By David Cantor, PhD (Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social (IDES), Buenos Aires)



In 1949 the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare (DNHW) commissioned a cancer educational film, eventually called Challenge: Science Against Cancer. It was to be one of the first of a new form of film.

Earlier cancer educationals had sought to recruit patients and volunteers into programs of early detection and treatment against this group of diseases. In the view of most anti-cancer organizations, the problem was that many people delayed seeking help until after the best opportunities for successful treatment had passed. The urgent task, these organizations suggested, was to encourage people to go to a recognized physician as early in the natural life of the disease as possible, before it had progressed too far for therapy. Film was a key part of their public education efforts concerning this issue.

Challenge, by contrast, targeted a new audience and sought to address a newly urgent task. In the views of both the NCI and the DNHW, the small numbers of new scientist recruits to cancer research were insufficient to sustain the field, funding for which had expanded in both countries as never before following World War II, and was expected to continue to grow in the foreseeable future. The fear was that a shortfall in recruits would undermine continued growth and the hopes invested in the field. Thus, these agencies argued it was critically important to induce young scientists to think of cancer research and biomedicine as careers, and Challenge was to be a key part of their efforts to address this issue. The open access book that accompanies this essay—Cancer, Research, and Educational Film at Midcentury—is the story of this film: why it was commissioned, how it was made, and how it was promoted and packaged.

The Sponsors

The NCI office responsible for the film—the Cancer Reports Section—had been established in 1948 to address growing public and congressional interest in cancer, to fulfil a mandate to develop public education about cancer, and to promote the interests of the NCI, including its research. It was led by its first director, Dallas Johnson, a former educator, consumer activist, and journalist, and she faced unique problems in establishing the section at the heart of NCI propaganda and education. She had the support of the director of the NCI and the agency’s cancer control side. However, she had more difficult relations with the research side, which was then expanding rapidly and overshadowing the control side of the organization, a situation that complicated her efforts to center the Cancer Reports Section as the organizational unit through which all NCI public education and propaganda should pass.

Rings of growth of a culture outlined with a pen.
Still from Challenge: Science Against Cancer, 1950. Tracking growth with rings.
National Library of Medicine #8700851A

Then she was given a new task—to help recruit young scientists into cancer research. The leadership of the NCI was concerned that too few science students saw cancer research as a career. Most of the best were tempted elsewhere, into industry where the pay was better, or atomic physics, a high-status field after the development of the atomic bomb. Cancer research, by contrast, was dogged by low pay, a reputation as a dead-end field in which scientists lacked opportunities to make significant advances, and a research grants system that was not fit for purpose.

Johnson’s new task offered her a chance to make the Cancer Reports Section central to the NCI’s public outreach regarding research, and she began to develop a public education recruitment program. She did not immediately think of film as a tool in this campaign, and indeed seemed to be at a loss as to how best to proceed more generally. Then, in 1948 she met with a young novelist, Bernard V. Dryer, who showed her a Canadian script for a recruitment film.  Almost immediately she saw the film as a solution to her problems, jumped on board with the Canadians, and began figuring out how to raise money from within the NCI for its production. The film was to be one of the largest financial expenditures for Johnson’s section, and it took up much of her time over the next one and a half years. A key part of her strategy for establishing the Cancer Reports Section, Challenge was to be central to the early history of what would become cancer communications at the NCI.

The DNHW office responsible for the film was it’s Information Services Division (ISD). The ISD had a longer history than the NCI’s Cancer Reports Section. It traced it roots to 1919, though it had been reorganized recently. It did not focus specifically on cancer, and its head, Lt. Col. C. W. Gilchrist, did not have the problem of establishing himself within the Department that Johnson’s start-up had in the NCI, though he did not always have an easy relationship with his minister, Paul Martin. Like Johnson, Gilchrist was not responsible for initiating the idea of a cancer film. He had been approached by the Canadian Cancer Society asking for funding for a film or films that would educate the public about the disease and promote the expansion of cancer research in Canada. Enthused by the idea, in 1948 Gilchrist commissioned the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), Canada’s state-funded film producer and distributor, to make the film.

A woman being treated
Still from Alerte: Science Contre Cancer, 1950. The use of a geiger counter to track radioactive compounds within the body.
National Library of Medicine #9918316187006676

Until 1948, Canadian cancer organizations had not produced many educational films. Most were imported into Canada from the United States. In the 1940s, however, Canadian Cancer organizations increasingly felt that these American films were not suitable for Canadian audiences and began planning their own productions. The problem was that they did not have sufficient funds to make a film, which is why they turned to the DNHW. After initially being rebuffed, they found a receptive audience in Gilchrist, and began planning a film to coordinate with a fund-raising drive, which would help to launch a new research body, the National Cancer Institute of Canada (NCIC), Canada’s equivalent of the US National Cancer Institute.

Part of the agenda of the Canadian cancer organizations in promoting this film was to keep Canadian scientists in the country. Many were tempted to leave by the better pay and resources available in the US, and their emigration was a threat to the expansion of cancer research in Canada, and the success of the NCIC. In addition, there were many of the same problems that dogged American recruitment efforts: poor pay, a problematic grants system, and a sense that cancer research was a dead-end field for an ambitious young scientist. Thus, when the Americans came in as collaborators on the film that became Challenge, it raised some tricky problems for the Canadians. It was the first time the Americans had turned to Canada for a cancer educational film, but the fear was that a successful cancer recruitment film could increase the temptation for Canadian scientists to seek richer research pastures in the US. Thus, the paradox was that a Canadian gain in the field of cancer education could also be a loss for Canadian science.

The National Film Board of Canada 

Title Still from Challenge: Science Against Cancer
Title screen: Challenge: Science Against Cancer, 1950.
National Library of Medicine #8700851A

The NFB had different reasons for making the movie. The commissioning of the film in 1948 came at a difficult time for the board. Its first commissioner, John Grierson, had resigned in 1945, and there followed an unsettled period for the board. Under pressure from the government in Ottawa, the new commissioner, Ross McLean, cut staff. Critics on all sides of the political spectrum attacked the board—for some it was propaganda for the party in power, for others it was a lair of left-wing subversives, if not Communists. Then in 1945, Grierson and his secretary were linked to the spy circle revealed by the Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko. Consequently, the NFB became the object of several investigations, including one into allegations of Communist infiltration. The controversy, combined with reports of wasteful spending and pressure from the commercial film industry, which opposed a public film agency, eventually resulted in a number of changes. Ross McLean left the NFB in early 1950. Arthur Irwin was appointed replacement film commissioner. And there were sweeping changes in the structure of the NFB and a New National Film Act.

The meeting in which Dryer showed Dallas Johnson a Canadian script for a film about cancer was no chance event. It was part of the NFB’s attempts to rope in American funding.

As McLean struggled with these problems in 1948, the prospect of a contract with the Americans for the cancer film became welcome. Not only did it promise more money at a time of financial cutbacks, but it may also have helped to counter the perception of Communist infiltration and to revive the NFB’s hopes of an internationalist outlook for its documentaries. It also provided an opportunity for the NFB to develop a program designed to use film to encourage American public support for Canada, and (perhaps more importantly) another to develop international co-production efforts in which the NFB partnered with non-Canadian sponsoring organizations to make a movie. Thus, when it received the commission from the DNHW, the NFB saw an opportunity to reach out beyond Canada and attract Americans as co-producers. The meeting in which Dryer showed Dallas Johnson a Canadian script for a film about cancer was no chance event. It was part of the NFB’s attempts to rope in American funding.

A still showing the inside of a face where a lesion is
Still from Alerte: Science Contre Cancer, 1950. Animation of a lesion on the face.
National Library of Medicine #9918316187006676

The key to these attempts was the script. The NFB had begun work on a script or treatment soon after it received the DNHW commission in 1948. But this first script raised a tricky problem for the NFB. It was to be the bait to attract the Americans, but it also had to address the problem of Canadian scientists being tempted to work in the US, since the only funder at that point was the DNHW.  The two goals were an uneasy fit since Canadian concerns about recruitment would not appeal to the US, nor was the US interested in Canadian desires to produce two versions of the film, one in English (what became Challenge) and one in French (what became Alerte), which would use the same visuals as Challenge overlain with French narration and subtitles.

Until this point, the main person involved in the film was the NFB scriptwriter, Maurice Constant, directed by the board’s Deputy Commissioner, Ralph Foster. With the Americans on board, Foster appointed a producer (Guy Glover) and director (Morten Parker) from within the NFB, and they began to assemble a team to put the film into production. But first there was the problem of Constant’s script. It was Glover and Parker who now supervised the rewrite, and likely wrote some of the script themselves.

These figures and themes…changed constantly as the filmmakers sought to address the concerns of both sponsors and what they (the filmmakers) thought would work as a film.

Male scientist holding a beaker with boiling liquid
Still from Alerte: Science Contre Cancer, 1950. The tea-making scene used to illustrate the character of the scientist and their dedication to their work.
National Library of Medicine #9918316187006676

The first version of the script had leaned explicitly towards Canadian concerns, concluding with an appeal to its audience to support funding that would keep Canadian scientists from moving elsewhere. Despite fears that such an appeal might work against their efforts to recruit the Americans, the NFB had found a receptive audience in Dallas Johnson, and, indeed, the NCI since her efforts to raise funds from within the institute were successful. Soon after, Constant, Glover and Parker produced several new treatments and scripts that abandoned the appeal to keep Canadian scientists in the country and favored a more internationalist outlook. At the same time, the scriptwriters began to reshape some of the key symbolic figures within the film (the patient, the scientist and physician) and themes (the work of science, and the worlds of the body, cell, and cancer). These figures and themes would be central to the narrative of the film and its efforts to inspire young scientists into thinking of cancer as a research career. But they were highly malleable. They changed constantly as the filmmakers sought to address the concerns of both sponsors and what they (the filmmakers) thought would work as a film.

The use of such symbols and themes derived from the approach to filmmaking of the founder of the NFB, John Grierson, under whom both Glover and Parker had been appointed. For Grierson, the aim of documentary film was not to capture the mess of phenomena that paraded before a camera but to use the phenomena to reach a more abstract or generalizable reality. For Grierson this meant that in documentary filmmaking naturalistic representation had to be subordinated to symbolic expression. When applied to an educational film like Challenge, this approach involved deploying a variety of symbols to address the sponsors’ goals: the symbolic patient and scientist representative of these categories, the representation of the cell as a universe in miniature (with the viewer like a traveler in outer space passing constellations of the parts of the cell seemingly at great distance), the use of light and darkness to symbolize knowledge and ignorance, the rain to symbolize environmental dangers to the cell, among others. Such symbols aimed to represent the patient as respectful, obedient, and subject to science; the scientist as a hero, explorer, and ordinary man; the cell as a universe or outer space that evoked the wonder of the miniscule biological world and the huge scale of the cancer problem; and, in the case of the rain, the dangers of cancer in the environment.

There were thus tensions between what the scientific sponsors wanted and what the animators hoped to deliver, all complicated because the animators saw this film as much more than an engagement with science.

The Griersonian perspective might have influenced how the producer and director approached their commission, but animation techniques developed at the NFB in the 1940s were what allowed the filmmakers to conjure up the worlds of the body, cancer, and the cell so central to the film. The problem was that the emphasis on symbolic expression meant that for some scientists, Challenge strayed from the factual to the fantastical. For example, some of the representations of the cell-as-universe—intended to inspire young scientists with wonder and a sense of the enormous research opportunities opening up—bore little relation to how scientists depicted the cell and seemed to them to stray in other directions. To one critic, for example, they were “aesthetic vaporizings in the field of abstract art.” There were thus tensions between what the scientific sponsors wanted and what the animators hoped to deliver, all complicated because the animators saw this film as much more than an engagement with science. They also saw it as a commentary on other fields in the arts, such as Russian émigré artist Pavel Tchelichew’s so-called X-ray paintings. Tchelichew’s paintings were a visual inspiration for some animated sequences of the body and cell, and the animators were sometimes as interested in creating a conversation with the artist or his critics as with the scientists who sponsored them.

A microscopic unit of a cell
Still from Alerte: Science Contre Cancer, 1950. Part the animation sequence immediately preceding the part where a scientist walks into the cell which comes to tower over him. A visual illustration of the huge size of the cancer problem.
National Library of Medicine #9918316187006676

The Griersonian approach was also applied to the live-action sections of the film, where key symbols and themes developed on paper in the script—such as the scientist, the patient, and the work of science—were transformed into celluloid. Yet, the filmmakers struggled at times to create these symbols and themes. In part this was because of the often-limited acting skills of the many amateur actors they employed, and the dull visual palate of the film—lots of glassware and people in white coats. But it was also because of tensions within the symbolic figures themselves, for example between the idea of the scientist as hero and as ordinary man (sic). The scientist as hero sought to inspire young scientists; the scientist as ordinary man sought to show that—despite the reputation of cancer research as low-paid compared to industry—he (or she) could aspire to the lifestyle of his or her middle-class peers.

Finally, the Griersonian approach is evident in the filmmakers’ efforts to knit the life-action and animation together. The editors, the composer of the musical score, the writers of the narration and even the titling all were able to add their own interpretations to the visuals and to introduce their own symbols. The narration often abandoned literal description in favor of metaphorical allusions. The composer used a variety of aural symbols: allusions to the music of science fiction films accompanied the cell-as-universe sequences, for example, alongside musical imitations of events on screen or counterpoints to them. Even the ambient sound played a symbolic role, as when for example it sought to evoke the mechanical nature of some scientific work. Thus, the symbols so central to the argument of the film were not only products of the live-action and animation; they also were created through the editing, the music, the sound, and the narration.

Packaging and Promoting the Movie

The problem for the sponsors was that they did not believe that a film alone could do all they wanted of it. Audience responses could be unpredictable, and the information officers in the sponsoring agencies sought to manage them by creating a multimedia campaign that included other versions of the film and a filmstrip (see filmography) for different audiences, a book on cancer research to expand on themes in Challenge, and a teaching guide to help teachers use the film and the book in the classroom (see bibliography). Challenge was thus part of a broader media and educational package that the information officers in the sponsoring agencies hoped would shape audience reactions to the film.

A still of the title screen for Alerte: Science Contre Cancer a ete lu par Claude Dauphin.
Opening credits: Alerte: Science Contre Cancer, 1950.
National Library of Medicine #9918316187006676

The marketing of the movie began even before production had started, and it soon became clear to the information officers in the sponsoring agencies that promotion could not easily be separated from production. If they were to successfully market the movie, and the broader package of which it was a part, they wanted some say over what was in the film. Thus, the sponsors found themselves corresponding with the filmmakers on production issues, asking to review storyboards and scripts. At the same time, those on the production side also began to get involved in promotion. The boundary between promoting the film and determining what should be in it and how it should present its message was often blurred.

Promotional efforts peaked with US and Canadian premieres of Challenge and Alerte in 1950. These were intended as grand media events, and the information officers in the sponsoring agencies sought to enroll television, radio, newspapers, magazines and other media in promoting the movie. The problem for these officers was how to turn an educational and recruitment film into something newsworthy, and to this end they developed a detailed propaganda plan—“press handling,” as one information officer labeled it—that highlighted what was likely to appeal to different media, whom to contact, and what the media needed. The problem, however, was that because none of the other versions of the film had yet been made, and the information officers wanted to make a public splash, the media campaigns around Challenge increasingly broadened the intended audience for the film. In addition to Challenge’s target audiences of school and university science students, the media campaign now also sought to reach the general public, more properly the target of the other films in Challenge’s package—The Fight, Cancer, and The Outlaw Within.

Title screen still: Canada presents Cancer Directed by the National Film Board in cooperation with the Institute of Medical Films of the American Medical Colleges
Title Screen: Le Cancer, 1950.
National Library of Medicine #9918316187006676

Perhaps in part because of this last-minute stretching of the intended audience, the reception of the film after the premieres was not what its advocates wanted. While many reports praised the film, others were quite critical. Crucially, criticism came from within sponsoring organizations, and from colleagues—other information officers—who were supposed to promote the film. Some critics suggested that most audiences could not follow the film: it was pitched at too high a level for the average moviegoer (now also the target of the film), assumed too much even of its original intended audiences of high school and college students, and was better at dramatic presentation than in getting across a focused educational message. The problem facing its advocates was how to manage such criticism, especially as some within the sponsoring organizations seemed intent on branding the film a failure.

Then, to the surprise of all, The Fight was nominated for an Oscar. Suddenly, the questions over the success of the entire family of films (including Challenge) disappeared, and a warm glow settled over Challenge in the memories of those who sponsored and made it.

Consequently, after a brief flirtation with targeting Challenge at the general public, the film was retargeted at its original audience of high school and university science students, as was the French version of the film, Alerte, released at the same time. The other versions of the film—released in 1951—now filled the gap and aimed to attract general audiences: The Fight, a 20-minute version of the film, was aimed at a general theatrical audience; The Outlaw Within and Cancer, ten-minute versions in English and French respectively, were targeted at the NFB’s Canadian film circuits. Yet the problems with Challenge did not disappear. Thus, while the companion book (Grant, Challenge (Download PDF)) expanded on the themes in the film, the teachers drafted in to write the teaching guide for the film (NCI, Teaching Guide (Download PDF)) seemed at a loss as to what to do with it and focused most of their efforts on Grant’s book. For a while, such issues seemed to question the value of the huge effort invested in making a film for science students and gave credence to those critics within the sponsoring organizations who felt it a waste of money. Then, to the surprise of all, The Fight was nominated for an Oscar. Suddenly, the questions over the success of the entire family of films (including Challenge) disappeared, and a warm glow settled over Challenge in the memories of those who sponsored and made it.

Title screen: Produced by the National Film Board of Canada
Still from Challenge: Science Against Cancer, 1950. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada.
National Library of Medicine #9918316187006676

Conclusions

After its release, the life of the film was short, as was the case for many educational films. It was used in the classroom for perhaps a decade before other films and other agendas led to its abandonment. Those who made it and those who advocated for it in the sponsoring bodies moved on to other projects:  Foster, Johnson, and Gilchrist left their organizations before or shortly after the film’s release, while the team that made it broke up and moved to other projects within the board. For the NFB, The Fight’s Oscar nomination was the precursor to other Oscar successes by some of the filmmakers involved in Challenge, and the cell-as-universe animation came to form part of a genealogy that would eventually lead to Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

More broadly, the film tells us much about the postwar expansion of cancer research: the shortfall in scientists in the 1940s and the important, if undocumented, roles of information officers and filmmakers in the promotion of cancer research after World War II. It is a story of how two sponsors concerned about the shortage of scientists in cancer research came to collaborate to produce a recruitment film, how filmmakers sought to transform these concerns into something that would work as a film, and how advocates of the film within both sponsoring agencies sought to ensure its success as an educational and recruitment tool through a multimedia propaganda campaign. It is, finally, also a story of how representations of the scientist, the patient, the body and cell, and the work of science—malleable entities, whose meanings changed over time and between different stakeholders—were created and transformed.

David Cantor is an investigador (researcher) at the Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social (IDES), Buenos Aires Argentina and an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was for several years affiliated with the National Library of Medicine and also worked in the Office of History, National Institutes of Health. His extensive published research focuses on the history of medicine in the twentieth century, most recently the histories of cancer, stress and medical film. His most recent publication, Cancer, Research, and Educational Film at Midcentury: The Making of the Movie Challenge: Science Against Cancer is available open access.

Select Bibliography

Grant, Lester. The Challenge of Cancer: A Research Story That Involves the Secret of Life Itself. Bethesda MD: Federal Security Agency, US Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, 1950. (Download PDF)

National Cancer Institute (NCI). Meeting the Challenge of Cancer. (A Supplement to The Challenge of Cancer, by Lester Grant). US Public Health Service Publication no.419. Washington: US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Public Health Service, National Cancer Institute, 1955. (Download PDF)

———. A Teaching Guide to the Challenge of Cancer. Bethesda, MD.: Federal Security Agency, US Public Health Service, National Cancer Institute, 1950. (Download PDF)

Select Filmography

Parker, Morten, dir. Alerte: Science Contre Cancer.1950; National Film Board of Canada (in cooperation with the Medical Film Institute of the Association of American Medical Colleges) for the Department of National Health and Welfare, Canada, and the National Cancer Institute of the US Public Health Service, Federal Security Agency.

Parker, Morten, dir. Cancer. 1951; National Film Board of Canada (in cooperation with the Medical Film Institute of the Association of American Medical Colleges).

Parker, Morten, dir. Challenge: Science Against Cancer. 1950; National Film Board of Canada (in cooperation with the Medical Film Institute of the Association of American Medical Colleges) for the Department of National Health and Welfare, Canada, and the National Cancer Institute of the US Public Health Service, Federal Security Agency.

Parker, Morten, dir. The Fight: Science Against Cancer. 1951; National Film Board of Canada.

Parker, Morten, dir. The Outlaw Within. 1951; National Film Board of Canada (in cooperation with the Medical Film Institute of the Association of American Medical Colleges).

What We Know About Cancer (filmstrip). 1950; National Film Board of Canada for the National Cancer Institute of the US Public Health Service, Federal Security Agency.

 

One thought on “Challenge: Science Against Cancer or How to Make a Movie in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Share your thoughts...