American Documentary in the 1950s

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American Documentary in the 1950s


Jack C. Ellis

American documentary can be thought of as a child of the Depression that came of age during World War II. The war years marked a high point of achievement in this mode: more filmmakers made more nonfiction films for larger audiences than ever before. Given this vastly increased activity, with films being used in all sorts of new ways, it was assumed by most that the trend would continue onward and upward. And indeed production of nonfiction, nontheatrical film—educational, promotional, and industrial—did increase enormously in the postwar years. But there were severe cutbacks in key areas: in the amount of money available for the kinds of social documentary production that had existed earlier, in the number of documentary filmmakers employed, and in the quantity and quality of the documentaries produced.

Accompanying this contraction were losses in morale and leadership, and uncertainties about postwar purposes and subjects. Up to the end of the war, documentary had thrived on crisis and disaster, criticism and attack. Following the war, the great documentary causes of the 1930s (unemployment, rural poverty, conservation of land and water, housing, and urban planning) and early 1940s (the fight against fascism) were no longer relevant or popular.

Increased prosperity caused the subjects and rhetoric of the Depression to seem oldfashioned, even inapplicable. Increased conservatism and a Cold War caused the main lines of liberal and antifascist criticism to be suspect. Sponsors and filmmakers alike were unwilling to risk making a "statement" at a time when political positions were being subjected to investigation. Consequently, documentary subjects were essentially non-controversial; certainly they were not socioeconomie/political by and large, as earlier documentaries had been. Overall, they were for virtue and against vice.1 Documentary had played theatrically with some of the big government films of the thirties, like The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, even more frequently during World War II. In the postwar years, without the drama of Depression or war, it no longer did. The newsreels ended, largely because of the new competition of television news. The innovative and highly respected filmed news magazine, The March of Time, ceased in 1951 after sixteen years of monthly issues, often appearing on movie house marquees above the feature. Pathé News stopped in 1956; Paramount News in 1957.

Virtually the only nonfiction films playing theatrically were the Walt Disney True-Life Adventure series, which began with the half-hour Seal Island in 1948 and ended with the last of the features, Jungle Cat, in 1960. Seal Island was followed in rapid succession by such shorts as and Beaver Valley, Nature's Half Acre, The Olympic Elk, Water Birds. In 1953 The Livingm Desert became the first feature in the series, its emphasis being on scorpions and on battles between desert creatures: tarantula and wasp, snake and kangaroo rat, hawk and rattlesnake, tortoise and tortoise. It was followed by The Vanishing Prairie in 1954. African Lion (1955) was shot over a period of many months by Alfred Milotte and his wife, Elma, on a plateau near Mount Kilimanjaro. About 100,000 feet of 16mm. film was edited and blown up to just over 6,000 feet of 35mm.2

It was generally agreed that the contents of these films were interesting and frequently absorbing; that the increasing technical proficiency, in the use of long lenses and the editing of images, was usually noteworthy and sometimes astonishing. What unfavorable reactions there were, were directed mostly at the intrusive commentary and music, particularly the anthropomorphizing of the animals, and injecting of humor in ways that distracted from rather than enhanced the inherent interest of the subject matter. Veteran British documentarian Basil Wright put the matter aptly in his observation that "in general the Disney technique tends to bring the desert to the audience instead of (as happens in films like the Soviet Life in the Arctic) bringing the audience to the desert. The difference is enormous, and should be noted."3 That is, the series served nature up as entertainment rather than exploring its actuality.

Two alternatives to theatrical distribution and exhibition of documentary production became dominant during the postwar years. The first of these was the nontheatrical 16mm. field, which experienced an enormous increase in comparison with prewar years as a result of the extensive use and proven effectiveness of film by the military for all sorts of purposes—training, indoctrination, and records of battle, to name the principal categories. The second alternative was television, which emerged after the freeze in its development caused by the requirements of wartime.

In the nontheatrical field there were mainly two kinds of production: the sponsored film and the educational/classroom film. The sponsored film was by far the larger category. In this case an industrial or institutional sponsor paid for the production and the distribution, prints of the film being mailed back and forth to all sorts of audiences on a free-loan (return postage only) basis. Films selling goods or services directly were not documentaries as previously or generally conceived, of course. Documentary and documentary-type films had to work their way into the field of commercial sponsorship through films of promotion and public relations, and even then the demands of the sponsor frequently presented severe limitations on treatment of subjects being dealt with. The educational film earned back the cost of its production through sale and rental of 16mm. prints to (principally) secondary and elementary schools. Though a very large number of nontheatrical films were produced—as many as 10,000 a year—documentary as it had been conceived and practiced up to this time was not able to fit comfortably into either of the economic systems available.

As for sponsorship, the largest segment by far came from business and industry. Film and Industry Directory for 1951-1952 lists 1,084 individual film sponsors. Of these, about 750, or 69 per cent, represent business and industry. The others represent sponsors from the religious, educational, government, medical, and social science fields. These free films were used widely by schools but also as programs (or parts of programs) by clubs, churches, YMCAs, farm granges, labor unions, and the like. The distributor was paid a flat fee by the sponsor for every booking. As Erik Barnouw pointed out, "Many a sponsor, having spent $50,000 on the production of a short film, spent an additional $300,000 subsidizing its distribution over a period of years." Barnouw went on to say that "A 1956 brochure of Modern Talking Picture Service, specialists in business-subsidized distribution, reported that its films were being used by … 53,000 schools and colleges, 36,000 churches, 26,000 clubs and youth groups. Individual films—such as Green Harvest, sponsored by Weyerhaeuser—received as many as 80,000 bookings."4

While businesses and industries became big sponsors for the first time, they also began justifying every dollar spent on a film in terms of increased sales and obvious good will. After the war, company public relations officers, given the extensive use of films and testing of their effectiveness during wartime, felt they knew very well what films should be like and could do. An increase in company profits rather than social well-being was clearly their goal. There existed virtually no industrial sponsorship of films in the general public-interest, such as those sponsored by the oil and gas industries in Britain in the 1930s.

George Stoney, documentary maker, teacher, and social activist, has discussed the situation of documentarists like himself in relation to the nontheatrical field:

In the years after the Second World War sponsorship by industry and institutions determined the nature of the bulk of the films circulated out of the 16mm. libraries. Many of these were politically "neutral" but many, including some of them made by those of us … tending toward the left politically, were far from neutral. Examples:

Almost every child in the country saw The American Road, produced in 1953 by M.P.O. (a large industrial film production company) to celebrate the Ford Motor Company's fiftieth anniversary. It is as fullhearted a celebration of the free enterprise system as one could make and enshrines Henry Ford as a folk hero…. I directed the historical re-creations. Joe Marsh, a black listed Hollywood writer, did the script. Alex North, the famous Hollywood composer (then blacklisted also), did the music. We all needed the money.

Almost every other documentary director active at the time has similar films to his credit. Sidney Meyers did Monsanto's Decision for Chemistry and lots more. Willard Van Dyke did a series for the National Rifle Association. Lee Bobker did an apology for strip mining for the Peabody Coal Company. Even Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story is essentially a folksy apologia for Standard Oil's exploitation of wetlands that today we know should be protected as sources of fresh water.

My hunch is that, however justified we thought we were in making these films, by doing so we lost the respect we once had as documentary filmmakers on the part of the intellectual and artistic community…. For, in truth, the disillusionments of the late 1940s and the intimidations of the McCarthy period that followed destroyed our political underpinnings.5

Nonprofit film sponsoring institutions allowed somewhat more leeway for statements closer to the filmmakers' own attitudes and interests, but there were many fewer of them. And even the large foundations and national associations were limited by growing pressure from the political Right in what they would spend their money on. This political reaction would come to be called "McCarthyism," in honor of the junior Senator from Wisconsin. Joseph McCarthy headed Senate committees—and used whatever other power he could muster—to ferret out Communists and Communist sympathizers in the Department of State and the army. At the time of his death he was about to start on the large private foundations, most notably the Ford Foundation, which he accused of sheltering "reds" and radicals.

As a result of this political climate, the foundations restricted their grants to existing and widely accepted institutions and activities. They did not sponsor films that might prove "controversial" or that might be made by filmmakers with a "past" (meaning involvement with organizations and causes on the Left). The national associations concerned with education and various health problems like tuberculosis, cancer, or heart disease, stuck to small, well-defined promotional films, or informational films used as "audio-visual aids."6

One maker of institutionally sponsored films who managed to do noteworthy work during this period was Charles Guggenheim, a young filmmaker from St. Louis. His A City Decides (1957), produced for the Fund for the Republic (established with Ford Foundation money), is one example. It was made in relation to the Supreme Court decision that struck down the "separate but equal" concept of educational opportunity. Regarding this documentary, Lewis Jacobs wrote:

As with most integration films made during these years, it was aimed primarily at preparing the white community for integration. In this instance, it was school integration in St. Louis. The film was noteworthy in that it revealed, at least briefly, the fears of Negro parents in having their children attend school with white children. Production standards were high, but, typical of documentaries of the period, it used careful staging of non-actors with voice-over narration.7

A later film of Guggenheim's on the same subject, Nine From Little Rock (1963), made for the United States Information Agency (USIA), won an Academy Award as best documentary feature.

The USIA became the principal federal government sponsor of documentary film. Its forerunner, the Office of War Information, was eliminated altogether at the end of World War II. Postwar information operated out of the International Motion Picture Division (IMPD) of the Department of State, and was restricted to overseas dissemination. In 1951 information activities were greatly expanded, with the production of 400 two-reel films explaining the government's foreign policy and suggesting how the "average" American actually lived. The general idea was to celebrate those aspects of American culture thought to be most attractive abroad and, of course, attempt to counteract the portrayal of American life in many Hollywood movies as consisting mainly of sex and violence, frivolity and luxury. Soundtracks for these films were in as many as forty different languages and dialects. The State Department movies were shown in practically every country in the world; they were said to reach an audience of 10 million monthly. Every means available for showing the pictures was used, such as commercial theaters, schools, churches, and civic and fraternal organizations. Town halls or other gathering places were also rented. In addition, a vast network of 16mm. mobile projection units was operated by the IMPD to reach people in remote areas.

A large proportion of the State Department's films were a composite of stock footage and specially photographed material. The IMPD also obtained various types of pictures from large industrial concerns. All advertising was removed and they were equipped with new commentaries.8 For example, an Industry on Parade series was organized with the cooperation of the National Association of Manufacturers.9 Actual production was farmed out on a contract basis to companies producing commercial and industrial films and to various Hollywood studios.10

In 1953 this service was absorbed into the United States Information Agency, created to consolidate the foreign information activities in various departments and agencies of the federal government into one program. The International Motion Picture Service of the USIA operated through 135 offices in over fifty countries. Three hundred to five hundred different film titles became available through its offices abroad. They were said to reach audiences of approximately 500 million annually. Though there was some theatrical and beginning television distribution, primary emphasis was placed on nontheatrical showings to community groups and organizations. As of September 1953, 214 mobile units were in operation. The vehicles generated their own electric power and carried projectors and screens.11

Reception of these films was evidently varied. Here is one view of the work of the traveling projectionists, written by Thomas M. Pryor, in the New York Times in 1951:

Although the State Department is close-mouthed about details of its film operations, reports from field representatives have made abundantly clear that this is by no means a striped-pants or kid-glove contest that is being waged between the press agents of democracy and communism. The men who carry our movies into isolated hamlets, where the people assemble in the village square and see the movies under the stars, must be prepared to face physical dangers.

Reports, even from areas with sizable populations, have told of instances where the opposing forces have arranged demonstrations involving physical violence as well as costly vandalism. Theater screens have been destroyed by knife-wielding demonstrators and theater operators have been threatened with personal harm.12

A contrasting view was that the U.S. agents and their Soviet counterparts were rather like traveling salesmen, and anecdotes circulated about their friendly exchanges in the Middle East, for example, cautioning each other about bedbugs or overly hot spices in the town as one was leaving and the other entering. Also, the effectiveness of the U.S. propaganda approach was sometimes opened to question by reports back from the field. For instance, emphasis on our marvelous technology and high standard of living included, in one film, a kind of hymn to high-rise apartment buildings. An agent told of being approached, following a screening in Northern Greece, by an audience member who commiserated with him. It seems the local practice was that when children married, an addition was built onto the family house to accommodate the new couple, and eventually the same was done for their children, and so on, creating quite a sprawl of extended-family housing. "But we don't have it nearly so bad as you people do," the man said, "with everybody living on top of everybody else. Are they all family members?"13

Alas, we can know little about the nature of these films since they were prohibited by law from being distributed in the United States. This restriction grew out of the persistent and pervasive nervousness among legislators that their content would favor (serve as propaganda for) the party in power. For a film elegy to the slain President John F. Kennedy (Years of Lightning, Day of Drums, Bruce Herschensohn, 1968) Congress had to pass a special resolution to allow it to be released in the United States. Further, because of their primary political purpose, though some of those films may have had value as films, they were not reviewed or even described in foreign film journals.

In extreme contrast to USIA films were those produced by the Puerto Rican Division of Community Education. Its Cinema Unit was established in 1948 (with U.S. documentary veteran Willard Van Dyke assisting in setting it up). Rather than being made to be seen outside the country in an attempt to persuade others to accept certain political and economic tenets, its films were made by Puerto Ricans to improve the well-being and celebrate the culture of their own people. An outstanding filmmaker of this group was Amilcar Tirado. Of his films, the one that received most exposure in the United States (though still limited, of course, to venues frequented by critics and artists, like the Flaherty Seminar) was El Puente (The Bridge, 1950). In it an actual incident was reconstructed, though to some extent the film has the feel of a fiction feature. Faced with the hazard of periodic floods after heavy seasonal rain, villagers refuse to send their children to a school that lies on the other side of a river. A long, highly dramatic sequence during a storm in which a boy comes close to drowning moves the action toward solution. As a result, the community unites to build a bridge that allows the children to attend school in safety.14

In non-governmental filmmaking Louis de Rochemont's activities in the 1950s well represent some of the shifts occurring in the context for documentary. Founding head of The March of Time in the 1930s, producer of fact-based features at Twentieth Century-Fox in the 1940s (The House on 92ND Street, 1945; 13 Rue Madeleine, 1946; and Boomerang, 1947), he then founded Louis de Rochemont Associates. This firm made occasional semi-documentary theatrical features (Lost boundaries, 1949), sponsored films for advertising and public relations use, and classroom films. About de Rochemont's production in the last of these categories, one observer remarked that "The educational film, rescued from its stale, flat, and unprofitable past, is now assuming a more palatable form…. Producers of marked achievement, like Louis de Rochemont, include the educational film as a regular part of their output."15

De Rochemont's major educational project was The Earth and Its Peoples, a series of thirty-six films, each about twenty minutes in length, containing such titles as Eskimo Hunters, Highlands of the Andes, Horsemen of the Pampas, Farmers of India, and On Mediterranean Shores. Reviewing one of these, entitled Nomads of the Jungle (Malaya), British and Canadian documentarian Raymond Spottiswoode wrote:

The first, and so far the outstanding film of the "Earth and Its People" series, is this brilliant interpretation by Victor Jurgens of a nomadic family which lives off the produce of the jungle without recourse to agriculture. The family's story is told in the first person by the son of the chief…. The film has been magnificently shot with a keen and humorous eye, and the sound track (recorded on location) captures the noises of the jungle and the camp…. Though aimed at primary-school grades, this film is so well made that any adult group would find it fascinating.16

On the other hand, Richard Griffith, curator of the Film Library (now Department) of the Museum of Modern Art, felt the series as a whole had been disappointing. While conceding that the films had been created by some of the top technicians in the industry—such as John Ferno, Victor Vicas, Jules Bucher, Richard Leacock, and Leo Seltzer—Griffith felt that the films in the series, "with a few exceptions like Malaya, tended to emerge as elementary visualisations-of-commentary little superior to the routine classroom film of weary familiarity."17

At Encyclopaedia Britannica Films (EBF), the largest of the educational film producer-distributors, there was a brief and limited experiment with more ambitious production, closer to the documentary tradition. Two films concerning city planning, both sponsored by the Twentieth Century Fund and produced by John Barnes, were released in 1953. The Baltimore Plan was about an interesting and evidently effective blockby-block rehabilitation of an inner-city neighborhood involving the residents as well as city employees. The Living City, surveying city planning problems and solutions more generally, was nominated for an Academy Award. It was shot and directed by Haskell Wexler, who will appear later in this account. But it turned out that such prestige pictures "didn't pay the rent," as they said at EBF at the time, as did those fitting more neatly into K-12 curriculums.18 One pleasant, modest example of the latter sort, with some documentary qualities, was People Along the Mississippi (1955), directed and shot by Gordon Weisenborn, an alumnus of the National Film Board of Canada.


Films about the arts, and films that used the arts to deal with other subjects, became widely popular during the 1950s, perhaps owing to a general growth in art appreciation as prosperity and leisure increased. Sometimes they were shown as shorts in the "art theaters" specializing in European or otherwise non-Hollywood feature films, and in the film societies developing during these years. They were also shown in schools, libraries, and museums.

Many documentarians had been trained in or were attracted to the arts. Even Robert Flaherty shot material (in 1949) for a study of Guernica, Picasso's great painting about the Spanish Civil War, and was involved in the promotion distribution of The Titan: Story of Michelangelo (a revised version, released in 1950, of a film made Italy by the Swiss director Curt Oertel beween 1938 and 1940). The latter is a feature-length biography of Michelangelo using only contemporary architecture, interior settings, and artworks as visual material, with a highly mobile camera and editing style breathing simulated life into these static artifacts. This sort of historical compilation would become a prominent form of television documentary (to be discussed later in this chapter).19

Among other early films on art and artists were Erica Anderson's and Jerome Hill's Grandma Moses (1950), Herbert Matter's World of Calder (1950), Weegee's (Arthur Felig's) Weegee's New York (1950), Jim Davis's John Marin (1951), Hans Namuth's and Paul Falkenberg's Jackson Pollock (1951), Lewis Jacobs's Mathew Brady: Photographer of an Era (1953).20

Two films on the arts were particularly interesting in that they were about jazz, which many would argue is, along with the movies themselves, America's most distinctive and important contribution to the arts. Roger Tilton's short, Jazz Dance (1954), a break-through visual-audio recording of young people jitterbugging, brilliantly shot by Richard Leacock, becomes a celebration of the extraordinary vigor and grace of the youthful response to this rhythmic music. The feeling of spontaneity is remarkable, requiring incredibly painstaking cutting and considerable ingenuity given the non-sync sound equipment available at the time.(The film preceded by a year the similar Momma Don't Allow, by Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, out of the British Free Cinema demi-movement.)

The second film about jazz, a feature, was Jazz on a Summer's Day (1959) by still photographer Bert Stern. Its popularity would inaugurate a documentary sub-genre of filmed pop music festivals, in this case the Newport Jazz Festival. Louis Armstrong opens the program and is featured. Among other star musicians included are Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing, Chuck Berry, Anita O'Day, Thelonius Monk, and Dinah Washington. It was one generally enthusiastic reviewer's opinion, however, that "the closing sequence of Mahalia Jackson's gospel singing is perhaps the most musically exciting part of Jazz on a Summer's Day."21

More akin in subject and style to earlier documentary concerns than those dealing with arts and artists were documentaries about mental health. Yet there was a profound difference between them and previous documentaries: the mental health documentaries of the 1950s concentrated on persons in relation to themselves—their individual, interior lives—rather than on their relationships to society and to social problems.22

Spearheading production of films on psychological matters was the Mental Health Film Board (MHFB), initiated in 1949 by Alberta Altman (with the help of Irving Jacoby, whom she later married). Its first picture, Angry Boy (1951), was written by Jacoby, directed by him and Alexander Hammid. It details the functioning of a guidance clinic in helping a child caught stealing to cope with the fears and hostilities that have affected his behavior. Like many of the films cited in this chapter, Angry Boy uses fictional techniques within a nonfictional framework—an aspect to be discussed later.

Irving Jacoby was also one of the founders of Affiliated Film Producers, Inc., in 1946 (with John Ferno, Henwar Rodakiewicz, and Willard Van Dyke). For most of its existence, Affiliated was run solely by Jacoby and Van Dyke. In addition to their own producing, writing, and/or directing of many of the noteworthy nontheatrical films of the 1950s, they employed some of the best documentarians of the day, among them (in addition to Hammid) Peter Glushanok, Sidney Meyers, Helen Grayson, Boris Kaufman, Aram Boyajian, Richard Leacock, and Francis Thompson.23

The second MHFB film, Steps of Age (1951), deals with emotional problems of the aged. Produced for the Department of Mental Health, State of South Carolina, it was sponsored by the National Association for Mental Health. Helen Levitt was producer; Ben Maddow wrote and directed; Sidney Meyers edited. Its protagonist is a sixty-two-year-old woman living with her daughters family after her husbands death. Her first-person voice-over narration, a sad reverie as she climbs a long flight of stairs up a hill to her daughters house, reveals her feelings, provides the structure, and accommodates flashbacks of memories from her past. The third Mental Health Film Board film, Roots of Happiness (1953), directed by Henwar Rodakiewicz and made in Puerto Rico, examines the role of the father in family life. It also delineates the ways individual family members derive strength from the family unit.

Helen Levitt, well-known still photographer, came into motion-picture prominence as one of the persons responsible for the highly successful The Quiet One (1948), about a troubled black youth in Harlem and his treatment at the Wiltwyck School in upper New York State. Ben Maddow had a long and distinguished career as writer of documentaries (Valley Town, 1940; Native Land, 1942) and features (Intruder in the Dust, 1949; The Asphalt Jungle, 1950; and Savage Eye, 1960—the last to be discussed shortly). Sidney Meyers, former violinist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, entered documentary in the 1930s. He too was involved with The Quiet One (as director, co-writer, and co-editor) and The Savage Eye. The daughter in Steps of Age was played by Emma Agee, wife of James Agee, who wrote The Quiet One's eloquent narration.

The Lonely Night (1954), made for the Mental Health Film Board by Affiliated Film, was written, directed, and produced by Jacoby. Like the other examples of mental health films discussed above, this is fiction based on common elements of many similar cases. Actress Marian Seldes plays the disturbed young protagonist. Through interviews with her psychoanalyst and flashbacks to her childhood we see the origins of her problems in her family relationships as she was growing up.

Documentaries on matters of general public health became much more plentiful and effective than before. One of these was perhaps the most accomplished and at the same time most extreme example of documentary drawing closer to fiction at this time. Benjy (1951), a short produced for the Orthopaedic Foundation of Los Angeles with the cooperation of Paramount Pictures, was directed by Fred Zinnemann and narrated by Henry Fonda. It used acted performances, studio lighting, and an opulent music score to tell an authentic story of a crippled boy.

The story begins when Benjy breaks his arm and is taken to the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital. In the course of treatment a doctor discovers that he has a malformed spine. Upon inquiry it is learned that Benjy's parents have been trying to ignore their son's disability—pretending to themselves that Benjy is a physically normal boy. The film then concerns itself with the doctors' efforts to correct Benjy's spine. It received the Academy Award for documentary.

The most skillful and dedicated practitioner in the field of public health films was George Stoney, but the first film he directed, Palmour Street (1950), was about mental health. Produced for the Georgia State Department of Health, it was part of a rather large-scale film program aimed at the rural and small-town African American population.

Among noteworthy Stoney films about health problems other than mental health is Still Going Places (1956), about the care and treatment of the aged. It shows in detail the practical steps that can be taken to help old people lead active lives. It was produced by the Center for Mass Communication, a division of Columbia University Press, with a grant from the pharmaceutical firm Charles Pfizer and Co. The Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews of New York cooperated in the production, and its residents and staff comprise the "cast."

Best known of Stoney's films of the 1950s, however, is unquestionably All My Babies (1952). It began as an instructional film sponsored by the Georgia State Department of Health to demonstrate to midwives correct sanitary procedures to use in their deliveries. Stoney, himself a Southerner, became sympathetically involved with the rural black people the film is about and for. Though it is a medical film and contains all the technical information required—some 118 points—it developed a length, a scope, and an emotional intensity that lift it into the realm of art. Its protagonist, Miss Mary, is not only a consummately skillful midwife, she is a magnificent person, commanding affection and respect. The "Aunt Jemima" stereotype she might seem to represent is exploded before our eyes. Because Miss Mary's skill in delivering babies was carefully recorded, the film was shown for years in medical schools. The warm and wonderful feelings it contains—for birth, for people, for life—surely did the student doctors no harm.24

Films about race relations, especially between blacks and whites—referred to collectively as "brotherhood films"—were much in evidence at this time. The seminal event regarding those relations was the Supreme Court desegregation decision of May 1954.

The CBS-TV See It Now series, to be discussed shortly, was quick to pick up this topic. Its "Segregation in Schools," made the week following the decision, reported on reactions in two Southern towns—Natchitoches, Louisiana, and Gastonia, North Carolina. It was followed by "Clinton and the Law," depicting the problems and the ways citizens reacted when the high school in Clinton, Tennessee, attempted to admit black students.

All the Way Home (1958), directed by Lee Bobker from a script by Muriel Rukeyser, examines the response in an all-white neighborhood when a homeowner decides to sell his house to a black family. Labor unions and churches sponsored numbers of films to promote racial understanding; examples are the feature-length Burden of Truth (1957), from United Steel Workers, and No Man Is an Island (1959), originally produced for the religious television program Look Up and Live.25

In the 1950s ethnographic films began to appear in new quality and quantity. (The last noteworthy practitioners had been Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead in Bali in the 1930s.) Beginnings of this resurgency occurred in 1951 with expeditions by the Laurence K. Marshall family to the region of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Buchanaland, South Africa. Marshall was a retired businessman and his son John's first film played a major role in the development of the ethnographic film. By 1954 John Marshall had shot hundreds of thousands of feet of film on the Bushmen. When the Marshalls contacted the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, the value of this footage was recognized and a Film Study Center was established. Robert Gardner became its director. Gardner, who had a solid background as both filmmaker and ethnographer, accompanied the Marshalls to the Kalahari in 1955, and then helped John create The Hunters out of the assembled footage. It was released in 1958.26

The film presents life in this bitter land as a constant struggle against the hot, dry climate and an unyielding soil. The women dig all day with sticks for roots to eat. The men fashion their bows and arrows, and distill the arrow poison for hunting. The film then follows four individuals through a thirteen-day hunt for meat that ends in the killing of a giraffe.27 The Hunters became the most outstanding and influential ethnographic film of the decade,28 preparing the way for the future work of Gardner, Timothy Asch, David and Judith MacDougall, and others. It received the 1958 Flaherty Award, an appropriate prize since its use of the drama of man-against-nature eking out a precarious existence evokes memories of Robert Flaherty's pioneering documentary Nanook of the North (1922) and his acclaimed Man of Aran (1934). Hugh Gray, at the 1959 Flaherty Seminar, supplemented that observation by suggesting that The Hunters uses "the scientist's method and the poet's vision."29


As for their formal aspects, documentaries of the fifties were freer and more varied in their techniques than earlier documentaries had been. More nonactuality was employed—fictional and dramatic elements—and structurally they tended to be organized as narrative or as drama. There was more location sound, especially sync sound. The latter was made possible by the availability of magnetic tape, which made recording outside the studio much more practicable than it had been with the optical system. The narrative structures and sync dialogue coincided with the tendency of these fifties documentaries to center more on individuals than had those of the thirties and forties.

On the Bowery (1956) followed the models and demonstrated viability of a narrative/dramatic approach evident in Louisiana Story and The Quiet One (both 1948). It was Lionel Rogosin's first film, financed with his own money. (His father was a wealthy industrialist.) Rogosin conceived of the idea of a documentary film over several years investigating New York City's infamous skid row. He produced and directed it. It was written by Mark Sufrin, photographed by Richard Bagley (who had earlier photographed The Quiet One), and edited by Carl Lerner. It was made for the theaters and received some theatrical distribution before going on to nontheatrical distribution.

On the Bowery was an extraordinary breakthrough in a number of ways. Its subject matter had been used often enough in conventional fiction features—the ravages of alcohol on human life, the degradation of a derelict existence. What was here unusual was the taking of camera (mostly a 35mm. Arriflex with a 4001 magazine) and tape recorder into the actual jungle of metropolitan life, allowing a much closer look at this particular reality than audiences were used to. This film was different, too, from conventional documentaries in that it did use a slight story and developed, to a limited degree, characters who interact with each other. Three main characters are followed; one of them in particular, an ex-lawyer who had been unable to cope with the pressures of his previous life, becomes the basis of the narrative structure.

The problems of making this kind of film, from the production standpoint, are, of course, prodigious—in terms of both human problems and technical problems. Not only are the filmmakers working in a situation that demands maximum tact and care, innumerable clearances, and cooperation which may not be volunteered, they must lead nonactors through performances, get them to deliver lines, to behave as if a camera weren't there. At the time, this film seemed to many filmmakers and critics to open up a whole new production method and range of subject matter.

Rogosin's next film, Come Back, Africa (1959), which he produced, directed, and co-wrote, has an increased proportion of fictional elements and a strong polemical thrust. (On the Bowery is markedly non-judgmental about the situation it deals with.) Come Back, Africa is a drama of racial conflict filmed in and around Johannesburg. (The title of the film derives from the national anthem of the African Freedom movement, "Mavibuye Afrika.")

Preparation and filming took eighteen months of searching for the theme, the locations, and the cast among Africans; photographing the gold mines, the wandering street musicians, the African suburbs of Sophiatown; and concealing from the authorities the true nature of the film's social content. (Rogosin was ostensibly making a musical travelogue.) The person who plays the film's central character, a Zulu named Zachariah, was found at a railroad station. He turned out to have almost the same background as was called for in the script. Miriam Makeba, African singing star, is featured. Rogosin said of the performances that these non-actors spoke their lines "naturally" from a story treatment.

Rogosin bought a movie theater, the Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village, for the New York premiere of Come Back, Africa. (He continued to operate the theater as an "art house" afterwards.) Despite good attendance there, prizes at festivals abroad, and widespread, excellent reviews in the press, he was unable to obtain nation-wide distribution.30 Like On the Bowery, Come Back, Africa had healthy and sustained nontheatrical distribution.

The most experimental and provocative of these fifties story-documentaries was The Savage Eye (1959) which, appearing at the end of the decade, was an anomaly in many ways. Made mostly by people who had been on the political Left, it attempted to combine a scathing view of current social ills and disorders with the new emphasis on individuals, narrative, and characterization. The initiator of The Savage Eye was Joseph Strick, who had been a cameraman with the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. After the war he worked with Irving Lerner, jack-of-all-film-crafts, to learn how to make movies. Together they created the charming short Muscle Beach (1948). Strick became a wealthy businessman, owning a controlling interest in several large electronic corporations, and was able to form a new collaboration that led to The Savage Eye.

The film is credited as being "by" Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, and Joseph Strick. Cinematographers are listed as Jack Couffer, Helen Levitt, and Haskell Wexler. Wexler would subsequently become a highly valued Hollywood cameraman (with Academy Awards for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966, and Bound for Glory, 1976); and also sometime director (Medium Cool, 1969). The Savage Eye was Wexler's first feature. Two others are listed as "contributing photographers," but it was said that Strick was responsible for about half the camera work, though he took no cinematography credit.31 Music was by Leonard Rosenman. Irving Lerner is credited as technical consultant. The film was worked on part-time for four or five years, mostly on weekends.

The visuals are made up largely of unstaged scenes of the seamier side of Los Angeles—sleazy bars, beauty and massage parlors, a wrestling match, traffic jams, animal cemeteries, addicts and transvestites, stripteasers, and faith healers. All this is seen through the eyes of a just-divorced, alienated, and angry woman (played by Barbara Baxley)—hers is "the savage eye." As she wanders through these urban settings she carries on a duologue with a subjective interlocutor, "the poet" (voice of Gary Merrill), who introduces himself to her as her "vile dreamer, conscience, ghost." (Maddow had first tried this sort of device much earlier in Van Dyke's Valley Town, released in 1940.)

Initially The Savage Eye received a great deal of attention, including festival awards. At the Edinburgh International Film Festival, instead of being shown once, as scheduled, it had to be shown eight times.32 The review of it in the New York Post concluded: "The Savage Eye is all of one piece, masterfully, artfully wrought by its three makers, a work that must be recognized as great no matter how unlikable, a film that will be seen for many a year no matter who rejects it now."33 The contrary proved to be the case. It soon fell into virtual obscurity, remembered only as a precursor of direct cinema, which was about to begin. Today we are more likely to agree with another critical reaction, that of Benjamin T. Jackson in a 1960 review of the film:

The fragments of documentary film in themselves are bitterly sure-footed. They show us clearly the irresolute and pernicious side of modern American life. Personally, I would like very much to see this footage combined into another form, without the contrived story and dialogue.34

Along with the connections forged between documentary and fiction features in the 1950s was a tendency towards avant-garde experimentation. Some filmmakers moved away from traditional social documentary altogether into a freewheeling use of actuality footage as material for personal artistic expression.

Frank Stauffacher, a young San Franciscan, made two films of the latter sort. Notes on the Port of St. Francis (1952) takes its title and its commentary, read by Vincent Price, from a travel essay by Robert Louis Stevenson written in 1882. This is, of course, reminiscent of Basil Wright's use of a seventeenth-century Scottish traveler's words in The Song of Ceylon (1934). Stauffacher's film calls to mind two earlier "city symphony" films as well: Alberto Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures (1926) and Walther Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), which appear in histories of both the documentary and the avant-garde. Like avant-gardists, Stauffacher was the sole creator of his films: producer, cinematographer, editor.

Notes on the Port of St. Francis begins with waves crashing on a rocky coast and moves to earlier artwork and still photographs of San Francisco intermingled. The musical accompaniment is eighteenth-century Baroque and then nineteenth-century Romantic. The film is much freer and more personal in the choice of images and their ordering than a conventional travelogue, certainly. It is more an artist's view, or a personal essayist's (like Stevenson's)—idiosyncratic, with aspects only of the city. Even the images themselves are toyed with: lots of moving camera, and the use of long lenses, trucking, and tilting up.

Sausalito (1953) looks even more like an experimental film of the time. Its title is the name of the suburb on the shore of San Francisco Bay where Stauffacher lived. It offers impressions of this particular locale, from inside his own house out to the street and neighboring houses—a kind of intimate sketchbook. Its subject matter is documentary, real and everyday sights and sounds, but its style and its manner of combining miscellaneous ambient images and sounds is highly impressionistic and subjective, in the manner of imagist poetry. (Or, come to think of it, Grierson's and Cavalcanti's Granton Trawler of 1934.)

Not surprisingly, among these new city symphonies New York predominated. In the Street, produced by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee, consists of silent black and white footage shot in "Spanish Harlem" in the late 1940s. The shots are candid, with people unaware of the camera for the most part, and much of it was intended for but not used in The Quiet One. Not released until 1952, it was shown only to small closed groups for study purposes, at least partly because clearances from the people photographed were not obtained, nor obtainable probably, given the method used. It looks ahead to direct cinema, the technology and technique for which would start to develop in the 1950s.

In the Street is extraordinary in at least two ways: for the haunting individual images of children and old people, the main daytime inhabitants of Harlem's streets; and for the editing, which is following feeling rather than argument or plot. The assemblage seems on the one hand to be formless and, on the other, to have a dozen patterns which account for the exactly right arrangement and duration of each shot.

Third Avenue El was intended as a tribute to that about-to-become-defunct institution. It was made in color in 1955 with loving care by Carter Davidson, a cameraman by profession. This, too, is a film that is documentary in subject matter and impressionistic in style. Here the impressions are organized around and conditioned by perceptions of representative passengers: a photographer, a child, a drunk, young lovers. As accompaniment there is a harpsichord concerto played by Wanda Landowska, giving the whole a formal elegance and rhythm seldom associated with urban life in the twentieth century.

Francis Thompson's N.Y., N.Y. (1957), though made by a respected documentary cinematographer and director, is the film in this group most clearly working against usual expectations for a documentary. It presents the city as if it were being reflected in funhouse mirrors—a "kaleidoscopic impression of the changing moods of New York as a single day sweeps over it," Arthur Knight wrote. He went on to explain that, "here the interest is primarily in form and design. People, when they appear at all, are barely incidental. The buildings in which, and against which, they move become the raw material for myriad patterns made possible by special lenses, prisms, and distort mirrors known only to Mr. Thompson. They whirl, they blur, they stretch."

Thompson spent almost ten years in the creation of this fifteen-minute film, working on it in intervals between (and sometimes during) his commercial assignments.35 With Alexander Hammid, he went on to apply similar techniques in To Be Alive!, a multi-screen project launched at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

In the same review as N.Y., N.Y., Knight deals with Hilary Harris's five-minute Highway (1958). The images are mostly shot from a car (or cars) moving fast on the highways and expressways that encircle and move into New York City. Arthur Knight wrote of it, in part, "Cut to a jazz score provided by David Hollister, the effect is perhaps less a 'city symphony' than a 'city jam session'…. It is the assembly that brings the whole to life, the editing rhythms and the synchronization of the right visual to the right sound. "

Among the experimental documentary filmmakers of the fifties, Shirley Clarke was the most solid and sustained in her achievement. In fact, of her films and videos, except for two fiction features shot in documentary style, all were either experimental or documentary with experimental inflections.

Clarke came to film from a career as a dancer largely, she said, because of the bad dance films she had seen. In her first films she moved quickly from using the camera primarily as a means of recording dance performances to using the techniques of cinematography, editing, and laboratory processes to create dances that never could exist on the concert stage, or in the real world, for that matter—film dances rather than dance films. From film dances, like A Moment in Love (1956), it was a mere grand jeté to looking at nonhuman aspects of the world as if they were capable of assuming dance-like movement.

Bridges-Go-Round (1958) approaches the bridges around Manhattan Island as you would see them if you sailed under them on one of the boat excursion tours, or drove over them on your way into the city. This real (that is to say, documentary) experience is infused with a great deal of style, wit, and sense of image and movement that this particular filmmaker brought to film. Henry Breitrose wrote of the film:

In actuality, the bridges become plastic materials for a highly abstract subjective study in structures and movements…. They are manipulated in a complex but extremely arresting way: the great steel girders, the taut cables, the towers and railings and roadways and abutments seem almost to dance. An exciting sense of color works with Mrs. Clarke's lively rhythmic sense.36

Though Skyscraper (1959) credits list Shirley Clarke, Willard Van Dyke, and Irving Jacoby as producers, Van Dyke, in an interview, said of it: "First of all, let me say straight out that that's Shirley Clarke's film basically."37 The project began when Affiliated Film Producers lined up John Tishman, builder of 666 Fifth Avenue (which would be named The Tishman Building), to sponsor a film about its construction. Footage of the destruction of the old building through the construction of the new had been shot over a period of about eighteen months.

When Van Dyke ended his association with Affiliated at that time, he asked Clarke to take over the editing of the film, which really meant to create it: arrive at a conception, develop a script with a writer, supervise additional shooting.38 The idea had been, according to Clarke, to follow the model of Steiner's and Van Dyke's celebrated The City (1939). The height, the size, the significance of this massive piece of contemporary architecture would be emphasized by florid commentary.39 Instead, Clarke created a Broadway musical. The film begins with a sort of chorus line opening; as a "hero" steps forth, an off-screen song begins "My Manhattan, lovely isle; in the twilight wears a smile." The final, romantic ending scene, in color (all of the construction footage had been in black and white), is reminiscent of On the Town (1949) or Guys and Dolls (1955). (It is interesting to note that Clarke thought 666 Fifth Avenue ugly, so the only time we see a full image of it is the final shot of the lighted building taken at night from a great distance.)40 The original score was composed by Teo Macero and sung by Gene Mumford. The musical narration is supplemented with off-screen dialogue by simulated construction workers. Skyscraper won lots of festival prizes and was nominated for an Oscar. It was a fitting climax to this sort of experimental and/or poetic documentary which couldn't find a place on television and would be forced out by the pervasive direct cinema technique just beginning.


During the 1950s television became the most important economic base for production and means of distribution/exhibition for documentary, adapting older forms and subjects and adding new ones. In 1946 television had been removed from the wartime freeze; in 1948 big-time TV was born. By 1950 a network out of New York linked the major cities; 100 stations telecast to four million sets. In 1951 coaxial cable and microwave relay connected the country as a whole, coast to coast.

In that 1951-1952 season on CBS-TV, Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly began their See It Now series, which grew out of their radio series Hear It Now. The 1952-1953 season on NBC-TV contained Victory at Sea, produced by historian Henry Salomon Jr., edited by Isaac Kleinerman, with a score by Richard Rodgers. Consisting of twenty-six half-hour films about U.S. naval warfare in World War II, it was compiled from over six million feet of combat footage. These two highly successful and seminal programs inaugurated the prevailing documentary types of the 1950s: the news documentary and the compilation documentary. One examined aspects of current concerns, the other events and personages of the past.

While dramatic and other entertainment programs shown on television came from outside producing agencies, production of documentaries was carried on primarily by the networks and local stations themselves. Both the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) established units for that purpose, with personnel initially drawn largely from the ranks of nontheatrical documentarians. Subsequently, television documentary makers were almost without exception journalists, with a background in radio or still photography. The main function of these units was the creation of special programs, frequently unsponsored, presented as prestige or public-service features. American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) documentary production was later and weaker, with a news emphasis.

In 1953 what is now the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) began as National Educational Television (NET). This noncommercial network, supported by funds from the federal government, initiated and distributed substantial quantities of documentaries and public affairs material. Its budgets tended to be smaller than those of the commercial networks, but it made up for that in part by importing many significant documentary programs from abroad.

See It Now, though a sort of news magazine of feature stories in The March of Time tradition, had a much quieter and more intimate tone suitable to the living room. Produced by Murrow and Friendly, it featured Murrow as the on-screen host and commentator. At first See It Now, like The March of Time and the present-day 60 Minutes, presented several different stories in each half-hour program. In 1953 the format changed to include only one story a week. Among the See It Now programs most often cited are "Christmas in Korea" (1953), made during the Korean War; the several programs dealing with McCarthyism, including one in 1954 in which Senator McCarthy was afforded the opportunity to reply to what had been raised in the earlier programs (consistent with an American broadcasting concept called "the fairness doctrine"); and a visit with nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1955). A look at one of its more typical programs may give some sense of its distinctiveness.

"Argument in Indianapolis" (1953) presents opposing factions in that city when the American Civil Liberties Union, attempting to form a local chapter, is opposed by the American Legion post. One of the extraordinary things about this program is its balance in handling a controversial subject—which was necessary, no doubt, for it to be telecast at all. Depending on your sympathies, the Legion members become fascist monsters or upholders of true Americanism; the ACLU group, pleasant, sensitive intellectuals or dangerous radicals and subversives. At any rate the faces, speech, and manner of the protagonists are caught more or less candidly. A remarkable study is offered of diverse ideologies and personalities that exist in uneasy relationship to each other within this republic.

In 1955, when the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) withdrew its sponsorship, See It Now changed from regularly scheduled weekly half-hours to hour-long programs appearing at intervals—"specials," in effect. Media critic Gilbert Seldes quipped that it had become "See It Now—and Then." In 1958 See It Now was terminated, to be replaced in 1959 by occasional "CBS Reports."

NBC's response to See It Now was the quite different Project XX series, which began in 1954. It grew out of the success of Victory at Sea, and its production unit included many of the same creative personnel. Rather than a weekly series, however, Project XX offered occasional hour-long specials. Like Victory at Sea, its programs were compilation films devoted to re-creating aspects of the history of that century (hence XX) using existing footage—newsreel, documentary, and feature—and occasional reenactments. Among the Project XX specials in the fifties that attracted most attention were "Night-mare in Red" (1955), which chronicled the rise of Soviet Communism, and "The Twisted Cross" (1956), which did the same for German Nazism.

The Twentieth Century weekly series, which began on CBS in 1957, was produced by Burton Benjamin and Isaac Kleinerman, and sponsored by the Prudential Insurance Company. Its programs were mostly half-hour, though a few were hour-long. At first the series was devoted entirely to compilations. The format of "From Kaiser to Fuehrer" (1959) is typical. Host Walter Cronkite introduces the program then retreats off-screen to voice-over commentary. Clips from German films of the twenties are its main basis. In addition to newsreels, extensive use is made of the documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and the fictional feature Variety. The cutting pace is rapid and the editing skillful; a full orchestral score contributes much to continuity and dramatic effect.

The advantage of television as a new source of financing and distribution/exhibition for documentary, in comparison with the theatrical and nontheatrical channels, can be summed up easily. The leading attraction was the large demand for documentaries on television. It became a source of sustained sponsorship greater than any ever known, and it returned the cost of production much more quickly than theatrical or nontheatrical distribution. It also reached the large audience simultaneously—forty million individuals and small groups watching on a Thursday night, say, in their homes—rather than audiences in theaters, students in classrooms, members in club rooms and grange halls, and so on over the course of several years.

The limitations of television for distribution-exhibition of documentaries (and other forms of art and entertainment) included its technological crudities. The image on the tube had much poorer definition—that is, it was lacking in sharpness and detail—than the projected 35mm. or even 16mm. images. Television sound had a limited dynamic range (it lacked high and low frequencies) and the three-inch speaker standard on TV sets allowed for little audio richness.

Also, TV had other kinds of limitation. Those watching television tended to be more heterogeneous and less attentive than those in theatrical and nontheatrical settings. Audiences in theaters had chosen the movie they were watching through the impression made by its promotion, the reviews it had received, and by the opinions of friends and neighbors who had already seen it. Nontheatrical audiences were generally engaged in some common undertaking involving the viewing and discussion of films. Less advance information was available to television audiences and a particular program was usually seen as one part in a flow of diverse television programming. Furthermore, there were the distractions of the television-viewing situation—for example, ringing telephones or discussion of homework in an adjoining room. And, of course, there were the commercial breaks within the television programs themselves.

Frequently in television documentaries the commentator was a star and appeared on camera. (In theatrical and nontheatrical productions the commentator was usually anonymous and unobtrusive; one heard his voice over the images and he never appeared on screen. At most he added a bit of emotional coloring.) The star commentators—Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and others—fed into and emphasized the quality of live-ness. The audience tuned in to see what Ed was offering on Friday night. He talked directly to viewers from the control room, his reporters available to come in over the monitors as he called on them. (Actually, given the technology available at the time, they were filmed beforehand with the film flown to New York, processed in the lab, and edited before being aired.) The scenes in See It Now were shot more as if they were being captured live and undirected than they were in non-television documentaries. And perhaps out of respect for the viewers, the commentator's own point of view in what was said and in what was chosen to show was generally withheld or balanced—or maybe the commentator was just ambivalent, and therefore, to the viewer, ambiguous.

In documentaries made for television there was an increased use of sync sound, especially talk; interviews were used much more extensively than in theatrical or nontheatrical documentaries. The sound track carried at least as much content as the visual track and the visuals tended to be less rich and interesting than in non-television documentaries. As a result of this balance between words and images, creative control of television documentaries usually was exerted by the producers, writers, and commentators rather than by directors.

Though they reached many people more quickly, in the series context and in the daily flow of television programming it was difficult for particular documentaries to offer the kind of aesthetic experience or to achieve the social impact on those they did reach that some documentaries shown in theaters and to nontheatrical audiences may have done. But perhaps, as was argued at the time by Lyman Bryson,41 the mass media could not do very much about educating people soundly or altering their opinions on the subjects with which they dealt. Bryson thought the significance of the media in relation to their effects on social attitudes and behavior was essentially to call public attention to matters that seemed important to the media creators. Television became virtually the mass medium, certainly as far as documentary was concerned. It was the best qualified of any of the media of art and communication devised up to that time to quickly call large numbers of people's attention to various subjects. During the 1950s it established its ability to do just that—and sometimes documentaries made for television did it superbly.42

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American Documentary in the 1950s

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American Documentary in the 1950s