Oscars Flashback: Jacques Cousteau's 'The Silent World' Won Best Documentary Feature in 1957

SILENT WORLD, Jacques Cousteau, 1956
Courtesy Everett Collection

Jacques Cousteau in his documentary 'The Silent World.'

Audiences couldn't get enough of the film, which featured 20-foot sharks, octopuses, fluorescent fish, porpoises and manta rays cavorting in turquoise waters amid shadowy shipwrecks and grottos.

While eye-popping images of ocean life are now commonplace — see the current Oscar-contending documentary My Octopus Teacher — when diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau released his documentary The Silent World in 1956, they were virtually unknown.

The color film, co-directed by Cousteau, then 45, and Louis Malle, then 24, and edited from footage taken from excursions on Cousteau's trusty research vessel Calypso, revealed the strange majesty of ocean life. Audiences couldn't get enough of 20-foot sharks, octopuses, fluorescent fish, porpoises and manta rays cavorting in turquoise waters amid shadowy shipwrecks and grottos.

The dazzling sights electrified the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, where the film won the Palme d'Or — the only doc to earn the honor until 2004, when Fahrenheit 9/11 took the top prize.

It was released in the U.S. by Columbia Pictures on Sept. 24, 1956, and earned $3 million at the box office ($29 million today). And on March 27, 1957, it won the Academy Award for best documentary feature. Cousteau — who also co-invented the Aqua-Lung used in scuba diving and discovered dolphins' use of echolocation — won two more Oscars for his docs and hosted from 1966 to 1976 the ABC show The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which made him a household name in America.

He died in Paris of a heart attack in 1997, two weeks after his 87th birthday.

This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.