Tuesday, August 27, 2013


The Academy Award® Documentary Categories did not begin until the 14th Awards in 1941. But the Academy did recognize non-fiction films (many by notable filmmakers) prior to that, in the Short Subject categories. A 1935 winner, Ivor Montagu’s WINGS OVER MT. EVEREST, showed the first airplane flight over the world’s tallest peak. Fred Zinnemann’s THAT MOTHERS MIGHT LIVE, a winner in 1938, dramatized the medical advances made by a noted Hungarian physician. But these films were not deemed by many to be “documentaries,” a term which then connoted more serious accounts of contemporary issues and events. For the first time in 1940, the Academy considered easing the entry rules for Shorts, to include such “true” documentary films, but only if they had had commercial runs in regular theaters. 
Though some filmmakers were happy to have their films accepted due to this decision, many were not so thrilled, and confusion and controversy ensued. Many fine films, including Willard Van Dyke’s VILLAGE TOWN and CHILDREN MUST LEARN; and John Ferno’s SO THEY LIVE, were not eligible under these rules, as they had not been exhibited in commercial houses, and U.S. government productions played for no charge. But two fine documentaries, Julien Bryan’s SIEGE, which captured on film Germany’s invasion of Poland, and LONDON CAN TAKE IT, by Harry Watt and Humphrey Jennings, that showed British resilience during the Blitz, received nominations in the One-Reel category. Both films are now considered classics.
It became clear to the Shorts Committee, and to the Academy at large, that documentaries could no longer be shoehorned into this category, and that these films had become significant enough to merit their own awards. The Committee considered the topic in their meeting of January 20th, 1941. Discussion on the issue continued throughout the year.
For most of 1941, the United States was still officially neutral in World War II, but being drawn closer into the conflict every day. Certainly the Academy’s recognition of SIEGE and LONDON CAN TAKE IT - films made the previous year about the war in Europe - demonstrated a keen interest in films depicting the foreign war that a majority of Americans still thought should remain foreign. The documentary had been gaining stature during the 1930’s, but the advent of the war signaled the real turning point for non-fiction filmmaking.
So, three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Academy Board of Governors adopted a resolution to consider the possibility of granting Special Awards to documentary productions.  The general Awards Committee met two weeks later on the 17th of December. This Committee consisted of six members from the Screen Actors Guild, four from the Screen Directors Guild, nine producer members from various studios, five Science Branch members, and seven Academy officers ex officio. It noted that,
“United States, British, Canadian, and Russian Government films, [the]‘March of Time,’ a number of other newsreel releases of documentary type, and some other films privately sponsored but shown in regular theatres have been a significant development in the motion picture medium, particularly during the past year, and should achieve Awards® recognition.”

The Awards Committee voted a recommendation that Special Awards be given for the Best Documentary Feature and the Best Documentary Short Subject. At a subsequent meeting of the Board of Governors, this recommendation was approved. Thus, by early January 1942, the Documentary Awards were born!
In a letter to Academy Librarian Margaret Gledhill [Herrick] and Academy Executive Secretary Donald Gledhill dated January 18, 1942, the Dutch born documentarian Joris Ivens wrote, “I am so very glad that at last we are recognized by the Academy and that the documentary film has become one of the ‘decent’ branches of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” Unfortunately for Ivens, his landmark film about electrification of rural areas in the United States, POWER AND THE LAND, was declared ineligible two years in a row. In 1940, it could not compete in the Shorts category because it was a few hundred feet longer than the stipulated length. And since it had been exhibited during 1940, it was not accepted for the 14th Awards, for which only films released in calendar year 1941 were eligible.
It is worth noting that some other worthy films submitted in 1941 were declared ineligible, as they had not played theatrically during. Among them were A CHILD WENT FORTH, by Joseph Losey, concerning a haven for children evacuated from London during the Blitz; and THE FORGOTTEN VILLAGE, directed by Herbert Kline and Alexander Hammid, and written by John Steinbeck, examining the conflicts between modernization and traditional culture in a small Mexican village.
Next, the Academy formed a Documentary Awards Committee, consisting of Richard Macaulay (the chair), Henry Fonda, David O. Selznick, Joseph Valentine and Henry Hathaway.  Macaulay had recently written THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT and would soon pen ACROSS THE PACIFIC [a side note – I have not been able to find an photo of Macaulay anywhere. Very strange]. Fonda had been nominated in 1940 for THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and would narrate several wartime documentaries, including the Oscar® nominated IT’S EVERYBODY’S WAR, and the winner THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY. He also narrated the 1951 doc short winner BENJY, and the doc nominees THE REALLY BIG FAMILY (1966), A SPACE TO GROW (1968) and AN IMPRESSION OF JOHN STEINBECK: WRITER (1969).  SPRING PARADE, WINGS OVER HONOLULU and MAD ABOUT MUSIC were all recent nominations for cinematographer Valentine. Hathaway had been nominated for directing LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER.
Selznick was coming off his twin triumphs of GONE WITH THE WIND and REBECCA, which won consecutive Best Picture awards. For the 15th Awards, Academy President Walter Wanger asked him to chair the Documentary Committee, and Selznick initially refused, as he wanted to devote all his energies to his next production. A flurry of correspondence from Wanger and his fellow Committee members eventually persuaded Selznick to reluctantly accept the post.
The Documentary Committee first met on February 4th, at 7PM in the Academy Board Room (in the offices in the Taft Building in Hollywood), with Donald Gledhill and Academy Publicity Counsel Hal Hall in attendance (Hathaway couldn’t make the first meeting). They reviewed the list of films to be screened for consideration; Fonda and Hall conducted a drawing by lot to determine the order of presentation. In the early years, the Academy actively sought out documentary entries, with members of the Committee and the Academy at large suggesting appropriate films. In subsequent years, the Academy sent invitation letters to studios, individuals, and the film commissions of many countries. The new category proved to be somewhat ill defined, so the Committee stated,
“It was agreed that the definition of documentary and the eligibility rules were far from clear and comprehensive, and that definite action should be taken during the year to remedy the situation and propose improvements for next year’s Awards Committee.”
And in a move designed to showcase documentaries and increase general awareness of non-fiction films, the Committee
“strongly endorsed a proposal to recommend to the Academy Board that monthly showings whenever feasible be held for the Academy Membership at which outstanding documentary films be featured. It was also recommended that in connection with such showings that the Academy Library should prepare and distribute to the Academy membership small pamphlets describing the new releases and serving to keep the membership up-to-date with developments in the ‘documentary,’‘actuality’ and ‘war reporting’ fields of film use.”
In the feature category, two films stood out: TARGET FOR TO-NIGHT and KUKAN.  Harry Watt’s TARGET FOR TO-NIGHT, the story of a British bomber raid on Germany, had an incalculable morale boosting effect in the United Kingdom, and was eventually shown to an estimated 50 million people in 12,000 theaters in the Western Hemisphere. KUKAN (subtitled THE UNCONQUERABLE SPIRIT OF CHINA) detailed St. Louis journalist Rey Scott’s epic travels through China, documenting both the wide range of cultures as well as the horrific events of the Japanese invasion and the staunch Chinese defense.  Both were then currently in release, but the Committee suggested holding a double bill screening for members who hadn’t yet seen them. The Committee then made an interesting decision:
“We find that during the past year two particularly outstanding documentary features have been shown, KUKAN and TARGET FOR TO-NIGHT. These are each of high quality and production origin as to make competitive voting difficult inasmuch as the field is still too new for standards of comparison to be generally agreed upon, without a competitive vote, a recommendation be made by the Awards Committee that an Awards Certificate of Merit be given to the producers of KUKAN and a similar certificate to the producers of TARGET FOR TO-NIGHT in recognition of their production of these films.”
Thus, there was no official Documentary Feature winner that year. At an Academy Board meeting at the Brown Derby on February 20th, Selznick, Howard Estabrook, John Aalberg, and James Hilton formed a committee to write the text of the citations for KUKAN and TARGET FOR TONIGHT.
The first voting screening for documentaries was held at the Filmarte Theatre at 1228 Vine Street (a block from the current location of the Academy’s Pickford Center and Film Archive), on Tuesday, February 10th. Some of those in attendance (in addition to the Documentary Committee) were Olivia DeHavilland, Farciot Edouart, Howard Estabrook, John Garfield, Norman Reilly Raine, Frank Partos, Sol Lesser, Lesley Selander, Pete Smith, Dorothy Tree and Walter Wanger. The ballots were collected by Price, Waterhouse & Company.
A look at the films in competition for the first Documentary Short Subject award:
ADVENTURES IN THE BRONX, produced by Film Associates, with commentary by John Kiernan. This was the first in a series of shorts sponsored by the New York Zoological Society. It shows the experiences of a boy who sneaks into the Bronx Zoo with his toy elephant before the gates are opened.
BOMBER, produced by the Office of Emergency Management, was written and narrated by poet Carl Sandburg. It shows the construction of the B-26 Martin bomber at the Glenn L. Martin plant in Baltimore, from the first production of its 25,000 parts to its first test flight.
CHRISTMAS UNDER FIRE, produced by the British Ministry of Information, and directed by Harry Watt. American journalist Quentin Reynolds narrates this look at the tenacity of British during the bombing by the German Luftwaffe.
CHURCHILL’S ISLAND, produced by the National Film Board of Canada, directed by Stuart Legg, and narrated by Lorne Greene. It describes the Battle of Britain, and shows that Britain could win the war because of the moral strength of its people.
LETTER FROM HOME, produced by the British Ministry of Information, and directed by Carol Reed. Another film salute to the courage of Londoners under the Nazi Blitz juxtaposes a letter from an English mother (Celia Johnson, in her first screen appearance) to her children, who have been evacuated to the US, with the details of her life. Reed later co-directed, with Garson Kanin, the 1945 Documentary Feature Winner THE TRUE GLORY.
LIFE OF A THOROUGHBRED, produced by Truman Talley. Shows how a champion horse is trained, and how he finally becomes a winner. The Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky is depicted, as well as a real champion, Whirlaway. One of the two nominees not examining events of the war.
NORWAY IN REVOLT, produced by the March of Time. A dramatization of the formation of a Norwegian military force in exile, and of Norwegian resistance activities.
A PLACE TO LIVE, produced by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. In the tradition of the great progressive films of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s such as THE RIVER, VALLEY TOWN and THE LAND, director Irving Lerner shows the deleterious effects of slum housing. This lyrical work features a rousing, Coplandesque score.
RUSSIAN SOIL, produced by Amkino. This film, concerning the Russians’ defense of their homeland against the invading Germans, was a last minute replacement for another short subject from the Soviet Union.
SOLDIERS OF THE SKY, produced by Truman Talley. The second nominee produced by Talley, it depicts paratrooper training in Fort Benning, Georgia.
WAR CLOUDS IN THE PACIFIC, produced by the National Film Board of Canada, produced by Stuart Legg and narrated by Lorne Greene. The second NFBC/Legg/Greene film nominated this year, it examines the new and dangerous Japan, and the reaction of the democracies, which erected a vast defense system across the Pacific.
At the 14th Academy Awards ceremony at the Biltmore Hotel on February 26th, CHURCHILL’S ISLAND became the first film to win an Academy Award® in a Documentary category. John Grierson, Film Commissioner of Canada’s National Film Board and the man who coined the term “documentary,” presented the Award to CHURCHILL’S ISLAND, as well as the two Special Awards to TARGET FOR TO-NIGHT and KUKAN. Since all three were considered “special” awards (and because this was an “experimental” category), Grierson handed out Certificate of Merit scrolls, not Oscar statuettes. He began his presentation with a funny and trenchant speech, which brilliantly captured the state of the documentary film at that time:
“Long ago the documentary film set itself the not very popular task of talking about the facts when people were more interested in illusions; of describing social problems which were embarrassing to some and ugly to many; of keeping men’s consciences just a little closer to the dreadful grindstone of actuality. We are all tied today to the grindstone of actuality, and I am glad to be here if only as a symbol that all of us - whatever branch of film making we pursue - are all for one and one for all in a common effort.”

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