Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Cajuns of the Teche": Bad History, Wartime Propaganda, or Both?

I first learned about the short film Cajuns of the Teche, directed by AndrĂ© de LaVarre and released in August 1942 by Columbia Pictures, while researching my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a PeopleThis find occurred by accident in the late 1990s, while looking for something else in the National Archives and Records Administration. (Serendipity often happens when I’m conducting historical research. I think it’s a perfectly valid form of discovery.)

Title cards from Cajuns of the Teche.
(Screen grabs by author)

In short, a reel of film labeled Cajuns of the Teche sat in the National Archives and had not yet been dubbed to videotape (much less had it been digitized; that technology was not yet at hand for most people). A student at the time, I didn’t have the $250 or so that the National Archives wanted to transfer the film to video, so I contacted my friend, Lafayette attorney Warren A. Perrin. Back then Warren served as president of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana and owned, as he still does, the Acadian Museum in his hometown of Erath.

Warren agreed to fund the film’s transfer to video through his museum, so I filled out the pertinent paperwork, mailed it off, waited, and a few weeks later a VHS dub arrived from Washington, D.C. I watched the film, found it delightful, but ultimately did not use it as research material for my book. Moving on to other projects, I forgot about the dub for about fifteen years, but recently pulled it out of my files and digitized it so that I can present it here:

(Click to play video)

Two thoughts come to mind when I watch Cajuns of the Teche: First, after seventy years the images are crisp, clear, well-composed, and in my opinion extremely valuable as a record of the Teche region around World War II; second, the narration is often extremely misleading and in some instances downright wrong. 

I’ll catalog these misleading and incorrect claims. The narrator repeatedly refers to the Cajuns’ ancestors as “Arcadians,” when the proper term is “Acadian.” Moreover, the Acadians did not arrive in Louisiana when it was “a colony of the kingdom of France,” as the narrator asserts, but a colony of Spain (albeit one administered for a time by French caretakers — Spain only slowly assumed full control of the formerly French colony).

The scenes of grandiose “Cajun homes” (see timestamps 3:19, 4:45 and 5:13 to 5:21 on the video) never fail to elicit snickers from other Cajuns to whom I’ve shown the film privately. The narration is entirely misleading when it states, “In the past we built many grand and spacious mansions, for our families were large and our attendants were many.” The dwellings in the film were far too luxurious for average, ordinary Cajuns, most of whom lived as subsistence farmers — and who certainly did not have many “attendants” (apparently a euphemism for “slaves”). Granted, a very few “genteel Acadians” managed to rise to positions of wealth in antebellum south Louisiana — mainly sugar planters with enslaved workforces — but they were the exception, not the rule.

Not a Cajun house.
(Screen grab by author)

In addition, the narration refers to the Louisiana colony as “a land with freedom of religion.” While it is true that the Acadians freely practiced their Catholic faith in Spanish-held Louisiana — the Spanish, after all, were Catholics, too — the colony was hardly a bastion of religious toleration. The Spanish, for example, forbid Protestants from holding public worship and they expelled all Jews from the colony.

The “Cajun garden” shown in the film at 5:27 — featuring a centuries-old Buddha statue, if one looks closely enough — is actually Jungle Gardens, owned and operated by Scots-Irish Tabasco sauce manufacturer E. A. McIlhenny (hardly a Cajun).

Some of the narration is drivel. I do not believe, as claimed at 9:47 in the film, that an appreciation of “fine silks and soft satins” represented “one of the strongest traits of French heritage” among Cajun girls. Equally nonsensical is the narrator’s reference at 5:55 — made over the image of fancifully dressed Cajun men and girls enjoying an elegant ring dance — to “slippered steps of old Acadia.” Acadian men and woman alike generally wore moccasins, living as they did on the rugged North American frontier. 

Historically inaccurate Norman milkmaid costume.
(Screen grab by author)

Fortunately, the images themselves are infinitely more valuable than the narration. This is not to say that some of the images are not misleading. For example, the Norman milkmaid costumes worn in the film by some Cajun girls and women (0:45 and 8:05) were unknown to their Acadian ancestors. An example of what anthropologists and other scholars call “fakelore,” these costumes were probably introduced to more upwardly mobile Cajuns through mass-produced, illustrated volumes of Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline (which follows the fate of an Acadian maiden exiled to south Louisiana). I say “upwardly mobile” because the mass of ordinary Cajuns never read Evangeline.

Circa 1890 depiction of Evangeline.
(Colorized by author)

Criticism aside (at last, you say), I made these other observations while watching Cajuns of the Teche:

The shot of boats moored along a bayou (1:43) seems to show some other waterway besides the Teche, perhaps Bayou Lafourche. I could be wrong — perhaps it is the Teche.

The stern-wheeler shown early in the film (1:50), the V. J. Kurzweg, is despite its appearance not a steamboat. As Carl A. Brasseaux writes in Steamboats on Louisiana’s Bayous, the Kurzweg “is widely — albeit inaccurately — remembered along Bayou Teche as one of the stream’s last steamboats,” but it “was not technically a steamboat” because “it was propelled by diesel motors.” Note the Kurzweg has no towering twin smokestacks as found on most steamboats: as a diesel-powered vessel it did not require them.

The V. J. Kurzweg on Bayou Teche, ca. 1942.
(Screen grab by author)

The fishermen at 2:35 do not seem to be on Bayou Teche, but rather in a cypress swamp. (A bayou is a slow-moving, muddy, usually smallish river, while a swamp is a wooded wetland.) If I had to guess, I would say the swamp in question is the Atchafalaya, if only because of its proximity to the Teche. But there are many patches of swamp in the region that are not in the Atchafalaya. In any event, the swamp in the film was clearly experiencing a flood, as indicated by the swift current.

Sugar cane field workers in Cajuns of the Teche.
(Screen grab by author)

Another scene depicts a mounted white overseer (3:55) supervising a work crew as it weeds young sugarcane shoots. I cannot tell if the work crew is black or white or both. A shot of three male field workers reveals one with black hands (also 3:55), but work gloves mask the race of the other two workers. A wide shot appears to show two white female field workers at far left (4:13). The other field workers in the shot, however, cannot be seen clearly enough to establish their races.

It is tempting to draw a lesson about race or race relations from this scene. But it is impossible to do so without really knowing the workers’ racial makeup. Regardless, the shot does illustrate the region’s dependence on manual field labor in 1942. It would take the ongoing war and resulting labor shortages to spur south Louisiana agriculture to mechanize. What I observed about rural Lafayette Parish in The Cajuns no doubt held true for much of Cajun Louisiana: Despite the findings of a 1942 survey “that ‘tractors are not thought to be necessary or even desirable,’” Lafayette parish farmers “had almost universally adopted mechanization within a decade. ‘The old days of the plow and the horse are gone,’ observed a 1951 survey.”

A ring dance on the banks of the Teche.
(Screen grab by author)

The reference to “giant spiders” (4:09) alludes to the legend of the Durand wedding, which allegedly occurred at Oak and Pine Alley on the outskirts of St. Martinville. As journalist Jim Bradshaw records:
It was only to be expected that [Durand] would throw the finest wedding ever when two of his daughters decided to get married on the same day. . . . [A]s the romantic legend is told, he ordered a million spiders sent from China and sent couriers to California to fetch hundreds of pounds of silver and gold dust. (A less romantic version of the story says the spiders came from nearby Catahoula Lake, but I like the China version better.) . . . Shortly before the wedding day, the spiders were set loose to spin millions of yards of delicate webs among the limbs of the oak and pine alley. On the morning of the wedding, servants armed with bellows filled with the silver and gold dust sprayed the cobweb canopy to set it glittering in the sunlight like something from a fairy tale.
Of this legend Brasseaux states, “Most southern Louisianians are familiar with the stories of the spiders imported from China for the Oak and Pine Alley wedding.” Yet it along with similar local legends, he notes, have been “proven unfounded by recent historical research.” (To Bradshaw’s credit, he concurs with Brasseaux that the story is a legend.)

Elsewhere, the narrator observes (6:08) “We Cajuns speak French among ourselves, and some of our children do not learn English until they reach the classroom.” Where they will have the French whipped out of them, I thought. I was being only slightly facetious, for south Louisiana educators often punished Cajun children for speaking French at school. More than any other factor, this practice accounted for the rapid decline of Cajun French during the early to mid-twentieth century. (See my previous blog article about tracking this decline.)

Quilters with garde-soleils.
(Screen grab by author)

Finally, although the Cajuns’ dress is not “authentic” (that is, historically accurate) in the spinning wheel scene at the beginning or in the ring dance scene, the clothing shown in other scenes does strike me as authentic.  See, for example, the field workers (Cajun or otherwise) shown from 3:55 to 4:29; and the school children from 6:05 to 6:24. (Note the students in question attended an all-white school: segregation did not end in much of Louisiana until 1969 — about fifteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education struck down separate-but-equal schooling nationwide.) See also the churchgoers at 6:38 and 6:45; the corn husk weavers at 7:05; and the quilters at 7:42 (complete with their garde-soleils, or sunbonnets). In addition, see the weaver at right, but not at left, at 8:04, and, conversely, the same weaver at left, but not at right, at 8:10; and the wedding goers at the end of the film (9:40 onwards). The apparel in these scenes looks very authentic to me. Perhaps the subjects had no time or compulsion to dress for the camera?

Horse and buggies leaving Cajun wedding.
(Screen grab by author)

Now to address an issue other than the film’s accuracy: Was the film wartime propaganda?

I found Cajuns of the Teche in the National Archives collection of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). Founded in 1953 during the Cold War and still active today, the USIA, as its website notes, “explains and supports American foreign policy and promotes U.S. national interests through a wide range of overseas information programs . . . [and] promotes mutual understanding between the United States and other nations by conducting educational and cultural activities.” Created prior to the advent of the USIA, Cajuns of the Teche sat in a section of the USIA collection regarding an earlier organization, the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI). Established in 1942, the OWI, as the Library of Congress explains, “served as an important U.S. government propaganda agency during World War II.”

Logos of the USIA and the OWI.

Why would a travelogue film issued by Columbia Pictures be found in a collection pertaining to the OWI?

The answer might be found in a pictorial “feature” (pre-packaged photo essay for overseas consumption) issued by the OWI in 1944 and titled “The Bayou French of Louisiana.” This feature consisted of a four-page typewritten essay about the Cajuns along with many captioned black-and-white still images. These photos depicted “everyday” Cajun culture, activities, and places. 

Intriguingly, at least four of these black-and-white still images depict events also shown in Cajuns of the Teche. Moreover, these black-and-white images were clearly shot at the exact same moment as the corresponding images in the film — albeit from slightly different angles. See the below image comparisons: Those at left are “screen grabs” from Columbia Pictures’ Cajuns of the Teche, while those at right are still images from the OWI's “The Bayou French of Louisiana.” As you can see, the paired images are almost identical (click to enlarge):

The OWI’s “The Bayou French of Louisiana” was clearly wartime propaganda. Its purpose was to show overseas audiences how American society could support an ethnically heterogeneous population, yet still be undeniably “American.” As the OWI essay accompanying the images put it, “The persistence of Cajun French traditions in the United States, as those of other national groups, is encouraged in the belief that such diversity enriches and strengthens democratic institutions. The various population groups of the United States are encouraged to perpetuate their folkways so that each may contribute to the homogenous but broadly variegated culture of the United States.”

But was the earlier Cajuns of the Teche also wartime propaganda? 

The federal government created the U.S. Office of War Information in June 1942; Columbia Pictures issued Cajuns of the Teche the next month. This would hardly seem enough time for the fledgling OWI to produce an eleven-minute film shot on location in south Louisiana and to arrange for a major Hollywood studio to distribute it. And while there are examples of the OWI and Columbia Pictures teaming up later to release wartime propaganda films (such as the 1943 film Troop Train and the 1945 film The True Glory), there is no known evidence of OWI involvement with Cajuns of the Teche.

Back of OWI print indicating when and
from whom it had been purchased.
(National Archives and Records Administration,
Washington, D.C.)

A key to understanding the actual, tenuous relationship between the OWI’s propagandistic “The Bayou French of Louisiana” and Columbia Pictures’ Cajuns of the Teche may be found on the back of the original B&W prints used with “The Bayou French of Louisiana.” Data there indicates that the OWI licensed the images from a commercial entity named “Screen Traveler, from Gendreau.” Presumably a stock photo vendor, Screen Traveler may have sent a photographer to Louisiana in 1942 alongside Columbia Pictures’ film crew. This would explain why some of the images in Cajuns of the Teche and some of those in “The Bayou French of Louisiana” correspond so closely.

Ultimately, I do not believe — given the current evidence — that Cajuns of the Teche was a product of OWI wartime propaganda; but I do believe that still photographs taken during the filming of Cajuns of the Teche ended up in the wartime propaganda project “The Bayou French of Louisiana.” I make this assertion because we know for certain that the OWI, a government entity charged with producing wartime propaganda, issued “The Bayou French of Louisiana”; and we know that some of the images used in “The Bayou French of Louisiana” closely match scenes in Cajuns of the Teche.

Still, the question remains: why is there a reel of Cajuns of the Teche in the OWI section of the USIA's archival collection?