Louisiana Story

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USA, 1948

Director: Robert Flaherty

Production: Robert Flaherty Productions, Inc. (Standard Oil of New Jersey); black and white, 35mm; running time: 77 minutes. Released September 1948, New York by Lopert Pictures, premiered at Edinburgh Film Festival, August 1948. Filmed in Louisiana bayou country. Cost: $258,000.

Producers: Robert Flaherty with Richard Leacock and Helen Van Dongen; screenplay: Robert Flaherty and Frances Flaherty, from their original story; photography: Richard Leacock; editors: Helen Van Dongen, assisted by Ralph Rosenblum; sound: Benjamin Donniger; music: Virgil Thompson; music performed by: Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

Cast: Joseph Boudreaux (Boy); Lionel Le Blanc (Father); Mrs. E. Bienvenu (Mother); Frank Hardy (The driller); C. T. Guedry (His boilerman).

Award: Venice International Film Festival, International Award for "its lyrical beauty," 1948.



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* * *

Robert Flaherty's last film is a fitting culmination to a long career. It is less a documentary about the Cajun people of Louisiana's bayou country, than an autobiographical film about Flaherty himself. From the viewpoint of a Cajun boy the film reveals the mysteries of the bayou wilderness, portrayed as an enchanting world of fantasy, filled with beauty and danger. The film is a poetic reflection of Flaherty's youth, in which he explores his own life-long relationship to the wilderness and natural environment, and to the people who live there.

The opening sequence is one of the most celebrated in film history. Shots of alligators, magnificent birds, floating lily ponds, slithering snakes, and other wildlife and flora are given unity, continuity, and a sense of graceful movement. The brilliance of these sequences was the result of the troubled but highly successful collaboration between Flaherty and his talented editor, Helen Van Dongen. The outstanding night-time oil drilling sequence succeeds because of the interplay of images of the derricks accompanied by an atonal sound track. Flaherty's strength was in direction and shooting; Van Dongen's in her exceptional skill as an editor.

The film's visual beauty is so effective that it overshadows the sponsor's message. Oil drilling technology, first seen as an unknown threat to the tranquility of the bayou, in the end appears benign, leaving the impression that the unspoiled wilderness is safe.

The simple visual beauty of this film pleased most of the contemporary critics, though he film's theme or message bewildered some. Many recognized that the scenes with speaking parts were not terribly convincing. As in other Flaherty films, the cast was chosen from the locals, more for their appearance than acting ability. Making them speak their roles showed the limitation of using real people in dialogue situations that must be rehearsed. They become stilted and artificial before the camera.

Louisiana Story remains an enduring work of art for its sheer visual beauty, though some have argued its qualifications as a documentary, due to the manipulation of events depicted. Among films essentially based in reality, however, it remains one of the most successful collaborations of all time, with an impressive amalgamation of talent in direction, photography, editing, writing, and music.

—William T. Murphy

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