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de Rochemont, Louis

de ROCHEMONT, Louis



Producer. Nationality: American. Born: Louis Clark de Rochemont in Chelsea, Massachusetts, 13 January 1899. Education: Attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; Naval Aviation School; Harvard Naval Cadet School. Military Service: British Military Intelligence, 1916–17; officer in U.S. Navy, 1917–23. Family: Married Virginia Shaler, 1929, son: the filmmaker Louis de Rochemont III, daughter: Virginia. Career: 1923–29—cameraman for International and for Pathé News; director of short-film program, 20th Century-Fox (Adventures of a Newsreel Cameraman and Magic Carpets of Movietone series); 1933—created (with Roy E. Larsen) The March of Time series of newsreels; 1940—first feature; 1943–46—producer, 20th Century-Fox; then founder, Louis de Rochemont Associates: producer of The Earth and Its Peoples educational series, and made films in Cinerama and other wide-screen processes. Awards: Special Academy Award, for The March of Time, 1936. Died: 23 December 1978.


Films as Producer:

1933–43

The March of Time (series)

1933

The Cry of the World (doc)

1934

The First World War (doc)

1940

The Ramparts We Watch (+ d—doc)

1942

We Are the Marines (+ d—doc)

1944

The Fighting Lady (Steichen) (+ ed)

1945

The House on 92nd Street (Hathaway)

1947

13 Rue Madeleine (Hathaway); Boomerang! (Kazan)

1949

Lost Boundaries (Werker)

1951

The Whistle at Eaton Falls (Siodmak)

1952

Walk East on Beacon (Werker)

1953

Martin Luther (Pichel)

1954

Animal Farm (Halas and Batchelor—animation)

1955

Cinerama Holiday

1958

Windjammer (L. de Rochemont III)

1960

Man on a String (de Toth)

1961

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (Quintero)

Publications


By de ROCHEMONT: article—


Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1941.


On de ROCHEMONT: book—

Fielding, Raymond, The March of Time 1935–1951, New York, 1978.

On de ROCHEMONT: articles—

Screen and Audience, London, 1947.

Lightman, Herb A., "13 Rue Madeleine: Documentary Style in the Photoplay," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1947.

Current Biography, New York, 1949.

Lyons, Eugene, "Louis de Rochemont, Maverick of the Movies," in Reader's Digest (Pleasantville, New York), July 1949.

Gehman, Richard B., in Theatre Arts (New York), October 1951.

Films in Review (New York), May 1958.

"A Black Filmmaker Remembers Louis de Rochemont," in Film Library Quarterly (New York), vol. 12, no. 4, 1979.

Culbert, David, "A Documentary Note on Wilson: Hollywood Propaganda for World Peace," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television (Abingdon), vol. 3, no. 2, 1983.

Lafferty, William, "A Reappraisal of the Semi-Documentary in Hollywood 1945–1948," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), Summer 1983.

Dunlap, Donald, "The March of Time and The Ramparts We Watch (1940)," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television (Abingdon), vol. 5, no. 2, 1985.

Sakmyster, Thomas, "Nazi Documentaries of Intimidation: Feldzug in Polen (1940), Feuertaufe (1940) and Sieg im Westen (1941)," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (Abingdon), October 1996.


* * *

Louis de Rochemont is best remembered today for his involvement with Roy Larsen in producing Time magazine's innovative and popular newsreel The March of Time and for pioneering in a postwar Hollywood subgenre, the so-called "semidocumentary." Generally overlooked, however, is de Rochemont's far-ranging work in the early days of American newsreels, his early embracing of the compilation documentary, his later activity in adapting new wide-screen processes to the documentary mode, and his extensive educational film production outside the Hollywood industry.

According to Raymond Fielding, de Rochemont's passion for journalism had its origin in his enthusiasm for Richard Harding Davis's novel Gallegher, in which the title character is a teenaged reporter dedicated to "scoops." During his youth de Rochemont emulated Gallegher, prowling his hometown in Massachusetts for news, and, when news was not forthcoming, manufacturing it. As a freelance motion picture cameraman during his high school days, de Rochemont regularly supplied regional movie theaters with short films of local happenings, and in 1916 achieved some renown when he successfully coaxed a Maine sheriff to "reenact" his jailing of a suspected German saboteur. According to Fielding, it is from this initial "re-creation" that evolved de Rochemont's sustained belief that, just as a reporter and editor can re-create events with words, so can the newsreel cameraman re-create those events in images. While serving with Pathé News as an assistant newsreel editor, he reportedly expressed to a colleague his dissatisfaction with the current form of newsreels—claiming that they just depicted an event, never explaining its causes or what it may portend—and vowed to "someday revolutionize the newsreel." By 1935 de Rochemont received the opportunity to do just that.

After his stint in the navy (during which he still pursued freelance newsreel photography) and with various newsreel concerns, particularly Fox Movietone, de Rochemont in 1933 launched his March of the Years series of historical reenactments, which he admitted had been inspired by Time's radio program The March of Time. The radio program anticipated the newsreel. The program employed a prodigious coterie of actors who mimicked the voices of current newsmakers, re-creating their statements to the press, and, if no statements had been recorded, voicing a writer's interpretations of what those statements might have been. Roy Larsen at Time determined that de Rochemont would be the ideal person to take The March of Time to the screen, based upon his extensive newsreel experience at Fox Movietone and his demonstrated penchant for filmic re-creation. Today, such re-creation seems an atavistic and even dishonest approach to the news. Nevertheless, it must be realized that this is solely from a contemporary viewpoint within a society permeated by instantaneous telecommunications technology; 60 years ago, lacking the technology, audiences and producers alike generally accepted John Grierson's dictum that the essence of cinematic truth was "the creative interpretation of actuality." For the next eight years, de Rochemont oversaw the production of the newsreel, dubbed "a new kind of pictorial journalism" by Time. Almost from the beginning, the newsreel found itself involved in controversy: although the impersonations by actors of famous persons (such as President Roosevelt) frequently annoyed those so depicted, it was the series' increasing political trenchancy that caused the most furor. Like the opinions voiced about Charles Foster Kane in the March of Time imitation at the beginning of Citizen Kane, Time-Life's newsreel similarly suffered schizoid assessments of its political bent. Despite its progressively more pointed depictions of Hitler, the American left claimed the series was an agent of fascism, while the conservative minions of Henry Luce at Time regarded it as distinctly left-wing, a sentiment shared within areas of American political life. Throughout its run, the series was plagued by the capriciousness of local and state censor boards, and at times caused such controversy that the Hays Office considered censoring it before release.

Despite whatever political imbroglios The March of Time precipitated, the political leanings of de Rochemont, an intensely private man, were never fully manifest; nevertheless, virtually all of his film work was marked by a general liberalism in social matters. While at Fox in 1933, he helped edit Laurence Stalling's compilation documentary The First World War, a film using wartime footage. Perhaps based upon this experience, the same year de Rochemont independently produced his compilation documentary The Cry of the World, described by Fielding as "a powerful indictment of war and oppression," a film that anticipated many of the formal compilation techniques which such filmmakers as Emil de Antonia would use years later. By 1938, de Rochemont, with Larsen's backing, produced a feature-length film, The Ramparts We Watch, which sought to explicate for audiences the international tensions of the day by presenting a dramatic narrative depicting the causes of the Great War 25 years earlier. In its conception, the use of nonactors and location shooting to point up social concerns, the film mirrored contemporary production in England (such as Jennings's Fires Were Started) and prefigured many aspects of postwar Italian neorealism. In terms of de Rochemont's career, it also prefigured his success seven years later as a producer of semidocumentaries.

In 1943 de Rochemont left The March of Time, apparently because his often idiosyncratic and expensive filmmaking techniques, as well as his undistinguished managerial abilities, increasingly riled his corporate superiors, an aspect of his professional nature that would continue to plague his later dealings with the studios. In August 1943 Darryl F. Zanuck hired de Rochemont as a producer, apparently intending him to work on Twentieth Century-Fox's bio-film of Woodrow Wilson, a statesman whose concern with international peace reflected that of de Rochemont's Cry of the World and The Ramparts We Watch. Instead de Rochemont found himself producing Edward Steichen and William Wyler's naval documentary The Fighting Lady, an assignment for which de Rochemont's documentary work and naval background were perfectly suited. By 1945, though, de Rochemont had begun production of The House on 92nd Street, the first of three features produced by de Rochemont for Zanuck which would ultimately become known as semidocumentaries. The origin of the term "semidocumentary" is unclear, although it quickly found common usage in the Hollywood trade press; de Rochemont himself thought the term "documentary" to be "the kiss of death" at the box office, it signifying to audiences the type of film produced by the government during the 1930s, what he called "arty avant-garde" films such as The Plow that Broke the Plains, of which de Rochemont, apparently, was not too fond.

De Rochemont preferred the term "pictorial journalism" to describe his features, the same term that Time had used to describe The March of Time. All of de Rochemont's features during this period followed a set production philosophy: all were based upon actual incidents involving some aspects of law enforcement or detection, filmed on location, and, to an extent unheard of in Hollywood, all made extensive use of nonprofessional actors.

Some critics, such as Paul Schrader, have attributed Hollywood's postwar appropriation of de Rochemont's filmmaking technique to audiences' desire for a more realistic depiction of the world, conditioned particularly by society's wartime experience. This may be, but other more tangible reasons explain the appearance of the semidocumentary. De Rochemont's brand of filmmaking not only reflected that of the Italian neorealist films then finding quick popular and critical acceptance in the United States, but the particular economies of production of such filmmaking were highly attractive to a Hollywood film industry beleaguered by studio labor strife, escalating production costs, and a diminishing box office. Based upon relatively inexpensive properties (generally magazine articles), using relatively unknown low-priced talent, and shot on locations far away from Hollywood's labor demands, de Rochemont's films for Zanuck found a receptive audience while well suited to Hollywood's stringent postwar cost-cutting. After two years, however, de Rochemont's general dislike of the Hollywood system and resistance to Zanuck's supervision led to his departure from Twentieth Century-Fox. According to de Rochemont, Zanuck insisted that he use "star" names (such as James Cagney in 13 Rue Madeleine) over de Rochemont's objections (the producer believing that such star presences deflected audiences' attention from the story and the films' realistic aura). De Rochemont and Zanuck feuded over publicity and screen credits, and de Rochemont left when Zanuck began charging de Rochemont's productions with studio overheads, despite none of his films ever using the Fox lot. He went to MGM in 1948, but soon left when it balked at producing Lost Boundaries, dealing with what was at the time a highly controversial racial theme.

To produce Lost Boundaries, de Rochemont again entered independent production, bankrolling much of the film himself. The film proved a somewhat notorious critical and financial success, being censored in some parts of the country, but it gained de Rochemont a contract with Columbia which assured him a high degree of creative autonomy while guaranteeing production financing, leading to two more films in the semidocumentary vein: The Whistle at Eaton Falls, dealing with both sides of a contemporary labor problem, and Walk East on Beacon, a reprise of de Rochemont's earlier interest in factual espionage films.

After his Columbia productions, both de Rochemont's Hollywood career and the semidocumentary vogue went into decline, as television news and French and Canadian experiments with cinéma vérité began to alter audiences' perceptions of what constituted cinematic reality. De Rochemont produced an historical re-creation of Martin Luther's life, an American-German co-production shot in Europe—a project apparently initiated by his former March of Time colleague Lothar Wolff. After handling the release of John Halas and Joy Batchelor's animated feature Animal Farm, de Rochemont entered Cinerama production, a multiple-camera widescreen system. De Rochemont had always maintained a keen interest in technological innovation in film since his days at Time, perhaps explaining his exploration of the potential of Cinerama. He produced the second Cinerama film, Cinerama Holiday; ostensibly the story of two couples, one American and one European, who explore the other's homeland; the film was actually a thinly veiled pretense for reproducing glorious American and European landscapes through Cinerama. Using Cinemiracle, a rival process acquired by Cinerama, de Rochemont produced Windjammer with his son Louis III directing; as the slightly fictionalized depiction of a Norwegian training ship's visit to the United States, the film was slightly reminiscent of de Rochemont's early semidocumentaries.

The early 1960s saw de Rochemont's last two feature films. In 1960 he produced a film strongly evocative of his first Twentieth Century-Fox productions, a generally well-received espionage drama filmed on location, Man on a String; the next year de Rochemont undertook a radically different project for him, producing José Quintero's screen version of Tennessee Williams's novella The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which, despite its impressive cast, received but lukewarm critical acclaim. After that film, de Rochemont would never produce a feature film again. As a newsreel innovator in the 1930s and producer of distinctive Hollywood features in the 1940s, features that broke away from established Hollywood practice in both production technique and, especially with Lost Boundaries, content, de Rochemont achieved high visibility both within and without the motion picture industry. By the 1950s, however, de Rochemont's particular brand of "pictorial journalism," in light of new trends in documentary production and television news, had lost its luster. Although de Rochemont did not remain active in feature film production, he did remain active in industrial and educational film production: until his death Louis de Rochemont Associates was a prolific producer of nontheatrical films, ranging from foreign language educational films (the 143-part Nous Parlons Français) to basketball instructional films to a series of informational and promotional films for the American Medical Association.

—William Lafferty

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