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Although Paramount Pictures was noted for re-creating exotic locations on its studio back lot, which over the years doubled for places as far-flung as the Sahara Desert and war-torn Shanghai, the studio sent its cameras to the South Pole and two of its best newsreel photographers to Antarctica for the pioneering documentary, With Byrd at the South Pole (1930). Over the course of two years, they captured Admiral Richard E. Byrd's struggle to become the first man to fly over the South Pole, resulting in one of the most dazzling films of 1930.
Byrd had been one of the reigning heroes of the '20s with his attempt to match Lindbergh's non-stop flight from New York to Paris (he was grounded by fog in Normandy). In 1925, he became the first man to fly over the North Pole and then set out to do the same on the other side of the globe. That expedition was one of the first undertaken with an eye on publicity. Byrd conducted a contest to find a Boy Scout to join his party. He enlisted New York Times reporter Russell Owen to cover the story in print (Owen would win the Pulitzer Prize for his daily dispatches from Antarctica) and contracted with Paramount Pictures to turn the expedition into a documentary.
Advertising was nothing new to Byrd, however. Working without government support, he funded his expeditions with donations from such prominent businessmen as Edsel Ford and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and by allowing companies to use his name in their advertising in return for supplies. His South Pole expedition though went beyond mere hype. The scientists on his team conducted valuable meteorological experiments and gathered rock samples in Antarctica.
Newsreel cameramen Willard Van der Veer (who had also filmed Byrd's North Pole expedition) and Joseph Rucker accompanied the expedition starting with Byrd's departure from New York in 1928 and continuing through his arrival at the Ross Ice Shelf, where he set up the Little America Expedition Base. Byrd's crew would spend the four-month-long Antarctic winter there preparing for his flight over the Pole. The cameramen could not accompany Byrd on his historic flight, as taking an extra man along would have cut the amount of fuel the plane could carry. Instead, they gave the camera to members of his crew with aerial photography experience.
Although With Byrd at the South Pole was made during the transition to talking pictures, the weight of early sound equipment made it impossible to transport it to Antarctica. Paramount eventually shot a sound prologue in which Byrd speaks of his motivations and an epilogue featuring the expedition's return. They also added a musical score and sound effects to the silent footage.
During their two-year assignment, Van der Veer and Rucker shot 30 miles of film, which would be whittled down to an exciting 80 minutes. Some of this footage included restagings of events the team had not photographed when they first happened. That was common practice for documentarians at the time. Pioneer filmmaker Robert Flaherty had staged scenes for his film which is often hailed as the first feature-length documentary, Nanook of the North (1922). The integrity of the film lies in the fact that even the restagings were shot on location. There are no studio facsimiles in the film.
The cold temperatures posed special problems for the two cameramen. They had to make sure no moisture got into their equipment, as it would freeze the gears during exterior shoots and fog the lenses once the cameras came indoors. Drifting snow made keeping the cameras dry virtually impossible, but they managed somehow. They also couldn't set up a laboratory at the camp, so none of the footage could be developed until they returned to the U.S. Beyond capturing the expedition for Paramount, the team also took 65 hours of aerial footage, the first such shots ever taken in Antarctica. These would be invaluable in helping scientists map the continent.With Byrd at the South Pole premiered in Washington, D.C., on June 20, 1930, with President Herbert Hoover on hand to view the picture and present Byrd with the National Geographic Society Special Gold Medal of Honor. Also attending were the Vice-President, 31 Senators, 62 Representatives, Byrd's entire crew and Paramount president Adolph Zukor. The studio then undertook the task of selling the picture to a market usually resistant to documentaries. The press book for the film cautioned theater owners to avoid corny ploys like decorating theaters with icicles or igloos, focusing instead on pictures of Byrd in hopes that his good looks would attract female ticket buyers despite the fact that there are no women in the film.With its dazzling Antarctic cinematography, much of it captured under grueling production conditions, With Byrd at the South Pole was a natural choice for the Best Cinematography Oscar® but that led to some rebellion among the studio's homebound cameramen. The picture was the second of three documentaries in a row to win the award - the first was White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and the third was Tabu (1931). When the last film beat out Hollywood product like Cimarron (1931) and Morocco (1930), members of that branch of the Academy® complained so loudly about the unfairness of their having to compete with films shot silent in spectacular locations that the Board of Governors changed the requirements for the award so that it could only to go "a black-and-white picture photographed in America under natural production conditions."
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor
Screenplay: Julian Johnson (titles)
Cinematography: Joseph T. Rucker, Willard Van der Veer
Music: Manny Baer
Film Editing: Emanuel Cohen
Cast: Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd (Expedition Commander), Claire Alexander (Supply Officer), Bernt Balchen (Aviation Pilot), George H. Black (Seaman and Tractor Man), Quin A. Blackburn (Topographer), Kennard F. Bubier (Aviation Mechanic), Christopher Braathen (Seaman, Ski Man), Jacob Bursey (Seaman, Dog Driver), Arnold H. Clark (Fireman), Dr. Francis D. Coman (Medical Officer).
by Frank Miller