At the same time, Robert J. Flaherty was busy creating a new form: the popular documentary. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) was the first straight documentary film that was also a commercial success, detailing the daily life and hardships of the Eskimo Nanook and his family, who lived, hunted, and built igloos in Hudson Bay, Canada. Nanook was actually Flaherty’s second stab at the film; in 1913, he shot 35,000 feet of 35 mm film in the same area, documenting Eskimo life, but the cellulose nitrate film was destroyed in the cutting room when Flaherty accidentally dropped a lit cigarette on the master negative, and the entire film went up in flames.
In 1920, he again set out for the frozen north, this time with $50,000 in backing from Revillon Frères, the fur merchants. His equipment included a portable developing lab, so that he could process his film on location and view the rushes to see if he was satisfied. This time, Flaherty was more careful in the editing process, and the finished film (much of it staged for the cameras, despite its documentary feel) was distributed internationally to critical acclaim and excellent returns. The drama of the film arose from Nanook’s ceaseless struggle against the elements, simply trying to survive from one day to the next; ironically, Nanook himself died of starvation not long after the film was completed.
Flaherty’s second feature, Moana (1926), was a poetic tale of the South Seas and more specifically life in Samoa, but it failed to ignite the same degree of public interest. The director was then asked by MGM to collaborate with W. S. Van Dyke on the 1928 melodrama White Shadows in the South Seas, but the workmanlike Van Dyke (who would later rise to fame as the director of the Thin Man series of detective mysteries, starting in 1934) soon clashed with Flaherty, and Flaherty was taken off the film. In 1929, he teamed with German director F. W. Murnau to create Tabu; again, he clashed with his co-director, and Murnau took over the completion of the film, released in 1931, which emerged as a dark, melodramatic project. Subsequent films by Flaherty include Man of Aran (1934), about fishermen working off the coast of Ireland, which is perhaps the purest of his later films, along with two sponsored films, The Land (1942), created for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Louisiana Story (1948), which was financed by the oil company that became Exxon. Flaherty’s independence and uncompromising spirit kept him out of cinema’s mainstream, and he never re-created the impact of Nanook of the North.
Recent scholarship has uncovered the fact that Flaherty staged many sequences in Nanook and his other ethnographic films for the convenience of the cameraman and/or greater dramatic effect. Nevertheless, by shooting on location and using non-actors as his protagonists, Flaherty’s partially staged documentaries created a new film genre.
THE MAN YOU LOVE TO HATE
Another major figure of the late silent era, and a tragic one, was Erich von Stroheim, who sought to make films of extreme naturalism and went to what some viewed as excessive lengths to achieve his ambition. Von Stroheim viewed society as inherently decadent and cast himself in the lead of many of his films, notably Foolish Wives (1922), in which he plays a vile seducer who preys upon innocent women, a role that he relished. Billed as “the Man You Love to Hate,” von Stroheim’s intense desire for realism drove him to spend more than a million dollars to create Foolish Wives, a record at the time.
Von Stroheim’s jaundiced view of society reached its pinnacle in Greed, completed in 1924 after nearly two years of shooting for Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. Based on Frank Norris’s novel McTeague, the film is a bleak story of human frailty and despair. But what happened to the film itself is even more dispiriting. Von Stroheim’s final cut ran forty-two reels, at a time when a standard feature might run ten to fourteen reels. He suggested that half the film could be shown in the afternoon, and then, after a break for dinner, the second half. Goldwyn would have none of this and forced the director to cut the film to a mere twenty-four reels, then ruled that even this was too long for theatrical release. Eventually von Stroheim’s friend, the director Rex Ingram, cut the film to eighteen reels. But even this cut was deemed too long by Irving Thalberg, the newly appointed head of production at what had by this time become MGM, who ordered the film cut to ten reels, no matter the damage. Further, Thalberg saw to it that all the trimmed scenes and outtakes were destroyed, melted down for their silver nitrate content, so that von Stroheim’s original cut could never be reconstituted. Those who had seen the forty-two-reel version, or even Ingram’s eighteen-reel version, wept when they saw the drastically cut result on the screen. Jumbled, choppy, and often incoherent, the final ten-reel version of Greed still displayed undeniable touches of cinematic brilliance, but von Stroheim’s reputation had been destroyed.
Labeled hard to work with, von Stroheim soon left MGM after one more film, The Merry Widow (1925). Moving to Paramount, he fared little better, creating The Wedding March (1928), another exceedingly long opus that went over budget. On Queen Kelly (1929), an independent production, he was backed by financier Joseph P. Kennedy, with Gloria Swanson, one of the silent era’s greatest stars, in the leading role. But Swanson detested von Stroheim and fired him before shooting was complete; Swanson then finished the film with another director, and von Stroheim predictably disowned the film. Finally landing at Fox, he began his only talkie as a director, Hello, Sister (a k a Walking Down Broadway, 1933), but again the film was taken away from him and extensively reshot and reedited by others (Alfred L. Werker, Alan Crosland, Raoul Walsh). From 1933, von Stroheim had to support himself as an actor and be content with the international acclaim he had received for his silent efforts. He never directed a film again.