Libby Schwartz on Film
Home Up

About Us
Save A Film
View Our Films
Donations
Filmmaker Bios
Publications
Research Resources
AFA FilmShows
Start Your Own Cinema
Conference Presentations
Special Projects
16mm CinemaStore
Site Search
Site Map
Contact Us

In 1964, Elizabeth "Libby" Schwartz wrote her reminiscences of her life in film.  They are a wonderful chronicle of the life of wildlife filmmakers prior to the "digital days."  We thanks Charlie and Libby's son Bruce for making these comments available to us...

Reminiscences by Libby Schwartz

The next phase of our lives involved the production of motion pictures.  I say "our lives" because whatever project Charlie undertook, I became involved in it sooner or later. And the same was true for projects I considered mine: they always became "ours." 

We had tried some 16mm. motion picture photography of prairie chickens and in, the Hawaiian Islands but/ up until now, had mostly just taken the pictures not tried to make a finished production. By a round-about way we became involved in this latter aspect. 

Edgar M. Queeny, Chairman of the Board of Monsanto Chemical Company, had received a copy of our book, The Prairie Chicken in Missouri, for a Christmas present and arranged to meet us. He thought that the prairie chicken would make a good subject for a motion picture. He had the money and equipment but lacked "know-how" in the field.  

Charlie was willing to supply the "know-how" in return for learning about making motion pictures. Edgar set up a motion picture laboratory, hired the best consultants he could from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and arranged for Charlie to learn with him. Their first production was a motion picture entitled "How to Make a Motion Picture." After they had the technical skill they went, into the field and filmed prairie chickens on their booming ground.  

Their equipment was archaic by today's standards. For example, their camera speed was too slow for synchronized sound or slow motion action. The cameras were spring-driven (wound up like old fashioned alarm clocks) which meant they often stopped at an inopportune time.  Sound was recorded on a microphone placed near the booming ground but this was powered by a large generator 400 feet away (because of the noise it made). Blinds of many different designs were used including some with two-way glass for observation. Edgar was always trying to figure a better way to get the pictures and sound they wanted. (In later years we had both battery-driven cameras and sound recorders - Arriflexes and Nagras.) 

The Conservation Commission looked with favor upon Charlie learning this technique and gave him freedom to accompany Edgar on some of these projects. After filming prairie chickens in Missouri, they expanded their scope, flying to Wyoming to film sage grouse on their communal courting grounds (or leks) and to Manitoba to film sharp-tailed grouse on theirs. These three species of grouse are shown on their courting grounds in Sunrise Serenade. 

Next, they went farther afield to make a film on blue and snow geese in the James Bay area and then Edgar wanted to film even more remote wildlife subjects, such as in Africa. Charlie planned to accompany Edgar and his wife/ Ethel/ to Africa and I commented to Ethel something about wishing I could go, too/ but "I had a new baby at home and didn't want to leave." She became very serious and replied, "I'd stay home from any where if I only had a baby at home." In the end, Charlie didn't go with them because he became sick from the shots he took against some African diseases he might encounter. 

Another early film Charlie made was Snakes, Friends and Foes. The object of this was to teach people to identify the poisonous from the non-poisonous snakes in Missouri and to understand their roles in nature. We had to collect our subjects which wasn't always easy - so Charlie put out a request for additional specimens. One day we noticed a cage on our back porch with 14 rattlesnakes in it. He called the donor to thank him for the snakes and the donor said, "Snakes?" "Yes," said Charlie, " all 14 ofthem." The donor replied, "But there was only one snake in the cage when I left it."  Rattlesnakes are hatched from eggs but the eggs are retained in the female's body until the time of birth. This female's time had come in the cage on our porch. We converted our darkroom into a snake room and kept it locked against any curious or mischievous boys (our own or the neighbors')![1] 

One of the major game birds in Missouri was the bobwhite quail and the Conservation Commission wanted to tell the story of this bird - in the past and up to the present. Charlie was given the assignment to do this in a motion picture. Another biologist, Jack Stanford, who was a "quail specialist," was assigned to help Charlie and to write a bulletin on the bobwhite. They produced both the motion picture Bobwhite Through the Year and the bulletin Whirring Wings (which Charlie illustrated). In 1954 the North American Wildlife Society awarded them jointly the "Conservation Education Award." At the premier showing, I was happy to be introduced to the audience as having been involved in all aspects of the picture's production. 

Bobwhite through the Year was well received and shown widely. The United States Department of State selected this film as its entry to the International Sports Film Festival held in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, where it received the coveted Grand Medal. It was also cited as the "Best American work in conservation, sports/ and cinema." 

Because of this notoriety/ the Surgeon-General of the U. S. Air Force, General Kenneth Pletcher, saw it and invited Charlie to show the film at Burderop Air Force Base in England.  Dr. Pletcher had been stationed at this base during World War II and wanted to "further Anglo-American relations." Charlie accompanied General Ptetcher on this good-will tour and showed Bobwhite. This was the beginning of long and lasting friendships with these British people. They came here to visit in our home, entertained us on later trips to Great Britain, and we call them good friends to this day.  This exposure to the history of Great Britain really opened my eyes. Up until now,  I had thought of history in terms of American history. Now, I could think of European history and even pre-history. 

Another request for a special showing of Bobwhite came from the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole where Charlie was invited to be a guest lecturer at one of their programs. We took our family with us and the children enjoyed the marine life and boating opportunities there. Their journals include sketches of how to tell "a sloop, a yawl, and a ketch." (It is interesting that in their college years, both of our sons spent two summers working on the collecting crew at the Marine Biological Laboratory just as Charlie had done.) However, I didn't prepare properly for this trip.  It had been so hot all summer in Missouri that I couldn't imagine needing warm clothes, I did take a sweater apiece but it was was damp and cold on the sea coast and I had to buy additional clothes for the whole family. We took advantage of this trip to visit our families in Ohio/ Pennsylvania, and New York.  

Bobwhite told the story of conservation to everyone who saw it and, in Missouri, made the job easier for the Conservation Commission. We were soon asked to produce a similar film on the cottontail rabbit. Because Charlie had done his graduate research on this subject, it interested him especially. By now the direction of our life became clear. We would make motion pictures for the Conservation Commission for the next 30 years. Starting with Cottontail, my name appeared on every film as an official member of the team. 

We hoped each picture showed improvement over the preceding one as we did more of our own production and relied less on others. Charlie specialized in the photography and I did the sound recording. Together we did the basic research, wrote the shooting script, and did both picture and sound editing, but found it helpful to have someone more skilled with words convey our thoughts for the narration at the rate of "four words a foot but not every foot." We added another photographer to our team, Glenn Chambers, and over the years produced some 24 motion pictures. We also used our extra footage for TV shorts and miscellaneous programs. Our productions continued to earn awards at various film festivals. 

It would be monotonous to go into detail about each motion picture. They all consumed time because we portrayed each species throughout an entire year of its life. The best way to do this was to film one picture while we edited the picture we had filmed the year before. Thus, our life became divided into "sunny day work" (filming) and "rainy day work" (editing and other indoor projects). Each night we'd listen to the weather forecast that followed the 10 o'clock news on the radio (later TV) and then decide on our program for the next day.  

Two of our motion pictures involved extensive filming out-of-state. These were This is the Mallard (on the mallard duck) and Wild Chorus (about the Canada goose). It was felt that sportsmen in Missouri didn't appreciate the fact that their waterfowl hunting depended upon the production of ducks and geese in their northern breeding grounds - or their survival in southern wintering grounds. For these pictures we went both north to Canada and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, we enjoyed including plant and animal associates in these different habitats and we showed current management problems and practices for waterfowl. These two pictures are probably all-time favorites.  

This is the Mallard was filmed largely in the pothole country of North Dakota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. In addition to weather problems, we encountered many other hazards such as skunks or raccoons that ate the eggs in the nests before we were ready to film. And I remember a problem of another sort: the cable from the battery to the camera got broken, leaving us unable to photograph. The closest replacement was in Kansas City where Arriflex cameras were rented. Our only solution was to drive back to Kansas City and then return to our filming. After this experience, we convinced the Conservation Commission to provide us with duplicate camera equipment, which they considered a reasonable request. While this solved one problem/ it complicated our lives further by adding to the burden of the gear we had to transport. On another trip, we were filming a colony of prairie dogs when we heard John let out a scream. He and his dog, Jet, were exploring along the Missouri River bluffs nearby when Jet was bitten by a rattlesnake. We immediately took the dog to a veterinarian in the nearby town, Yankton, South Dakota, but he didn't have any anti-snake venom. We finally secured some from the local hospital and the dog recovered successfully.  

When we went north to the Churchill, Manitoba, area to film Wild Chorus, there were three of us: Charlie, Glenn Chambers, and me. And we went prepared. My list of baggage contained 30 parcels: we had 3 motion picture cameras, at least 3 still cameras, boxes with film for both motion picture and still cameras, tripods, sound equipment, several types of blinds, plus camping gear. We planned to be "in the bush" and the weather would be cold, so we needed more than usual. We had two small tents for our sleeping bags, another small tent for our gear, and a larger tent we could stand up in that we would use for cooking and taking care of our equipment. Then, for polar bear protection, we took a big ("polar bear") gun (a ,375 Holland & Holland) which I was taught to shoot. The recoil was so strong that on my first try it knocked me flat on my back! And there was morphine, just in case.  

We had a helicopter take us to where we did most of our photography.   It was freezing most of the time and we were glad for our heavy parkas and insulated hip boots. We kept our cameras in our sleeping bags with us so they wouldn't freeze and our polar bear gun was within arm's reach. When the "boys" were intent on their filming, I was on "polar bear patrol" and constantly on watch. Once, when we were working with another crew that was studying snow goose nesting, we combined efforts with a plane to patrol the area. The signal was that when the plane spotted a bear it would make a circle over the location and then fly off in the direction the bear was from us. So when the plane kept making a tight circle right over our heads, I alerted the boys. Actually, they wanted to film the bear and took advantage of this opportunity for their camera "shots."  

In this northern latitude it stays light so long that you can read a newspaper, outside, at midnight. One day, after we had finished the photography we had on our schedule, we decided to move our blinds to a different location for the following day. While we were working in this twilight period, I noticed the "midnight plane" arriving and made some comment about "it being early." No, it was midnight all right, but we had forgotten to stop and eat our supper.  

The only near disaster we had came on the last night on one of our trips. We were staying at a field camp left by some earlier researchers. They had built a Quonset hut with a high, chain-link fence around it to keep out the bears but, during the winter, the snow was so deep that the bears had easily crossed the fence and damaged the camp. We had repaired the camp the best we could (making it bear tight and air tight) and were scheduled to leave the following morning. Because we didn't want to pack wet tents, we planned to spend the last night inside. We had a pound of hamburger in our "permafrost refrigerator" which we retrieved and cooked on a charcoal grill we found in the hut. The warmth of the fire felt so good we just let it keep on burning and went to sleep in our sleeping bags on the floor.  

On this particular trip, Glenn's son, Jim, accompanied us (we used our children as assistants whenever we could). About 4 o'clock, Jim woke up, very sick.  I helped him go outside where he vomited. We were soon joined by Glenn, then by Charlie, both equally sick. Somehow, I managed to escape the worst although I didn't feel real well. By the time our helicopter arrived at its nearest landing place/ about mile away, we could hardly walk this distance. We found out later that we were suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning from the charcoal. This forms a heavy gas that accumulates down low - such as where we were sleeping. I have great respect for charcoal after this experience.  

On our return to the United States/ we were stopped by custom officials in Minneapolis. They examined us in great detail, even to taking the component lenses apart in our telephoto lenses (which infuriated Charlie). But he had further problems to attend to. They insisted on opening the sealed cans containing our undeveloped film!  Finally, an agreement was reached that these cans could be sent to a company in Kansas City that developed our motion picture film and be opened only in the presence of a U. S. Custom official. If they had had their way, this motion picture would never have existed! 

Another picture, this one filmed close to home, was The Story of the Mourning Dove. We showed the life of doves from courting and rearing their young through congregating into large flocks and migrating to warmer winter climates. I recall a humorous incident. We had been filming a particular nest in the tree of a neighbor.  This pair of birds was on its third brood when a rainstorm came up. The neighbor was so concerned about the survival of this nest that he climbed the tree to our platform blind and erected an umbrella over the nest to protect it from the storm.  

We made motion pictures of ponds, lakes, rivers, fish, and fishing. Our film, Headwaters, recorded the life in a stream, particularly that of the smallmouth bass.  For this picture, we had to design a whole new set of props. We used a glass-bottom bucket (with camera enclosed) to break the surface of the water and to photograph in shallow areas. But for deeper places, we used an underwater ("telescopic") box where the camera was at eye level but the subject was at right angles to a mirror in the bottom of the box. Charlie would sit on a stool in the water (often very cold) and hold this box between his knees (it was buoyant and kept wanting to float) then film his subject in reverse on the mirror below. We obtained many unusual photographs in this way and showed the life history of the smallmouth bass and many of its associates. My favorite fish were the horny head chubs. Each one would pick up a piece of gravel from the bottom of the stream, carry the gravel in its mouth, then drop it on a pile of gravel it was building for its nest. We showed bleeding shiners in all their breeding glory, hogsuckers vacuuming the stream bottom, and soft-shelled turtles gliding along. This film was another first-place winner.   I especially liked our forestry picture because it was filmed almost entirely in our own woods. It showed the biology of the forest and, as its title says, that "a forest is more than trees."  

In addition to motion pictures for the Department of Conservation, we sometimes took on other assignments. For example, the University of Missouri owned a special tract of land that the Department of Conservation wanted but because of some law, one section of state government could not buy something from another. A solution was worked out whereby we were "loaned" to the University of Missouri to film a promotional picture and the Department of Conservation acquired the desired piece of property.  

Another unusual film was on the behavior of monkeys in a colony on an island in the Caribbean. This film was made for the National Institutes of Health and was to portray certain research projects; the title was The Rhesus Monkeys of Santiago Island. We soon found out that in order to work in this Spanish-speaking area we had to learn some Spanish.  It fell to me to take a short course which helped us communicate --- to tell the boatman when to take us to the island, when to return, how to count money, how to have the electricity turned on in the house we rented, etc.  Here, in this humid climate, we had new problems with our cameras and film --- moisture.  

This colony of monkeys was wild and free-ranging and its only contact with civilization was at feeding stations where monkey chow was provided to keep the monkeys from eating all the native vegetation. Actually, the monkeys lived in three different troops in separate locations on the island. Each troop had a hierarchy of males (about six). This ranking permitted #6 to feed, but if  #5 appeared and wanted to feed, #6 had to give way. And so it was with the others. When #1 appeared, the females and their young could get food from the feeder under his protection. Young males lived around the periphery of the troop and had to sneak a chance to feed and mate. We learned to avoid eye contact with a monkey because he (or she) took this as a threat.  I've been told that Dian Fossey, who became a world famous authority on gorillas, spent many hours watching this film when she was studying primate behavior at Cornell University.  

To film monkey behavior throughout the year, we made short trips to Puerto Rico at various intervals. On one of these we took our son John with us. We lived in a decrepit hacienda with a crumbled swimming pool --- a reminder of better days. The house was inhabited by large cockroaches that ate a whole loaf of bread in one night! John became enamored of some small lizards (geckos) that lived on the screened porch and wanted to take some home. We agreed that he could take three.  And to quote John's comments to a journalist who wrote an article about me: "While we were standing in line awaiting our departure by plane, I watched the customs officials confiscate some plants from the people ahead of us. All of a sudden I realized t couldn't take my lizards. I panicked! So Mom opened the jar, grabbed the three lizards and stuffed them down her bra and we got through with no problem. This was typical of Mom --- coming through in a pinch."[2]   John kept the lizards until our next trip when he decided they should be returned to their original home. Now, I had to smuggle them back and release them in the exact place where they were found.   

It is interesting how history repeats itself. Years later, when John and Kathy were taking their children to Mexico, David kept asking questions about the effect of the metal detector at the airport on living things. John became suspicious and inquired why he was asking all these questions.   "Well, er - a, you see, Dad, I havethislivemouseinmypocket!" John and David hurriedly disappeared to find a suitable place to release the mouse. At least Kathy didn't have to do what I did!  

One of the fringe benefits of our monkey motion picture was getting acquainted with a family in Puerto Rico that had a daughter they wished to live in the United States for a year. Since she was close to John's age and he was our only child at home, we agreed to take her into our family. This arrangement was a positive experience for everyone.  

Another request we had was to film a safari in Africa. This was a promotional picture and not especially "our type" but the chance to make this trip with all expenses paid swayed us. It turned out to be both a good and not-so-good experience.  

One of our problems was traveling. !'ll have to admit there have been times when I've wished we could take a trip without a camera but, in the end, I'm sure I'd say "it was worth it." Since most of our cameras were foreign (German and Japanese) we always had to register each item when we entered a different country. Then taking a lot of camera equipment (which is sensitive and therefore must be "hand carried" on a plane) meant we could only take a limited amount of other items.  

When I talk about being "tied down," I'll explain about this trip to Africa (1968). Since we were going there primarily to take photographs, if anything happened to our equipment, the whole purpose of our trip would be lost. For example, when we had a stop-over in Athens, Greece, we could only see the sights by hiring a taxi to take us and our gear where we wanted to go. At the Acropolis, one of us stayed in the taxi while the other went sight-seeing.  Then we reversed the procedure. In a hotel, we couldn't leave our gear in our room unattended, so one of us went out to eat and brought a carry-in meal to the camera sitter. This was the story of the whole safari. All we could do was do our best under the circumstances and hope that we could return some day and see Africa the way we wanted to. This opportunity finally came after we retired. 

horizontal rule

[1] When Barbara read this, she commented that in her youth she thought it was "normal" to have snakes in the darkroom. Now, she wonders!
[2] Peach,  Laurie.  1952.    "Libby Schwartz,  Partner and Pioneer."  Missouri Conservationist, August, pp. 4-9.


Copyright (c) 2016 Geoff Alexander   All rights reserved.     Contact Us               

site stats