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Distaff Documentarians: Three American Pioneers

By Cecile Starr

Erica Anderson, a woman smiling at the camera, drives a car.

The first American women to make documentary films back in the 1910s and '20s, Osa Johnson and Frances Hubbard Flaherty, worked mainly as silent partners to their famous husbands, Mar­tin Johnson and Robert Flaherty.Their highly successful films set standards in two different direc­tions: commercial entertainment (as in the Johnsons' Baboona) and creative artistry (as in the Flaherty's' Man of Aran). In the late 1930s, the social and cultural documentary gave women the opportunity to function for the first time on their own (or nearly) in the non commercial arena that depended almost exclusively on 16mm distribution.

Lee Burgess Dick, Helen Grayson, and Erica Anderson, who pioneered in making films on education, health, human relations, and art subjects, have remained virtually unknown to film scholars over the years. Even today, long after their deaths, questions are raised that imply these women may not deserve any recognition: Would Lee Burgess ever have made films if her husband hadn't been a man of position and wealth?Would Grayson have become a wartime documentary director if one of her bosses hadn't been a longtime personal friend? Why should Anderson be called the cofilmmaker of two celebrated documentaries when her screen credits say she was their photographer?

Lee Burgess Dick may have been the first American woman with solo directing credits on a documentary film. The year: 1939. The film: School. It was produced under her own banner, Lee Dick, Inc., and sponsored by the Progressive Education Association and the American Film Center (the latter founded and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation). The 22-minute documentary was voted by Good Housekeeping magazine as one of three distinctive short films of the year. (Why don't they still give out such awards?) Later the quarterly Film Forum Review cited and commended the film's "extremely imaginative construction, its sparing, unobtrusive commentary, and well-recorded dialogue of children." (The latter must have been a considerable achievement for its time.)

As Margaret L. Burgess she had at­tended Bryn Mawr College (class of '30) and as an aspiring actress had founded a small theater group on Cape Cod. In 1933 she married Sheldon Dick, who had opted out of his father's successful mimeographing company to become a socially committed still photographer and poet. Lee Dick's film work began as an unpaid assistant on various projects for New York 's Frontier Films and in 1939 on Willard Van Dyke's and Ralph Steiner's famed The City and a one-reel film called The Candid Camera, which Van Dyke and Edward Anhalt made for Zeiss Cameras.

After directing and producing School, Lee Burgess Dick's next film was Day after Day (1940), about the visiting nurse services of the Henry Street Settlement House in New York. Again she directed and produced, this time for Dial Films, which had absorbed her own production company. No prints of either of these films are known to exist today.

In 1940 Sheldon and Lee Dick shared production credits on Men and Dust, a 17-minute expose of the dangers of silicosis, filmed by Sheldon Dick for one of the nation's most militant unions, in the zinc- and lead-mining areas where Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma meet. The film was produced by Dial Films and released theatrically and non theatrically through Tom Brandon's Garrison Films. Lee Dick is credited as director of commentary as well as co producer. The film is analyzed in some detail in William Alexan­ der's 1981 book, Film on the Left, as one of the outstanding political films of pre-world War II America. Within a poetic framework, Men and Dust proposed federal legislation for workmen's compensation, safety regulations, housing developments, and regional sanatoria. (The Museum of Modern Art has an excellent print donated by Tom Brandon.)

Before and after her divorce from Sheldon Dick, Lee Burgess was active in New York's fast-growing documentary movement. She chaired the finance committee of the Association of Documentary Film Producers, which Mary Losey had helped found in 1939; Joseph Losey (Mary's brother) and Jay Leyda chaired the membership and education committees, respectively. In the newly formed Screen Directors Guild (lat­er to become the Directors Guild of America East), Lee Burgess Dick certainly was among the first female members, serving on a committee (along with Helen Grayson) that honored Robert Flaherty in 1951.

Yet few of her male colleagues have remembered her at all. Julian Roffman, who knew her when he was an extra cameraman on The City, found her "a very aggressive lady... guarded about the things she was planning or doing but insisting on knowing what you were doing and how you did it and who you knew and who your sponsor was, et cetera, et cetera." He suggests that Dick was accepted at Frontier Films and elsewhere mainly as the wife of a comparatively wealthy man who could help them financially. "Shelly" he described as "a retiring, quiet man who stayed in the background, almost self-effacing."

Leo Hurwitz, one of the founders of Frontier Films, considered Dick "capable and skillful" and more film minded than her husband. Tom Brandon, who distributed Men and Dust with considerable fanfare in and outside of theaters, called her "a scrappy young woman who surely merits being written about." Unfortunately, there is very little record of Lee Burgess Dick's career in film.

After her divorce in 1945, she married New York script-writer and producer Frank Beckwith. For a good many years, she worked for Willard Pictures, directing among other films a series of one-reel documentaries on nursing and a State Department film called Rural Nursing. She often edited her own and other people's films. She died in Florida in 1970.

Would Margaret Lee Burgess Dick Beckwith ever have become a documentary director without Sheldon Dick's fi­nancial and social status?We'll never know for sure.We can, however, ponder another unanswerable question: Would Sheldon Dick have made Men and Dust, one of the outstanding pre­ World War II political films, without his wife's talent, drive, and affinity for film?

While Lee Burgess left only a vapor trail behind her, Helen Grayson (another "Bryn Mawr girl") has had her career well documented by friends and colleagues and in her own writings. "She has form and style [and] an affection for people," wrote Richard Griffith about the first film she directed, The Cummington Story (1945). "In short, she is a director born." Guy Glover, who scripted and produced Grayson 's second film, Starting Line (1947), called her "a Beautiful Person—intelligent, kind, civilized, and knowledgeable about film—a rare combination." Richard Leacock, who filmed the State Department series on American history that Grayson directed, wrote that he and his assistant "absolutely loved working for her" and found her "imaginative... with extraordinary good taste... and responsive to the ideas of those she worked with."

But Willard Van Dyke, who was among the many prestigious filmmakers at the OWI (where Grayson got her start), and who produced the American history series and several films she directed later, felt that she had "no sense of the camera" and that the main interest in her films lay in the "extremely competent" camerawork of Leacock and Larry Madison. Moreover, Van Dyke felt that "her entry into film was an accidental byproduct of her relationship with Irv­ing Jacoby," another OWI producer. Van Dyke praised "her sense of style, her quiet intelligence, her warm friend­ship ...[and] fine sense of human values and relationships, which she brought from her experience in the theater. " But he considered them of secondary value compared to camera skills (perhaps be­ the cause he was a photographer and cameraman himself ). A number of crew members on The Cummington Story have recounted how they gave Grayson "a very rough time"—but Van Dyke felt that despite these difficulties, "she was also supported by a group of men."

Replying to Van Dyke's claim that Grayson had never made a really out­ outstanding film, cameraman Roger Barlow's wrote that he felt the odds were against a woman getting a whack at films like The River or The City, but that with the same support teams he thought Helen Grayson would have done as good a job as any of her male contemporaries. As to Van Dyke's implication that Grayson got into film work only because of her relationship with Irving Jacoby, it must be said on behalf of both of them that Jacoby also found jobs around that time for Boris Kaufman, Hans Richter, and Aram Boyajian. He seemed to have the knack for putting the right person in the right place at the OWI and elsewhere.

Helen Grayson's OWI assignments undoubtedly resulted from her own qualifications. Having lived in France most of her precollege years, she was asked to work with Jean Renoir and Garson Kanin on their ill-fated Salute to France; she also was delegated to lead a contingent of French journalists (including Jean-Paul Sartre) on a tour of the United States and informally to direct a short newsreel­ type film of the event. It can safely be said that all the films Grayson directed throughout her ten-year career—on European immigrants in New England, premature infant care, Bryn Mawr College, and so on-were films she was just as qualified to direct as any of her more recognized male colleagues, if not more so. Grayson died in 1962.

Erica Anderson's 25-year career in film began in New York in 1940, when she began studying motion picture pho­tography to augment her income in still photography, which she had studied and practiced in her native Vienna. During the war years, Anderson worked for a large number of sponsors and production companies, and she may well have been the first professional camerawoman in the United States. Her art films, Henry Moore (1947) and French Tapestries Visit America (1948), are said to be the first shot in the United States on 16mm color film.

In 1947 Anderson began sporadic filming of the little-known primitive painter Anna Mary Robertson Moses; her footage subsequently was taken over by Jerome Hill and augmented with additional material that he directed. The completed 22-minute Grandma Moses, with commentary by Archibald MacLeish, became a 1950 Academy Award nominee, perhaps the most popular documentary film of the '50s and one of the top art films of all time.

After a brief try at film profile of famed psychologist Carl Jung, Anderson and Hill collaborated on an elaborate feature-length production about Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the world's most celebrated medical missionary. Over a five-year period, Anderson traveled back and forth many times to Schweitzer's hospital in Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon), filming virtually all the African material used in the film. Jerome Hill, who seemed unable to tolerate the African heat, snakes, and primitive lifestyle, directed the European sequences of Schweitzer the organist and theologian. Albert Schweitzer won the 1957 Academy Award as best feature documentary. Anderson was credited for the photography, and Hill again took full directing credit.

In 1958 Anderson made No Man Is a Stranger, an impressive cinema verite­ type documentary on the trial usage of lithium for manic-depressive patients in Haiti. But virtually the remainder of her life was devoted to Schweitzer and his philosophy of "reverence for life." This involved several books: The World of Albert Schweitzer, The Schweitzer Album, Albert Schweitzer's Gift of Friendship, the last named documenting the harsh details of filming on her own in Africa. A second African film, The Living Work of Albert Schweitzer, was made by Anderson alone in 1965. The following year she founded the Albert Schweitzer Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which now houses films, stills, and other materials about"le granddocteur."

Why didn't Anderson fight for the recognition she deserved? Kurt Vonnegut Jr., one of her good friends and supporters called her "a tiny woman with a genius for making documentary films," but added that she was very modest. Dede Allen, who edited Anderson's Haitian film, called her "a very rich person to know"-warm, with tremendous energy, but self-effacing and guileless. Ideally Anderson should have shared directing credits with Hill for both Grandma Moses and Albert Schweitzer, since neither film would have achieved worldwide success without the combined talents and commitments of both filmmakers.

Let's hope that in these enlightened 1990s, Lee Burgess Dick, Helen Grayson, and Erica Anderson will be given their undisputed places in documentary film history on the basis of who they were and what they did—not whom they knew.

For the past 50 years, Cecile Starr has worked as a reviewer, lecturer, distributor, and promoter of documentary, animated, and experimental films. In 1977 she organized the Women's Independent Film Exchange to do extensive research on pioneer American women filmmakers. The information files collected by this group are at the Fales Library, New York University, 70 Washington Square South, New York , NY 10012; phone ( 212) 998-2596 .