Louisiana Story (1948)


(director/writer: Robert J Flaherty; cinematographer: Richard Leacock; editor: Helen van Dongen; music: Virgil Thomson; cast: Joseph Boudreaux (The Boy), Lionel LeBlanc (His Father), E Bienvenu (His Mother ), Frank Hardy (Tom, The Driller), C. P. Guedry (Alexander, His Boilerman); Runtime: 77; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert J Flaherty; Alpha Home Entertainment; 1948)
It’s a solid but tedious industrial film showing the risks and rewards of getting oil out of the ground.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the ‘father of the documentary film’ Robert J Flaherty’s (“Man of Aran”/”Elephant Boy”/”Moana) penultimate film. He made cinema history in 1922 with the first documentary ever, called“Nanook of the North.” Louisiana Story” is a semi-documentary that was sponsored by the Standard Oil Company, with no strings attached. Flaherty used locals and not one professional actor (the acting by the locals was horrible, there’s no kinder way to put it without lying–they were all smiles and spouted unnatural dialogue).

It follows a nature loving lonely Cajun boy (Joseph Boudreaux), who has a pet raccoon and lives in a rustic cabin on the Petit Anse Bayou with his trapper father (Lionel LeBlanc) and mother (E Bienvenu). The kid busies himself fishing and catching alligators, as he poles around the bayou in his canoe. The superstitious youngster spits on the bait for luck and spills salt in the water to ward off the evil spirits.

The kid’s dad signs a lease with the oil company to drill on his bayou property in the marshes, thinking there’s little chance of striking oil. The constantly clanging derrick constructed by the oilmen fascinates the kid, who is befriended on his regular visits to the derrick by the amiable driller (Frank Hardy) and his boilerman (C. P. Guedry).

The ‘wildcat rig blows,’ and for ten days shoots up gas and salt until capped. The skilled riggers then angle their drilling and go down deep and thereby pass the pressure spot. They strike oil, as noted in the newspaper. Their job is over, so the derrick is capped and removed, and the oilmen depart on a barge. The profits from the lease allow the father to buy the kid a new rifle and his wife a new dress.

The naive Flaherty says nothing about the ecological dangers of such off-shore drilling, as we know in contemporary times that one oil spill can change in a hurry all that lovey-dovey feelings about the oil people. It’s a solid but tedious industrial film showing the risks and rewards of getting oil out of the ground, and the beauty of the surrounding pristine landscape (Flaherty fell in love with his camera and let the pictures tell the story). How some have said this ‘point and shoot’ film, telling nada about the Cajun culture, is a masterpiece, escapes me.

Virgil Thomson’s scintillating score earned him a 1949 Pulitzer Prize for music.It was ably performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, who were conducted by Eugene Ormandy.