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  • Flaherty’s Hollywood Period: The Crosby Version
  • Mark Langer (bio)


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Figure 1.

Still from Tabu. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive.

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Figure 2.

Robert Flaherty, c. 1927. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive.

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Figure 3.

Still from Moana. Photo courtesy The Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive.

Among the least documented parts of Robert Flaherty’s career was the period between Moana (1925) and Industrial Britain (1931), much of which was spent in Hollywood or working on films released by major American companies. Also neglected are Flaherty’s efforts over two decades to sell his fictional stories to Hollywood studios. Elsewhere, I have argued that one reason for this neglect is that Flaherty’s reputation rests on the direction of documentaries. His Hollywood period of the late nineteen-twenties and later screenwriting ventures were devoted to the production of fiction films. 1 In the accounts of most historians and critics, Flaherty is defined as being in opposition to the production system of Hollywood studios—a system that is portrayed as hideously blighted by financial concerns, narrative hokum, and overblown spectacle. John Grierson, for example, paradigmatically categorized Flaherty as a heroic discoverer of “natural drama” that stood in opposition to the artifice of imposed Hollywood narrative. 2 Most investigations of Flaherty’s work turn a blind eye to such uncomfortable facts as Flaherty dying while directing This Is Cinerama (1952), or his earlier attempt to direct Mary Pickford in a color musical version of Madame Butterfly. In more recent years, Flaherty has become enshrined, through such events as the annual Flaherty Seminar, as a kind of patron saint of oppositional film practices, all of which are defined as “other” than mainstream, commercial cinema. Rarely is Flaherty examined historically as someone who operated both within and without the commercial cinema of his day. [End Page 39]

One of Flaherty’s closest collaborators and witness to Flaherty’s activities during his Hollywood period was cinematographer Floyd Crosby. Crosby’s career had a trajectory not unlike that of Flaherty. Born in 1899, Crosby found work as an assistant cameraman on shorts in Hollywood during the silent period. He began work with Robert Flaherty on White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), beginning an association that would last for years. Crosby was an important figure in documentary internationally and a central figure in the history of American documentary. After his association with Flaherty, he worked on several nonfiction films outside the United States, including the notorious uncompleted Charles Bedaux Canadian expedition film Crosiére Blanche (1934). Later, his close association with Pare Lorentz led to Crosby working as a cameraman on The River (1937), The Fight for Life (1940), and briefly collaborating with Flaherty again on The Land (1942) before being transferred by Lorentz to work with Ivens on Power and the Land (1940). Floyd Crosby also held the title of Director of Photography for the short-lived United States Film Service. After the collapse of the United States Film Service, Floyd Crosby shot Power for Defense (1942) for the National Defense Advisory Commission, a predecessor of the War Production Board.

Despite impeccable credentials within the documentary movement, Floyd Crosby was also a prominent figure in the making of fiction feature films. For his work on Tabu (1932), Crosby received the Academy Award for Cinematography in competition with such luminaries as Edward Cronjager, Lee Garmes, Charles Lang, and Barney McGill. Just prior to American entry in World War II, Crosby became reinvolved in feature film production. When cameraman Al Gilks was drafted in 1941, Crosby replaced him on the never-completed “My Friend Bonito” sequence of It’s All True (1942), where he was to work closely with Orson Welles and Norman Foster. The story of “My Friend Bonito” was based on a fictional narrative that Flaherty had been trying to film for years before selling it to Welles.

Moving further away from documentary in 1953, Crosby was cameraman on the 3-D film Man in the Dark. During the fifties, Crosby shot a...

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