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Louis de Rochemont in Hollywood NH

Hollywood, NH

 

HISTORY MATTERS

He was, by many accounts, a tough guy to work with. His single Academy Award was for a 1944 documentary, but he longed to produce dramas ripped from the headlines. Fiercely independent, he produced a romance, a cartoon, travel and experimental films, docu0drams, film n’oire and the incredible March of Time. 

 

The (as yet) unwritten biography

There is an unwritten book about Louis de Rochemont rattling inside my brain. Portsmouth’s maverick filmmaker has no biographer, perhaps for good reason. Although financially successful, he never achieved the fame or critical acclaim he desired. Today his movies are not as much classics, as footnotes in the history of American film. Yet the extraordinary range, risk, and raw entrepreneurial energy of his many movie projects are compelling when seen as a whole. I have been pitching the book idea for years, but so far, no takers.

Louis de Rochemont / SeacoastNH.comHe has been hailed as "the father of the docu-drama", although mostly by me. Louis de Rochemont (1899-1978) had a passion for reconstructing true events on authentic locations. Today we take it for granted when a newsy story becomes a made-for-TV movie. De Rochemont pioneered that genre beginning with The House on 92nd Street (1945), a tale ripped from the headlines about atomic spies and counter espionage. His next spy film, 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) starred James Cagney (with Red Buttons, Karl Malden and E.G. Marshall in minor roles).

Ignoring glitzy Hollywood sets, in part because he could not afford them, de Rochemont took viewers into the heart of darkness using real locations. Historians often mention him among the founders of the "film noir" movement rooted in the dark richly-sleazy crime tales of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. His 1947 film Boomerang, directed by Elia Kazan and still shown on Turner Classic Movies, reconstructs a Connecticut homicide. De Rochemont wanted the movie shot in Stamford, CT on the sites of the actual murder. In his autobiography, director Kazan describes de Rochemont simply as "a bright man who drank too much."

Re-engineered reality

But de Rochemont was no lurid panderer of pulp fiction. Like the men from Dragnet, he was just there for the facts. A documentary filmmaker by trade, de Rochemont reportedly shot his first newsreel at age 12 while growing up in Chelsea, Mass. When the owners of TIME wanted to translate their feature newsmagazine to the screen, Louis de Rochemont answered the call.

His professional, insightful and snappy March of Time newsreels defined film news from 1935 to 1951 when television took over. His 1938 feature "Inside Nazi Germany" warned of Hitler’s rise to power. In an era when most Americans went to the movies weekly, de Rochemont’s highly patriotic, but surprisingly progressive views colored the nation’s picture of the world.

Attracted to the seacoast region by family genealogy, de Rochemont and his wife screen writer Virginia Shaler settled in Newington, NH at "Blueberry Hill" on the Piscataqua River. Their house, recently moved a few hundred yards, is now the office of a healthcare company. They later lived at the Rockingham Hotel on State Street in Portsmouth, where an Oscar for their naval documentary The Fighting Lady (1944) sat on the mantle over the fireplace.

 Louis de Rochemont / SeacoastNH.com

Seacoast residents usually recall the three films de Rochemont produced close to home. Lost Boundaries (1949), the story of a black family "passing" for white in New Hampshire, was shot partly in Kittery, Portsmouth, and at the Isles of Shoals. Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951), the story of a wildcat strike in a plastics factory, included many scenes shot in Dover. It starred Lloyd Bridges and first timers Anne Frances and Ernest Borgnine, who later gained fame on the television shows Sea Hunt, Honey West and McHale’s Navy. Walk East on Beacon (1952), another documentary-style spy thriller, was shot on location in Boston and includes a writing credit to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Wildly innovative

From here, de Rochemont’s film career rides all over the map. Always controversial, frequently cantankerous, the producer next tackled an historical biography of medieval heretic Martin Luther (1953), a film underwritten by the Lutheran Church and nominated for two Oscars. From there de Rochemont jumped into the experimental technology of Cinerama in which audiences viewed the action shot simultaneously by three cameras and projected on a 146-degree curved screen. His Cinerama Holiday (1955) followed two young couples from New York, New Orleans and LA to Paris and Switzerland.

Only a handful of Cinerama films were ever made, but de Rochemont did not give up. In 1958 he released Windjammer, a documentary following the cruise of a tall ship from Oslo, Norway to the United States and back. Shot in a unique and ultimately unsuccessful format called "Cinemiracle" the film was directed by the producer’s late son Louis de Rochemont III.

While all this was going on, and while continuing to produce educational films for schools, de Rochemont got a call from the CIA. A contact named E. Howard Hunt (later to gain fame in the Watergate scandal) reportedly asked de Rochemont to produce a cartoon version of George Orwell’s famous political fable Animal Farm. As surreal as it sounds, the American secret service apparently considered Orwell’s satire populated by barnyard animals to be the perfect anti-Communist propaganda during the "Red Scare" in the 1950s. The full-length feature cartoon includes almost no dialogue so that it could be distributed to countries in the Soviet bloc. The movie version of Animal Farm (1954) was created by two British animators who later went on to make Saturday morning cartoon shows starring the Osmonds and the Jackson Five. Life doesn’t get any stranger than that.

Experimental to the end

If there are others who collect Louis de Rochemont movie posters, I’ve yet to meet them. I have more than a dozen, plus a few theatrical promotion booklets, lobby display cards, and even a couple of soundtrack albums on 33 1/3 rpm. Years ago, when a Canadian company released selections from the old March of Time newsreels onto three dozen VHS tapes, I bought them all. Worse yet, I watched them all – a total of more than 48 running hours.

I’ve spoken over the years to dozens of people who knew Louis de Rochemont and his wife Virginia, worked with them, or appeared in their films. There’s a wealth of fascinating facts and stories that, sadly, may never come together. De Rochemont’s eclectic career faded in the early 60s. In his later years, weakened by drinking, growing isolated and confused, he continued to develop new projects, but without success.

Man on a String (1960) was a box office bust. Actor Ernest Borgnine (by then he had an Oscar of his own) played an uninspired CIA-operative rooting out commies in Berlin. Question 7 (1961) was also shot in Germany with a German cast. Like Martin Luther, this "true to life" film was commissioned by the Lutheran Church. Based on the story of a minister and his son, it was a propaganda vehicle designed to expose Communist Party actions behind the Iron Curtain.

That same year De Rochemont produced a family fantasy called The Sand Castle (1961), a film that has since disappeared from view. It reportedly told the story of two children who fall asleep on a beach and find themselves inside a Victorian style paper theater populated by strange people.

Louis de Rochemont ended his film career with style. Shifting gears one last time he produced The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) based on a romantic novel by Tennessee Williams. Its alternative title "The Widow and the Gigolo" more aptly summarizes this sultry movie. Vivian Leigh played the 50-ish widow who leases a gorgeous apartment in Rome soon after her husband’s death. The young Italian gigolo, Paulo di Leo, was played by a dark and handsome newcomer, who himself went on to become an acclaimed director and producer. His name – I kid you not -- was Warren Beatty.

 

Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson writes books, newspaper columns and web essays about New Engl;and history.

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