a going-away party. In a week, or a little more, Robert Flaherty was to start round the World by air with a battery of new three-dimensional, color cameras, to film and record the sights and sounds of the earth. It was to be a veritable "film symphony" of the world. The sponsor was Mike Todd, the theatrical producer. He had invested in a new film process and Flaherty was to try it out, full scale

But what the creator of Nanook and Moana, the director with the most gracious camera-eye of them all, would do with such an opportunity was sure to be unprecedented, and this project has been the film world's most exciting news of the year. . . .

Flaherty was in high spirits that night. . . . The setting was the Coffee House Club. . . . At first, of course, the talk was of the forthcoming journey. Everyone wanted to know about the new cameras-were they really three-dimensional? Flaherty did his best to explain, but his heart wasn't in it. "Oh, it's a lot of technical stuff. . . you can only show the picture in one theatre at a time . . . costs too much to equip all theatres with the special screens and so forth that's needed . . . or something like that." Anyway, they were going ahead, undaunted, and making the picture. . . .

We piled into several cars and headed east for Beekman Place, where Monica Flaherty and her husband have an apartment overlooking the East River. . . Flaherty went from one [group] to the other, a fine, jolly man, as young in heart as the youngest. How often I had marvelled at the 'zest of this man of 67, who played Corelli and Mozart on the violin for relaxation, who used to lumber up the stairs of Lopert Films to ask about Louisiana Story, which they were distributing. "How're we doing?" he would ask, and then invariably to me, "Come on, lets have a drink!". . .

He was usually in a contemplative mood when we were alone, and sometimes spoke wistfully of the films he had wanted to make in Japan and China, and of one based upon the medieval festival staged each year in Sienna. How often he had said, when reminiscing about the many difficulties he had encountered in trying to achieve his ideal in films, "Film is the longest distance between two points."

I then told him that once when Pabst complained that if he hadn't been so choosy about the scripts offered him, he could have directed many more than twenty films in some twenty-five years, I had remonstrated that Flaherty had made only six films in thirty years, and that Pabst had shot back, "But what films!"

Louisiana Story 273

It was getting late at the party. Flaherty suddenly begged to be excused and announced that he was going home. In the doorway, he paused, glanced at each of us in turn, and smiled a collective farewell. (Weinberg 1951)


Richard Griffith, ever the faithful disciple and admirer, tells us with great eloquence of the last weeks:


So Bob has slipped away from us without saying Good-bye. Or almost. The last time I saw him, sitting miserably in an armchair, half-unconscious from drugs, he muttered at me, "I'm through, I'm done for this time." But I had heard this sort of thing before in black moods, and paid not much attention because I have been apprehensive ever since.

He went to Chicago in April with that damned three-dimensional camera to shoot the MacArthur parade and caught something there that turned into virus pneumonia. He threw that off. Then he began to suffer terribly from arthritis-the first time in his life. That seemed to go away and he was getting ready to follow Frances up to the farm at Black Mountain when the pains came back and the doctors wouldn't let him leave until they had "done something" about it. Doing something consisted chiefly of drugging him with morphine to the point that half the time he didn't know what was going on.

Of course, he didn't let anyone know how bad he was, even Frances didn't take it in, and there he sat, alone in his room at the Chelsea, day after day and night after night. He couldn't lie in bed, the pain was so bad, and he had to sit out the nights in an armchair. When finally we all caught on to what was happening, and Frances came down to New York from the farm, he rallied, fought off the arthritis-and then came down again with shingles, equally painful and equally requiring constant drugs.

I visited him every day at this point and while he would welcome me and follow conversation with his eyes and occasionally say a pertinent word or two, he had really withdrawn to some region of his own where none could follow him. All this we attributed to the morphine, and when Frances told me one day, with tears of joy in her eyes, that a new "miracle" drug had been found which had cleared up everything, I felt safe in taking a few days off, Francess intention being to take Bob up to the farm at once.

That day was the last time I saw him. When I got back, I discovered that he had been pronounced too weak to travel, though entirely recovered, and had been moved from the discomforts of the Chelsea apartment to a hospital. When I telephoned and explained why I hadn't been to see him. I heard him say, "Tell Dick not to give me any

274 Robert J. Flaherty

of that stuff!" He seemed much better but didn't want to see anyone. Frances moved him to the farm, where things rapidly got worse. He had thrown off all the plagues that had descended upon him at once but his heart, always sound before, just couldn't stand the strain. [43]


The official cause of death was cerebral thrombosis. The date was July 23, 1951. They buried his ashes on the hillside at Black Mountain under a slab of white stone.

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