A documentary on the amazing life of Helen Keller, in 1882, aged 19 months she fell ill with what was termed "brain fever" (now believed to be scarlet fever or meningitis) which left her ... See full summary »
'Biography' was a half-hour documentary series, produced very cheaply with a heavy reliance on film clips. This series proved to be quite significant in the careers of two people attached to it: Jack Haley Jnr and Mike Wallace.
Haley eventually built an entire career from television and movie documentaries centred on compilation footage: his most notable achievement in this field being the first 'That's Entertainment!' movie. Mike Wallace was originally a utility man, hosting game shows or taking pretty much any work he could get in television, when Haley picked him to host and narrate 'Biography'. Because of the non-fiction nature of this series, Wallace was eventually able to get work as a tv journalist on shows such as '60 Minutes'.
Each episode of 'Biography' recapped the life of one famous person, the key being that these episodes relied heavily on archival film footage and audio recordings of the subject. Thus, all the biographical subjects were 20th-century figures. Haley made a commendable effort to choose his subjects from the widest possible range of professions and callings. We get movie star Charlie Chaplin and athlete Babe Ruth, but we also get Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler and Helen Keller.
Some of the footage is impressively rare. The Helen Keller episode contains scenes from 'Deliverance', the silent film in which Helen Keller appeared as herself. A complete print of 'Deliverance' exists in the Library of Congress, but this movie is not easily available.
The Chaplin episode, inevitably, places heavy reliance on film clips of Chaplin in character as the Little Tramp, with comparably little newsreel footage ... and no footage at all from his late talkies (to which he controlled all rights at this time).
Regrettably, 'Biography' wants to tell us how to think. Wallace's narration for the Hitler episode makes it quite clear that Mike Wallace doesn't like Hitler, and that he wants us to feel the same way.
Occasionally, 'Biography' featured early use of the rostrum camera: panning across a still photograph to create the illusion of motion-picture footage.
'Biography' originally ran at a time when television documentaries were quite rare. Today, there's so much interest for this sort of thing that the History Channel has an ongoing Biography feature, and Ken Burns and Kevin Brownlow have revolutionised the documentary field. (I'm waiting for a documentary about Ken Burns.) Give credit to Jack Haley Jnr for leading the way with 'Biography'.
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