Saturday, July 20, 2013
Le Maillon et La Chaine, Part II
"Bernard, a Parisian like thousands of other Parisians, dreams of getting away from it all to live in freedom. He goes off to the Pacific in search of a new Eden and finds it: first having visited Tahiti and New Caledonia, on the tiny little island of Mouli in the Loyalty archipelago.
250 people inhabit this island, at the far edge of the world, living a sort of primitive communism. Bernard, the only white man, is welcomed according to the laws which govern Polynesian hospitality. During the course of generously open-handed feast, he is admitted to membership of the tribe; a hut and a boat are built for him.
Bernard leads a carefree existence among the natives. The latter ride half-wild horses, dive from the dizzy heights off the cliffs, harpoon sharks with mad abandon. Will Bernard ever be able to equal them and adapt himself to the new way of life?
Sometimes he has fits of nostalgia for the world he has left behind.
Meanwhile gossip about "the man from Paris" spreads. Having congratulated the baker on his daughter's beauty, his homage is taken seriously and wedding presents are left in front of his hut. He is face to face with another society, with its own rites and its own laws. Will Bernard conform to them and marry the young woman? Will he be capable of breaking with his former existence? He feels that he is a prisoner without really knowing it, a link in a chain which he cannot break without breaking in the process."
That tells us what the film is about. But what else do we know? My search for both the film and its director, Bernard Gorsky, on ProQuest turned up only two hits in the NY Times for the period between 1963 and 1965, and those were only the announcement of its nomination. So far, it seems as if the film was never released in the United States. "But how can that be?" you ask, "Don't films have to screen in LA and NY to qualify for the Academy Awards?" Not in 1963, they didn't. The rules of the documentary awards have changed over the years, and during this period, films only had to be screened "for the audience for which they were intended," which in this case means people in France.
A side note: many films nominated during these years never had a US theatrical release. Some played on (gasp!) television prior to theatrical release (or not in theaters at all), or overseas only. The list of these kind of films includes several USIA or other government films, which could not be legally shown in the US. Charles Guggenheim's Oscar winning NINE FROM LITTLE ROCK (1964) is such a film. I've seen a period letter from Guggenheim to one of the Little Rock Nine, sadly telling them he thinks it may be impossible for him to show the film to this person, because of the very strong legal barrier against ANY domestic screening.
Side note #2: coincidentally, in an effort to encourage the submission of more foreign docs, the Documentary Awards Committee changed the rule in 1963 regarding exhibition standards for qualification. Beginning with the 17th Awards for 1944 films, submitted films had had to screen in the United States to qualify.
Thus, it's possible that LA MAILLON has never screened in the United States! Certainly an English language version was created at least for submission purposes for the Documentary Awards Committee to screen; as I've mentioned before, probably dubbed and not subtitled. It's likely that the film's producers did so, in anticipation of a US release, which they probably assumed they'd get after the film was nominated. I'll continue my research on this, and have asked Brigitte to see what she can find out. But if the Film Archive preserves LA MAILLON, we could have the US premiere, 50 years late!
What of the filmmakers? So far, I've found out a bit about Marcel Ichac, one of the producers. He and fellow MAILLON producer Paul de Roubaix also produced THE OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE (LA RIVIERE DU HIBOU, based on the famous Ambrose Bierce story) which won a Live Action Short Oscar the same year as MAILLON's nomination.
(Side note: like thousands - perhaps millions - of other American schoolkids, I remember well seeing OCCURRENCE in 16mm in class, during the Golden Age of educational film.)
According to Wikipedia and other sites, Ichac was quite an individual. As an adventurer and filmmaker, he traveled the globe, making films on mountaineering, the polar regions, and undersea life (with Jacques Cousteau). He produced the first Cinemascope film made in France, and first brought electronic music to film, in 1936. He supposed ran in the NY Marathon until age 80.
I've neglected to mention that Brigitte Berg and the Film Archive have a well established relationship. Back in 2008 (I believe), she deposited the original negative of CHAGALL, which coincidentally won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short the same year as MAILLON's nomination. We've preserved CHAGALL, and it looks amazing - the color is truly fabulous. It's a terrific film, with fine narration by noted art collector Vincent Price.
(By the way, the Film Archive has also preserved - with UCLA - the Doc Feature winner from 1963, ROBERT FROST: A LOVER'S QUARREL WITH THE WORLD. This film also did not have a theatrical run before its nomination, and showed originally on TV, produced by WGBH.
As you can see, there is a lot of interesting history about the nominated and winning docs over the years. These are but a few examples of the research and preservation stories related to nominees and winners that I've dealt with over the years. I hope to be able to relate more of them here, and I'm sure I'll come across more such tales in the future.