Pioneer documentarian Robert J. Flaherty's Louisiana Story (1948) is set in the bayou country of the Mississippi Delta swamps inhabited by French-speaking Acadians. The hero is a 13-year-old boy absorbed in fishing, hunting, and paddling the subtropical marshes with his pet raccoon. Soon after the discovery of oil bubbling up from the swamp, a refinery derrick is drilling 14,000 feet beneath this pastoral eden. Attracted by the immense structure, the boy befriends the nonlocal men who work there. After the derrick goes "wildcat" in a dangerous blowout, he entrusts his ever-present magic totem, a bag of salt, to ward off the bad luck and restore the promise of relative prosperity for his family. This naive and sometimes cloying plot is Louisiana Story's weakest element when dialogue happens, the stilted delivery by the film's untrained non-actors reminds us that what we're watching is constructed upon artifice. Instead, it's the virtuosic technical aspects that make the picture a genre classic. Cinematographer Richard Leacock and editor Helen van Dongen created visuals of lasting mastery, and composer Virgil Thomson's score won a Pulitzer Prize. All of which excuses the fact that Louisiana Story's depiction of the postward petroleum boom as a bringer of a majestic beneficence pleased Flaherty's sponsor, Standard Oil, no end.
Home Vision Entertainment gives Louisiana Story the Criterion treatment on a DVD with a restoration by the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film & Television Department. Supplements include a 1960 interview with Flaherty's wife and collaborator Frances Hubbard Flaherty, the retrospective "Study Film," and correspondence between cinematographer Richard Leacock and his wife. Keep-case.