The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates: Capturing the Kennedys

The foursome who came together for Primary in 1960 are like the Beatles of documentary. Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles transformed nonfiction film and produced an unmatched streak of classics. (As with the Beatles, there was also a fifth, lesser‑known member, Terence Macartney-Filgate.) The team would change and grow and become known as Drew Associates, producing twenty films from 1960 to 1964, in one of the most fertile chapters of documentary history. Among these works, the ones featuring John F. Kennedy have certainly left the most indelible imprint. Indeed, it’s possible to trace the birth, growing pains, and maturation of the modern American documentary through those four films: Primary, Adventures on the New Frontier, Crisis, and Faces of November.

It is not an exaggeration to say that before Primary, documentary as we know it today—the art of candid observation—didn’t exist. Not the equipment, not the techniques, not the philosophy. The Drew team was making it up as they went along.

Drew himself, the ringleader, had never been short on confidence. As a nineteen-year-old pilot in World War II, he was shot down over Italy and eluded capture behind enemy lines for three and a half months. After the war, he skipped college and landed a job writing for Life magazine, working alongside its great photographers. He became determined to adapt their style of capturing reality to the new medium of television.

In the 1950s, the gold standard of TV reporting was Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now. But Drew felt such heavily narrated programs were just “lectures with picture illustrations.” He craved documentaries that were more like fiction film, with strong narratives and characters. He experimented and quickly realized the limits of the existing technology. Cameras capable of synchronizing sound were too heavy to lift off a tripod. Audiotape recorders were the size of a desk. The cumbersome gear worked fine for shooting in a studio with dollies, lights, and a large crew. But it was useless in the real world. When Drew raised this problem with others, few shared his concerns. They were content editing pictures with narration.

In 1954, a TV documentary called Toby and the Tall Corn caught Drew’s eye. It tells the story of a Midwestern traveling folk theater, and the camera follows the performers as they arrive in a town, raise their tent, and put on a show. The film has an intimacy with the characters that Drew wasn’t used to seeing. He sought out the person responsible, and that’s how he met Leacock. “That was the beginning of a love affair,” Drew told me almost fifty years later. In many ways, the two were opposites. Politically, Drew was moderate while Leacock was radical. In business, Drew was savvy, Leacock disinterested. But they shared a white-hot passion to make a new kind of documentary, and they needed each other to pull it off.

Leacock brought considerable experience, going back to age four-teen, when he’d directed the short film Canary Bananas, about his father’s banana plantation in the Canary Islands. He received early encouragement from his schoolmate’s father Robert Flaherty, the famed director of 1922’s Nanook of the North. Leacock went on to film combat in World War II and collaborate with Flaherty on his final feature, Louisiana Story (1948). In 1954, he helped shoot the theatrical short Jazz Dance, praised in the New York Times for its “power with the moving image.” Leacock was skilled at operating lightweight silent cameras for handheld shooting. They didn’t synchronize with sound, but Leacock knew editing strategies for mixing the candid footage with sound sequences. That’s what so impressed Drew about Toby and the Tall Corn.

Around the world, other nonfiction filmmakers were also experimenting with handheld styles, from those in England’s Free Cinema movement to the members of the National Film Board of Canada. In New York City, the motivation to get out on the streets was felt strongly among the nascent community of independent filmmakers, a loose group whose interests spanned fiction, documentary, and experimental work. Morris Engel made a breakthrough filming outdoors in Coney Island for his 1953 fiction film Little Fugitive. The same energy inspiring Drew and Leacock rippled out to Pennebaker and Maysles, both working in New York, who made their own short films around the same time.

What set Drew apart is that he convinced Time-Life to invest roughly half a million dollars in the invention of new handheld gear. Time-Life saw the potential for the kinds of films Drew was advocating to promote its brand of reportage. The company also owned a handful of local TV stations around the country and wanted Drew to teach those affiliates how to make films. Drew teamed with Leacock, Pennebaker, and an eccentric New York inventor named Mitch Bogdanowicz to develop a custom-made handheld rig. They wound up with a shoulder-mounted Auricon 16 mm camera and a portable Perfectone audio recorder suitable for a two-person crew. Loren Ryder, a California sound engineer, devised equipment to improve their capability to edit synchronous sound. Now Drew needed an attention-getting subject, and he was drawn to the 1960 presidential campaign.

John F. Kennedy, at forty-two, was considered an unlikely nominee—too young, too Catholic, too Eastern Establishment. To overcome those biases, the Boston-bred son of a millionaire had to prove himself in the Wisconsin primary against Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, a favorite among Midwestern farmers and the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. Drew and Leacock met with Kennedy in Washington in mid-March and gained his consent to be filmed during the primary; they then quickly got Humphrey’s. Two weeks later, in April, the filmmakers had their first day of shooting, with Leacock as cameraman connected by a wire to Drew on the audio recorder. They filmed Kennedy while riding in a car with him, then followed him getting out, entering a photographer’s studio, and maintaining his good humor while posing for a portrait. “It’s all on film and tape continuously,” Drew later recalled. “When we got back in the car, Leacock and I looked at each other, and this was it! This was our dream—the first time ever!” (In the final version of Primary, we see only the portion inside the photo studio.)

To round out their team, they brought aboard Pennebaker, Maysles, and Macartney-Filgate, who had directed a Canadian documentary about tobacco harvesting called The Back-breaking Leaf. All of them were in their thirties.

The team devised a set of revolutionary principles: No interviews. Tell the story through action, not narration. Don’t interfere with what’s happening, just observe. In Primary, the cameras follow the candidates as they meet voters on the street, catnap in cars, and confer with aides in private rooms. In an iconic shot, Maysles’s camera trails Kennedy through hundreds of supporters in a hall in heavily Polish Catholic Milwaukee, and the crowd breaks into his campaign song, “High Hopes.”

On primary night, Leacock’s camera observes Kennedy awaiting the results in his hotel suite with family and colleagues. Also in the room was Theodore White, whose innovative 1961 book The Making of the President 1960 supplies plenty of information about the Wisconsin events not found in Primary: how individual precincts voted, how Kennedy’s well-funded organization outflanked Humphrey, how Kennedy’s ultimate 56 percent of the vote fell short of his hopes. But the film evokes something that no book could equal: “We did capture the look of it,” Leacock told me, “the sense of being there.”

When it was finally finished, Drew hoped to sell it to a national network but had no takers. News executives were wary of outside producers; audiences weren’t used to handheld camera work; and the Wisconsin race was already old news. The hour-long show was cut down to twenty-six minutes and syndicated to local stations owned by Time Inc. after Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the general election.

That didn’t deter Drew, who had already secured commitments for other shows. The same year as Primary, his team filmed On the Pole, focusing on race-car driver Eddie Sachs; and Yanki No!, about rising leaders in Cuba and Venezuela. Those initial three films screened in Paris and were embraced by New Wave critics, who began to link the American movement with the emerging French cinema verité of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin. The association stuck, despite the American filmmakers’ misgivings—they resisted comparisons of their observational methods to the French interviewing style, and, moreover, asserted that they didn’t claim to capture “the truth”; they more often described what they did as giving a “direct” experience of events as they happened. Nonetheless, the lasting label was “cinema verité.”

But by 1962, the group was already chang-ing. Maysles left to partner with his brother, David. Drew had taken funding from Time-Life to form his own company, Drew Associates, pursuing an ambitious growth plan to deliver multiple stand-alone documentaries for television. The period is well chronicled in P. J. O’Connell’s book Robert Drew and the Development of Cinema Verite in America. Newcomers like James Lipscomb, Gregory Shuker, and Hope Ryden could rise quickly at Drew Associates. In Mooney vs. Fowle, Lipscomb documented a high-school football rivalry in his hometown of Miami. In The Chair, Shuker found the gripping Chicago story of Paul Crump, an inmate trying to get off death row. In Jane, Ryden, a rare woman in the field, teamed with Pennebaker to follow a young Jane Fonda as she starred in a Broadway flop. On each film, the crews continued to develop the techniques of observational cinema—aspiring to tell their stories with as little narration as possible (though, as long as television was their main outlet, they couldn’t completely shake that convention).

Each of those films holds up today. Drew’s team developed a knack for homing in on stories that yielded a dramatic arc in a short time. The economy of Drew Associates is a wonder. But with so many new productions and rapidly changing personal dynamics, it was a pressure cooker, stoked by martini lunches, office affairs, and clashing egos. When I asked Ryden what it was like to be a woman in the mix, she gave a one word answer—“Hell”—and declined to elaborate.

Decades later, when I interviewed them, the members had diverging perspectives and lingering emotional wounds. A big source of discord had been the system of arriving at final cut and crediting. Drew avoided crediting a director on his early films, instead taking inspiration from Life magazine’s nomenclature: On Primary, the credits list the four cameramen as “Photographers” and Drew as “Managing editor.” On later projects, the credits list “Filmmakers” and “Correspondents” for the people in the field. Drew was called “Executive producer,” denoting his final say in picking the stories, assigning the crews, and shaping the programs.

By 1963, tensions were rising among the remaining partners. Time-Life was pulling Drew Associates’ financing, and the company was in danger of going under. This was the backdrop for the watershed work of Crisis.

Ever since Primary, Drew had been angling to do another project with Kennedy. Despite the film’s scant distribution, Kennedy had been impressed. As president-elect, he invited Drew to show the film in a private screening at his family’s vacation home in West Palm Beach. Media historian Mary Ann Watson credits Primary with opening the president’s mind to new uses for film. In her book The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years, she writes, “He was thinking of documentation different from official papers or posed photographs. Kennedy was imagining a film record that would provide the real looks on people’s faces and their tone of voice.”

Drew, emboldened by this warm reception, proposed an even more daring idea: to follow the president in the White House during a crisis. Kennedy liked the concept. “Think of what it would be like,” Drew remembered him saying, “if I could see in the White House twenty-four hours before Roosevelt declared war on Japan.”

Shortly after Kennedy’s inauguration, the president invited Drew for two days of test filming inside the Oval Office. The footage, used in the 1961 ABC program Adventures on the New Frontier, didn’t yield much fresh insight. The show surveyed various initiatives of the new administration and resembled the “illustrated lecture” format that Drew disdained. But the test allayed Kennedy’s concerns about bringing cameras into the White House.

Over the next three years, Kennedy himself mastered the use of television to connect directly with the public, without relying on the press as a middleman. He frequently gave televised press conferences and approved shows such as CBS’s 1962 hit special A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy. “When we don’t have to go through you bastards, we can really get our story over to the American people,” Kennedy told his journalist friend Ben Bradlee.

In the meantime, Drew floundered in his hopes to get back inside the White House. Whenever a potential conflict to capture arose, Drew would call Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, only to be asked “How can you call when we’re in the middle of a crisis?”

Then, in the spring of 1963, newspapers started reporting on a new crisis in the making. A federal court order had mandated that the University of Alabama accept the enrollment of two black students. Governor George Wallace was threatening to stand in the school’s doorway to block their entrance. The previous year, a similar conflict in Oxford, Mississippi, had caused deadly riots.

Shuker recognized that Alabama could be the next flashpoint for the civil rights struggle. He won permission from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to cover the story inside the Justice Department, with Pennebaker as cameraman. The White House admitted them to deliberations in the Oval Office, on the condition that the administration could see the film before it aired and kill any dialogue they thought would damage the presidency. At the last minute, ABC agreed to pay for the program. In Alabama, Leacock and Lipscomb were dispatched to follow the urbane U.S. deputy attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Wallace, while Ryden and cameraman Abbot Mills focused on the black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood.

Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, filmed in June 1963, crosscuts between the various characters. The suspense builds with every scene, as Wallace eulogizes his Confederate heroes, the attorney general contemplates calling in the National Guard, the NAACP advises the students on possible risks, the president’s advisers calculate the political fallout, and Katzenbach instructs federal marshals to “take whatever force is necessary” to protect the students.

Wallace stood his ground until one hundred troops arrived later in the day and the black students were permitted to enroll. That night, Kennedy made the commitment referred to by the film’s full title, giving his strongest speech on civil rights, in which he called it a “moral issue” and pushed for new legislation from Congress.

In the three years between Primary and Crisis, the filmmakers had made tremendous advances, in both the quality of their equipment and their experience. In Primary, the ability to record synchronous sound was still primitive. The film relies more on images than dialogue. By Crisis, they had obtained Polish engineer Stefan Kudelski’s more sophisticated Nagra audio deck, and synchronized it to the film speed using a Bulova Accutron watch, so the cinematographer and sound person no longer had to be tethered together by a wire.

In October 1963, ABC broadcast Crisis, amid the first storm of controversy over what we now call reality television. The New York Times had attacked the White House for turning “the private deliberations of the executive branch . . . into a melodramatic peep show.” On the other hand, the New York Herald Tribune hailed Crisis as a “milestone in film journalism.” (It wasn’t until the preparation of this Criterion release that the audio track from the 1963 ABC broadcast was discovered, by the Academy Film Archive, and it became clear how extensive the use of voice-over narration to obscure Kennedy’s dialogue had been—for instance, when he discusses how Katzenbach should respond if Wallace refuses to leave. This added narration was a concession to the White House, but Drew was not required to use it except for the broadcast, and thereafter—and even just previously, at the 1963 New York Film Festival—he always screened the unobscured version presented in this release.)

The next month, Kennedy was assassinated, and the media debate over the propriety of filming in the White House was moot. No outside camera crew ever gained such access to the Oval Office again.

ABC News president Elmer Lower commissioned Drew to make a film about Kennedy’s funeral that resulted in the poetic Faces of November. But the network had no place for a twelve-minute film. According to Drew, it wasn’t until Faces won prizes at the Venice Film Festival that an excerpt was shown on a news broadcast.

Pennebaker and Leacock had already departed Drew Associates, with hurt feelings on both sides. Pennebaker went on to fulfill his dream of making theatrical documentaries with Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop (both 1967), and his later collaborations with Chris Hegedus, returning to an election with The War Room in 1993 and to the theater world with Moon Over Broadway in 1997. Leacock made such gems as 1963’s Happy Mother’s Day (directed with Joyce Chopra), about the media circus around the birth of a set of quintuplets, and 1968’s Chiefs (directed with Noel Parmentel Jr.), about a police convention. He had even more influence teaching documentary filmmaking at MIT, where his students included Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, and Mira Nair.

Drew Associates secured new funding to retain Shuker, Lipscomb, Ryden, and others, who went on to produce many significant films, including Mission to Malaya (1964), Letters from Vietnam (1965), and On the Road with Duke Ellington (1967). On the 1968 film Man Who Dances: Edward Villella, Drew fell in love with Anne Gilbert, the project’s editor, and the two became partners in marriage and filmmaking. One of their late projects, From Two Men and a War (2005), told the story of his World War II exploits.

As they grew older, the Primary crew sought to overcome their differences and frequently appeared together. At age eighty-two, Leacock told me, “I’m just glad that I’m friends with Bob again.” Seven years later, in 2011, he died in Paris, having completed a memoir titled The Feeling of Being There.

Following Drew’s death at age ninety in 2014, his family created the Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence. The first recipient was Laura Poitras, for her film Citizenfour. For her acceptance speech, delivered by her collaborator Kirsten Johnson in front of an audience that included Pennebaker and Maysles, Poitras wrote, “The only mistake that Robert, Penny, Leacock, and Albert made was not to document the process when they were creating this new form of nonfiction cinema . . . If I could go back in time, I would film the moment when Robert convinced Kennedy to document his primary race. I would document Penny’s building the camera that allowed them to follow life unfolding in front of them. I would be there when they watched the rushes of Albert’s legendary shot of Kennedy walking to the stage. Did they understand what they were creating? Did they have a shared vision, or did they argue? And did they know that generations of filmmakers would follow in their footsteps?”

There is one moment in Primary when Drew steps clearly into the frame. Around the fifty-minute mark, Humphrey is giving an election night interview, saying, “I’m a conservative, prudent man.” We can see Drew, with thick black hair, pointing a shotgun microphone at Humphrey. Drew’s face has a look of concentration as he glances down at his equipment, and when I rerun those few seconds, I detect a faint smile. Maybe he’s just being polite to the senator. Or maybe he knows that he’s making history, not just recording it.

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