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 12), 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).

FIGURE 1

Title credits for School (1939).

FIGURE 1

Title credits for School (1939).

FIGURE 2

A student participates in math instruction. Still from School.

FIGURE 2

A student participates in math instruction. Still from School.

Her next project was Men and Dust (1940; figures 35), 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 

FIGURE 3

Title credits for Men and Dust (1940).

FIGURE 3

Title credits for Men and Dust (1940).

FIGURE 4

Advertisement for Men and Dust published in the trade journal The Educational Screen, March 1940, 122.

FIGURE 4

Advertisement for Men and Dust published in the trade journal The Educational Screen, March 1940, 122.

FIGURE 5

Letter from Ralph Allan of Lee Dick, Inc. to Helen Hunter of the National Archive Accessions Advisory Committee. The film was officially deposited in June 1940. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.

FIGURE 5

Letter from Ralph Allan of Lee Dick, Inc. to Helen Hunter of the National Archive Accessions Advisory Committee. The film was officially deposited in June 1940. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.

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 67), 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.

FIGURE 6

Letter from the Manhattan Civilian Defense Volunteer Office thanking members of the Amateur Cinema League for their participation in the production of The Volunteer Nurses' Aide (1942). Lee Dick supervised the film's production. Reprinted in “League Members' Work Recommended,” Movie Makers 17, no. 6 (June 1942): 230.

FIGURE 6

Letter from the Manhattan Civilian Defense Volunteer Office thanking members of the Amateur Cinema League for their participation in the production of The Volunteer Nurses' Aide (1942). Lee Dick supervised the film's production. Reprinted in “League Members' Work Recommended,” Movie Makers 17, no. 6 (June 1942): 230.

FIGURE 7

Article, featuring production stills, on The Volunteer Nurses' Aide. James C. Moore, “They Volunteered for Victory,” Movie Makers 17, no. 5 (May 1942): 190–92.

FIGURE 7

Article, featuring production stills, on The Volunteer Nurses' Aide. James C. Moore, “They Volunteered for Victory,” Movie Makers 17, no. 5 (May 1942): 190–92.

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.

FIGURE 8

Lee Dick (going by her maiden name, Burgess) in the pages of the trade publication Broadcasting-Telecasting, October 11, 1954, 44.

FIGURE 8

Lee Dick (going by her maiden name, Burgess) in the pages of the trade publication Broadcasting-Telecasting, October 11, 1954, 44.

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.

NOTES

NOTES
1.
Association of Documentary Film Producers, Inc., Living Films: A Catalog of Documentary Films and Their Makers (New York: Association of Documentary Film Producers, Inc., 1940), digital version available via Media History Digital Library (MHDL), http://lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/livingfilmscatal00assorich_0084.
2.
Craig Kridel, “Towards an Understanding of Progressive Education and ‘School’: Lee Dick's 1939 Documentary Film on the Hessian Hills School,” www.rockarch.org/publications/resrep/kridel1.pdf. In addition to discussing her work on School, Kridel's study also helps to establish Dick's formative years. She was born Margaret Lee Burgess in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1909 and attended a private all-girls' boarding school in Maryland before enrolling for two years at Bryn Mawr. Contrary to her Living Films biography, the actress did not graduate; instead, she likely went to New York, where her parents were living on the Upper East Side. She married Sheldon Dick in 1933; their marriage received brief notice in the New York Times (“Other Weddings,” May 20, 1933, 10). In addition to studying Lee Dick, Kridel, an education historian, has also done research on Alice Keliher, another female member of the ADFP. School is available for viewing on the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/0477_School_A_Fim_About_Progressive_Education_01_00_58_00.
3.
Sheldon's funding was crucial to the production of Men and Dust. The film was made at the time when Frontier Films' landmark Native Land was started and abandoned over several years due to lack of sustained funding. Begun in 1937, Native Land ultimately was not released until 1942. See William Alexander, Film on the Left: Documentary Film from 1931 to 1942 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), 206–42.
4.
The most extensive published source on the film's production and formal elements is in ibid., 287–93. More recently, Dan Friedlaender and Adrianne Finelli presented their work on Men and Dust at the Orphan Film Symposium on April 14, 2012. A partial audio recording of their presentation is available at www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/orphans8/saturday.php. The film is available for viewing on both YouTube and the Internet Archive.
5.
In addition to the copy at the National Archives, Men and Dust is also part of the Prelinger Collection at the National Library of Congress.
6.
Although it was presumed lost, I located a VHS transfer of Day after Day at the Manhattan offices of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York in January 2015. The transferred footage contains a fourteen-minute version without sound, as well as a five-minute clip with sound from the closing minutes of the final reel. I base my conclusion on this extant sound footage.
7.
“League Members' Work Recommended,” Movie Makers 17, no. 6 (June 1942): 230; James C. Moore, “They Volunteered for Victory,” Movie Makers 17, no. 5 (May 1942): 190–92, accessed via MHDL.
8.
“Closeups—What Filmers Are Doing,” Movie Makers 18, no. 2 (February 1943): 44, accessed via MHDL. I have not located a copy of The Volunteer Nurses' Aide.
9.
“Practical Films,” Movie Makers 20, no. 9 (September 1945): 345, 355, accessed via MHDL. These films are also referenced in a 1951 film catalogue produced by the U.S. Office of Education. See Seerley Reid and Virginia Wilkins, 3434 Government Films, bulletin 1951, no. 21 (Washington, DC: Office of Education, reprint 1954), accessed via the Internet Archive. Of the nine nursing films that Lee supervised, I have viewed only Radiotherapy: High Dosage Treatment (1945); her name does not appear in its credits.
10.
Broadcasting-Telecasting, October 11, 1954, 44, accessed via MHDL.
11.
Charles Tepperman uses the phrase “advanced amateur” to describe nonprofessionals whose films are more polished than simple “point-and-shoot” recordings and operate outside the commercial market. Advanced amateur works are often characterized by pre- and/or postproduction efforts. See Tepperman, Amateur Cinema: The Rise of North American Moviemaking, 1923–1960 (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).
12.
In addition to the majority of her nursing films, I have been unable to find The Candid Camera.