#505) Louisiana Story (1948)

#505) Louisiana Story (1948)

OR “How’s Bayou?”

Directed by Robert J. Flaherty

Written by Robert & Frances H. Flaherty

Class of 1994 

The Plot: After passing off staged footage of the Canadian Arctic as the real thing in “Nanook of the North“, Robert Flaherty returns to give the Louisiana bayou the docu-drama treatment in “Louisiana Story”. While mostly a slice of life about a boy (Joseph Boudreaux) and his pet raccoon, “Louisiana” has an extended subplot about an oil company that builds a rig near the boy’s home. This should mean danger, but it turns out everyone who works on the rig is just the nicest, and the rig itself is a boon to the whole community. Brought to you by your friends at Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey, with no ulterior motives whatsoever.

Why It Matters: The NFR’s write-up is mostly a run-down of the film and its backstory, but does single out the “beautiful and stirring images” Flaherty creates from the “extended nature sequences”.

But Does It Really?: Although Robert Flaherty’s title as “Father of the Documentary” is a bit misleading, his work is definitely worth preserving. Made a quarter century after “Nanook”, “Louisiana Story” is a more evolved version of the man vs. nature story (boy vs. nature?), as well as an important document about a certain era of bayou country that was dying out. A yes for NFR inclusion, but I will admit that “Louisiana Story” may be another one reserved just for film buffs.

Everybody Gets One: Like her husband, Frances Hubbard Flaherty was an artist in her own right. Frances met Robert while she was studying music and poetry at Bryn Mawr, and Robert was working for her father Lucius. Mr. Hubbard disapproved of the relationship, and while the couple had a rocky beginning, they eventually married in 1914. Frances collaborated with Robert on all of his films, “Louisiana” being one of the few in which her contribution is credited.

Wow, That’s Dated: If nothing else, this movie captures a culture that was on its way out; a Cajun culture that, while susceptible to “backwoods” stereotypes, didn’t rely on new technology, or the economy an oil rig ushered into this community.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Louisiana Story” managed to get an Oscar nomination for, appropriately enough, Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. The Flahertys lost the category to post-war drama “The Search”. The film did, however, win the very first BAFTA for Best Documentary, and Virgil Thompson won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his score. To date, Thompson’s is the only film score to win a Pulitzer.

Other notes 

  • “Louisiana Story” came to be when Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey commissioned Robert and Frances Flaherty to make a film for them. Standard Oil gave the Flahertys $200,000 with the condition that the film present oil companies as “honest”, “amiable”, “productive and innocuous”. The Flahertys agreed to make the movie on their condition that they receive total creative control, and that all profit went to them, and not Standard Oil.
  • The Flahertys spent 14 months in Louisiana’s Petite Anse (“Little Cove”) Bayou, getting a feel for the culture before writing their script. All of the performers in the film were local non-actors, whom the Flahertys chose for their natural charm.
  • As befitting a film from the man who brought you “Nanook of the North”, “Louisiana Story” plays more or less like a silent film. Not a lot of dialogue, most of the story is told visually, with any exposition being provided by an off-screen narrator.
  • I know I bring up thick accents a lot on this blog, but not since “On the Bowery” have I been challenged to understand the English language. Those are some thick Cajun accents. At times it sounds like the actors’ soundtrack is being played backwards a la “Twin Peaks”.
  • This film is definitely unique by 1940’s standards: documentary film was still polished propaganda, so the idea of making a docu-drama hybrid with no actors was unheard of.
  • Either that’s the new oil rig or the boy just discovered the RKO logo.
  • This movie really takes its time showing you the details of oil drills and their employees. There was less drilling in “There Will Be Blood”.
  • The gator section of the movie is quite impressive, and as close as this movie gets to an antagonist. Shoutout to editor Helen van Dongen: obviously the boy, the raccoon, and the gator are not all together, but van Dongen succeeds at making it appear that the three are sharing the same space.
  • I just watched an alligator chomp down on a great egret, and then later a raccoon. What is it with the NFR and animal snuff films? (Side note: these shot suggests that “Louisiana Story” was filmed in the winter; great egrets tend to fly south for the winter, and Louisiana can get quite humid).
  • Everyone who works on that oil rig is so friendly. I guess they have to be when Standard Oil is signing the checks.
  • “Louisiana Story” does acknowledge the potential for an oil rig to blow out (using footage from an actual blow out at a different rig). But of course, this destruction is temporary and minimal, and the hardworking men at the rig clean everything up.
  • Wait, the raccoon survived? I watched him get eaten by that gator! Not since “E.T.” have I witnessed such a miraculous cinematic resurrection.

Legacy 

  • Robert J. Flaherty only made one more documentary: 1950’s “The Titan: Story of Michelangelo” (which was actually just a re-edited version of a 1938 German documentary). Flaherty passed away in 1951 at the age of 67. Frances Flaherty died in 1972 at age 88.
  • Despite the continued presence of oil pipelines, Petite Anse (now Avery Island) is home to two different bird sanctuaries, and is on the National Registrar of Historic Places.
  • Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey is still around, but you know them better by their current name: Exxon.
  • Louisiana has hosted many a film shoot over the years, with such notable titles as “Easy Rider“, “Django Unchained”, and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”.

Further Viewing: The 2008 special “Louisiana Story: The Reverse Angle” was made for a local PBS station in Louisiana, and chronicles the making of the film, as well as its impact on the community. Plus they interview Joseph Boudreaux, who still lives not too far from where the movie was shot.

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