This short essay provides an overview of the career of Lee Dick, a female nonfiction film director and producer in the late 1930s and '40s. With a body of work that traverses documentary, industrial, and amateur production, Dick challenges perceived divisions between often overlapping spheres of nonfiction filmmaking and invokes tensions between personal and institutional authorship within a sponsored, and deeply collaborative, media context. Her largely unexamined career is a window into gendered labor and mid-twentieth-century media production.
As a female nonfiction film director and producer in the late 1930s and '40s, Lee Dick exercised a degree of professional control rare among women in media during this era. With a body of work that traverses documentary, industrial, and amateur production, Dick challenges perceived divisions between often overlapping spheres of nonfiction filmmaking and invokes tensions between personal and institutional authorship within a sponsored, and deeply collaborative, media context. Her largely unexamined career is a window into gendered labor and mid-twentieth-century media production.
Lee Dick and her husband, Sheldon Dick, were enmeshed in the left-leaning U.S. documentary circle of the late 1930s. Her most extensive biography and résumé come courtesy of Living Films, a 1940 catalogue produced by the short-lived Association of Documentary Film Producers, Inc. (ADFP). With Robert Flaherty, John Grierson, and Joris Ivens among its most prominent members, the organization was a who's-who of the era's nonfiction film community (the only notable stateside absence is Pare Lorentz). Of the ninety-nine members listed, Lee Dick was one of only twelve women. She served as chairman of the organization's finance committee.1
Her ADFP biography indicates that after working as an actress, she became a “script girl” for the documentary collective Frontier Films in 1937 and worked alongside Willard van Dyke on The Candid Camera, a sponsored short for optics company Carl Zeiss, Inc., notable for its commentary by Life photographer Peter Stackpole. Soon afterward, she started Lee Dick, Inc., the production company that bore her name. The company's first film was School (1939; figures 1–2), a two-reel 16mm documentary about students at the Hessian Hills School in Westchester County, New York, an institution whose curriculum was modeled on recommendations from the Progressive Education Association. The project was directed by Lee, shot and cosupervised by future Academy Award winner Edward Anhalt, and sponsored by the American Film Center with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. The film debuted at the 1939 World's Fair.2 Living Films also lists her as assistant director on Ralph Steiner and Van Dyke's famed documentary The City (1939).
Her next project was Men and Dust (1940; figures 3–5), an advocacy film on the silicosis health crisis among American miners in the “Tri-State” mining region of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, created on behalf of a New York–based organization lobbying for improved industrial working conditions. The film's production was initiated by her husband, Sheldon, who, as heir to the A. B. Dick Company mimeograph fortune, had the means to fund the film's production.3 (Sheldon's financial resources also likely provided the seed money for his wife's company.) This sixteen-minute Lee Dick, Inc. production attributes commentary and photography to Sheldon; Lee is listed as “Director of Commentary,” which likely refers to the film's striking vocal montage narration.4,Men and Dust was deposited at the National Archives in 1940 and added to the U.S. National Film Registry in 2013.5 She then produced Day after Day (1940), a three-reeler sponsored by the Henry Street Settlement Nursing Service of New York City. This film also employs aural montage and voiceover narration that is stylistically similar to that of Men and Dust.6
Outside of the Living Films catalogue, traces of her in the historical record are scant. She reappears, rather unexpectedly, in April 1942, referenced in a letter written by her boss, Mrs. Randolph Guggenheimer, the director of the Film Bureau of the Manhattan Civilian Defense Volunteer Office. The letter refers to Dick's role in overseeing production of The Volunteer Nurses' Aide (1942; figures 6–7), a short produced entirely by volunteers from the Amateur Cinema League (ACL). This letter and a feature article on the film were printed in the ACL's monthly Movie Makers in the June and May 1942 issues, respectively.7 A February 1943 issue of Movie Makers mentions “Mrs. Lee Dick” as supervising a series of U.S. Office of Education–sponsored nurse training shorts.8 The last mention of Mrs. Lee Dick is in September 1945, also in Movie Makers, appearing in the complete filmography of the same nurse training films project. The prosaic titles of the nine shorts, such as Feeding the Patient and Administering Cold Applications, reflect their instrumentality.9 By 1945, Sheldon and Lee separated, and afterward her career becomes harder to track.
Nine years later, in 1954, a woman I think may be Lee briefly resurfaces—using her maiden name, Burgess—deep in the pages of the trade paper Broadcasting-Telecasting. The caption describes her as treasurer of the Sooner Chapter of American Women in Radio and Television and says that she is employed as a continuity writer for Oklahoma City's KWTV station (figure 8).10 From here—if, in fact, this is really her—she vanishes from the historical record.
Tracing Lee Dick's career through sponsored documentary and instructional filmmaking highlights the unfixed nature of the boundaries between nontheatrical film genres and the creative laborers who work in these spaces. Her work also challenges distinctions between professional and so-called advanced amateur production;11 after all, the same woman who operated her own production company and worked alongside established talents in the nonfiction field appears to have taken a professional step back soon afterward by entering the orbit of the ACL. The majority of her output also invokes limitations imposed on women of her era. The bulk of her films cover childhood education and nursing, two traditionally female spheres. Even her decision to discard her given first name, Margaret, in favor of her gender-neutral middle name, Lee, hints at a professional concession to the male-dominated filmmaking industry.
My attempt to place her films within a Lee Dick oeuvre also perhaps artificially posits an auteur, an often nondirectorial one at that, in what is fundamentally a collaborative production process. Indeed, only School bears a conventional singular directorial stamp. The influence of a “producer” and “production supervisor”—job titles she assumed while working on her various nursing projects—are more amorphous. Though we may infer a level of continuity between her nursing-themed projects, without viewing the majority of the films, at this time we can only speculate on how her voice may have been filtered through the institutional objectives of her three distinct sponsors (Henry Street, the Civilian Defense Volunteer Office, and the U.S. Office of Education).
Researching an enigmatic figure with a minimal paper trail has yielded a series of false starts and some small breakthroughs. My limited success at this point has been contingent on the kindness of archivists and librarians, and on small traces left behind in trade periodicals. I continue to search for some of her films.12 However, even this preliminary sketch refines our knowledge of nonfiction filmmaking in the 1930s and early '40s. Finding more details on her potential second act in television may tell us more. While I remain cautious of inflating her influence, picturing her career is certainly worthy of the archival dig.