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Women on the Verge: Pioneer Documentary Filmmakers that History Ignored

By Cecile Starr

Frances Flaherty (left), a woman wearing a hat and holding equipment, and husband Robert, a man by her side, while filming 'Louisiana Story.'

Several years back, Lee Grant, Barbara Kopple and Claudia Weill were guest speakers at a dinner meeting of the New York chapter of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After their lively talks and answers to questions, one member of the audience rose and thanked them for a wonderful evening and saluted them for being "real pioneers." Considering their impressive backgrounds in so many aspects of film work (acting, editing, writing, camera and sound), and the major award-winning full length and short documentaries they had produced and/or directed, I would have called the three women accomplished filmmakers rather than pioneers.

The first women in documentary film in this country—Frances Flaherty, Osa Johnson, Margaret Mead, Lee Burgess Dick, Erica Anderson, Helen Grayson, Helen Van Dongen, Helen Levitt and others—began their film work as early as 1920 and pioneered for the next 50 years or so. Most of them are now unknown, but respected and admired by numerous colleagues and friends, including, for example, George Eastman, Jean-Paul Sartre, Richard Leacock, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Dede Allen and Jay Leyda. If women are to maintain their roles as full-fledged filmmakers today and in the future, it seems to me we must restore the real pioneers to their deserved places in film history.

One of the best kept secrets in the history of documentary film is Frances Flaherty's long and indispensable collaboration with her famous explorer-filmmaker husband. Although the opening credits on all four major Flaherty films after Nanook read "Directed by Robert J. Flaherty in association with Frances Hubbard Flaherty," her role has never been fully assessed in connection with these classic films. Even in credit listings, her name is rarely mentioned. Yet with such titles as Moana of the South Seas (1928), Man of Aran (1934 ), The Land (1940) and Louisiana Story (1948) to back the claim, it may be that theirs was the most important husband—and—wife team in motion picture history.

Osa Johnson, a woman surrounded by cameras and men, during filming of 'The Blue' (circa 1926).

As early as February 1915, only three months after their marriage, Frances Flaherty intimated to her diary the possibility of such collaboration: "R is full of the idea of the use of motion pictures in education, in the teaching of geography and history. Someone might well make it a life work. Why not we?" She did not accompany him on his several filming expeditions to the Hudson Bay area (during those years she gave birth to their three daughters), but Robert Flaherty later acknowledged her important role in helping develop concepts that made Nanook of the North (1921) an immediate sensation and worldwide classic, by changing the focus from education, geography and history to the drama and beauty of nonindustrial people in exotic landscapes.

Frances' presence during all or most of the subsequent productions, and the importance of her role, have been substantiated by a number of her contemporaries. Paul Rotha, in Robert Flaherty: A Biography (1983), calls her Flaherty's "lifelong collaborator." Richard Leacock, cameraman on Louisiana Story, has recalled that Frances was "deeply and pivotally involved" in the making of that film. Looking back to the time when he edited Man of Aran on location, John Moock (known then as John Goldman) has written that it was not generosity that prompted Robert to add France's' name to his directing credit, but "recognition that she was essential to his fulfillment and to the film's shape." Neither Robert nor Frances Flaherty could explain how they worked together. Their close friend Richard Griffith describes in The World of Robert Flaherty (1953), how when they arrived at a new location Robert would busy himself setting up shop and getting organized while Frances wandered off with her still camera, looking for visual elements that could be made part of the story. At night they would pour over her stills, shuffling them like cards and rearranging them in search of cast, locations and ideas to help construct the film. Often, Griffith stated, Frances' stills were the only script they had.

In addition to serving these functional roles in the productions, many of France's' still photographs rank as important works of art in their own right. Leacock points out that the images we recall most vividly (Moana dancing, Maggie gathering seaweed) have been frequently reproduced in books and program notes. Almost all are Frances' work; often they don't even exist in the films..

Until publication of Roth's biography of Robert Flaherty in 1983, Frances received no credit for these published photographs, not even in the books that she herself had written—Elephant Dance (1937), Sabu, The Elephant Boy (co-authored with Ursula Leacock, 1937), and The Odyssey of a Film-Maker (1960). Robert Flaherty, on the other hand, got full and deserved credit alongside each photograph and again on the title page of My Eskimo Friends (1924), which inci­dentally states that it was written "in collaboration with Frances Hubbard Flaherty." It may well be that Frances collaborated with him on virtually everything he wrote.

Because her active involvement in the productions was not spelled out, and because of this unconventional method of working, outsiders and even some members of their small, family-style film crews sometimes saw Frances as little more than a meddler. One assistant told me that he had often been annoyed that her stills had to be developed before any other work could take place in the evening. He had been further irritated that Robert would hold up the screening of rushes until Francis was there, and that after everybody spoke their minds he would pay more attention to Frances' ideas than anybody else's.

France's' efforts to disseminate "the Flaherty method " after Robert's death, through summer seminars which she began in 1954, were sometimes misinterpreted as a widow 's overzealous adulation of her famous husband. Now in their 36th successful year, the Flaherty Seminars are·being held in 1990 at Wells College in New York and in Riga, Latvia; unfortunately the announcements do not even mention Frances Flaherty name, neither as her husband's filmmaking collaborator nor as the originator of the seminars. Only one Flaherty Seminar has included Frances significantly in its tribute -that was in 1984, directed by Frances' good friend, D. Marie Grieco.

Yet evidence continues to mount that Robert and Frances Flaherty were really partners, a team. Frances Obituary in The New York Times (1972) states it all too well: "They collaborated in the making of the films for which he is best known..." Variety headlined its notice: Flaherty Widow, Collaborator Dies, and stated outright, "Many regarded Mrs. Flaherty as the full artistic partner of her husband." Perhaps some day Frances Hubbard Flaherty will be remembered and honored as a sort of godmother to the documentary film movement in the same way that Robert Flaherty is its esteemed godfather.

At the opposite end of the movie spectrum lie Martin and Osa Johnson, whose adventure/exploration films have been called "pseudo-documentaries" and worse by some of today's critics. In their time, however, both the Johnsons and their films received wide popularity and acclaim. Over a 20-year period (1917-1937), they made ten entertainment features and innumerable lecture films and educational one­ reelers which attracted huge audiences around the country. Sensationalism characterized the contents, tone and even titles of their films—Among the Cannibals of the South Pacific (1918), Congorilla (1932), Baboona (1935). Yet from an historical perspective, the Johnson's films were remarkable achievements, and Osa Leighty Johnson ranks among the most accomplished and successful women of her time.

Married in 1910 at age 16 to an acknowledged adventurer and photography buff, Osa helped Martin outfit an expedition to the South Pacific several years later, insisting that wherever he went, she would go with him on an equal basis. In 1924, Martin summed up Osa's easy adaptation to jungle life writing that she had "learned to take a man's share in the work of exploration—to keep up over difficult jungle terrain, to shoot, to manage a boat, to handle a motion picture camera, to take stills, to help out in the dark room." Later she learned to drive a safari truck and pilot her own plane, and wrote numerous articles and books about their adventures.

The Johnsons' first film was praised by The New York Times for raising the motion picture "beyond the reach of those who would keep it trash." When Martin and Osa turned their attention from natives to wildlife, the Times reported that Trailing African Wild Animals (1923) ''was received with constant outbursts of applause." But as the years went by the films' strengths and weaknesses became more stereotyped. By 1940,with the release of I Married Adventure (1940), essentially a compilation film produced by Osa after Martin's accidental death in 1931, Bosley Crowther reported with regret to Times readers that "the Johnsons now seem a little stale."

Of the million or more feet of motion picture film that Martin and Osa Johnson shot in the South Pacific and Africa, and their tens of thousands of still photographs, it's not possible to know which or how many were made by Osa. Martin usually received the credit, while Osa was viewed as his helper, simply because film and photography were then considered to be "men's work "

Osa was acknowledged to be the better shot; Martin considered her "one of the best white hunters in the world."Both Martin and Osa preferred hunting with their cameras, having been animal lovers since their childhood. Encouraged by Carl Akeley, naturalist/taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History and designer of the camera and gyro head that bear his name, they took on a special mission for themselves to preserve on film and still photos the breathtaking variety and abundance of wildlife then flourishing in Africa. As early as 1924, Akeley wrote that "Mr. and Mrs. Johnson... gave to the world a photographic record of African game that was of greater interest and beauty than any that had been brought out of Africa before." Lions, giraffes, chimpanzees, elands, impala, cheetahs and hundreds of other exotic creatures which they could see vanishing before their eyes with encroaching farmlands and westernized lifestyles, became their obsession.

Dr. Pascal Imperato, a New York specialist in tropical diseases and African art and a longtime admirer of the Johnsons, feels that only now are they beginning to regain their rightful place in the history of African exploration by westerners. Because they were not trained in modem ethnography or animal behavior, scientists in those areas have overlooked the Johnsons, and probably will continue overlooking them for some time.But their films and photographs need no credentials; they are irreplaceable records of times that exist no more. Despite the jokes and nonsense, their Borneo films were recently acquired by a museum there, because of their great wealth of visual information.

Hunting with cameras in the 1920's and 30's was considerably more dangerous than it is now. Wild animals were much less habituated to vehicles and people, and there were fewer lenses to help bridge the distances. Heat and humidity presented constant threats to cameras and film. Travel, even by airplane, was slow, costly, isolated and risky. When Martin Johnson filled out a questionnaire for the Explorers Club in the mid-1920's, he listed his profession as "Motion Picture Explorer." Since he called Osa the "perfect partner," isn't it time she was called a Motion Picture Explorer too?

Frances Flaherty and Osa Johnson had little in common as pioneer women filmmakers, except their life­ long collaborations with their husbands on early documentary film. In the next issue, Part II of this article will consider women in the 1930's and 40's who collaborated with their husbands but had professional careers of their own (Margaret Mead, Lee Burgess Dick), and other women who became filmmakers on their own (Erica Anderson, Helen Grayson, Helen Levitt, and others).

Note: This article on Frances Flaherty and Osa Johnson is based on material collected by volunteer members of the Women's Independent Film Exchange over the past dozen years, as part of its Pioneer American Women Filmmakers research project.

Quotations about Frances Flaherty by John Monck and Richard Leacock are from their letters to Cecile Starr dated Dec. 8, 1982 and July 26th, 1983, respectively.

Extensive information about Osa Johnson, including a lengthy interview with Dr. Pascal Imperato, was obtained on October 24th, 1985 by Lillian Schiff, to whom the author acknowledges a deep indebtedness.

Further information about the laser disc containing 10,000 African photographs by Martin and Osa Johnson is available from George Eastman House, Att: Andrew Eskind, 900 East Avenue, Rochester, NY 14607.

The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum, located in Chanute, Kansas, contains thousands of artifacts related to the Johnsons' expeditions. Those who are interested can contact the museum at 16 South Grant Avenue, Chanute, Kansas, 66720; (316) 431-2730.

If you have information or materials about other early pioneer American women filmmakers, you are invited to send copies to Cecile Starr, Director, Women's Independent Film Exchange, 50 West 96th St. (#8-A), New York, NY 10025.

Cedle Starr is a freelance writer, critic, lecturer, and filmmaker. She is currently editing a book of interviews with pioneer American women filmmakers.