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Grierson, Ruby (1904-1940)


Main image of Grierson, Ruby (1904-1940)

Ruby Grierson was the sister of John Grierson, founder of the 1930s British Documentary Movement. Born in Scotland in 1904, she trained as a teacher but became involved with the documentarists when she worked as an uncredited assistant on the seminal social documentary Housing Problems (d. Arthur Elton/Edgar Anstey, 1935). Her ability to put the working-class women interviewees at ease has since been credited by her fellow crew members for making the film the remarkable social document it is.

Her first directing effort was London Wakes Up (1936), made for the Strand Film Company as part of a series about life in London. While the other films in the series were criticised for their nondescript treatment of people, Grierson's film was singled out for her warm observations of Londoners. At this time Paul Rotha was a producer at Strand and his socially conscious style of filmmaking was perfectly suited to Grierson's way of working.

She made two more films with Rotha, Today and Tomorrow (1936) and Today we Live (1937), both about the work of the National Council of Social Service. Before leaving Strand, she made two films for their zoological series, Animal Kingdom - The Zoo and You (1938) and Animals on Guard (1938). Joining the Realist Film Unit in 1939, Grierson directed Cargo for Ardrossan (1939), generally regarded as her least successful film. Nevertheless, its unpretentious style and unsentimental direction found favour among some contemporary critics.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Grierson, like many of her contemporaries, began making films for the war effort. Her first four productions were 'home front' propaganda films made for the Ministry of Food: Choose Cheese, Green Food for Health, Six Foods for Fitness and What's for Dinner? (all 1940) which showed audiences how to get the most out of home grown foods and government rations. Using comedy to great effect, Grierson made what could have been very dull subjects entertaining.

They Also Serve (1940), another home front propaganda film, showed the importance to the war effort of the everyday work of the British housewife. Tragically, this was to be Grierson's final film. While making a film about the evacuation of children to Canada in 1940, the liner she was travelling on was torpedoed and Grierson was killed. Her humanity for her subjects and enthusiasm for the pure documentary style was a great loss to the documentary movement.

Sarah Easen

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of They Also Serve (1940)They Also Serve (1940)

An average British housewife does her bit for the war effort

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Thumbnail image of Grierson, John (1898-1972)Grierson, John (1898-1972)

Producer, Director, Executive