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The Real Deal

How the government accidentally funded art and journalism.




When Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for president in 1932 he promised to attack America's economic woes through "bold, persistent experimentation," and a fascinating new program from the National Archives shows how that experimentation found its way onto movie screens. "For a Better America: The New Deal on Film," which commemorates the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt's economic recovery legislation, will be presented in three segments at Columbia College on April 16. The offerings range from The Road Is Open Again (1933, 5 minutes), a Warner Brothers musical in which Dick Powell serenades the ghosts of presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Wilson, to We Work Again (1937, 16 minutes), a documentary by the Works Progress Administration with footage of the Federal Theatre Project's all-black production of Macbeth, to The Columbia (released 1949, 30 minutes), a promotional film for the Bonneville Power Administration with songs that had been written for it years earlier by Woody Guthrie. But the most rewarding segment is the third one, which focuses on documentary maker Pare Lorentz and his brief, controversial tenure as head of the national film service, from 1938 to 1940.

Son of a West Virginia publisher, Lorentz had already established himself as a writer and film critic when The Roosevelt Year: 1933, his photographic book documenting the social dislocations of the Depression, won him an assignment from the Resettlement Administration to make a movie about the Dust Bowl. To the RA's surprise, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936, 29 minutes) became a modest hit, and Lorentz's follow-up, The River (1938, 32 minutes), was hailed by audiences and critics alike. The next year Roosevelt named Lorentz director of the new U.S. Film Service, which would coordinate all filmmaking activities of the federal government. Lorentz had big ideas for the service: he wanted to produce features that could compete on their merits in the commercial marketplace. But his ambitions spooked the Hollywood moguls, who resented competition from the government, and angered congressional conservatives, who called Lorentz the president's propagandist.

Lorentz wasn't the first New Deal filmmaker to show a little creativity—the charming WPA short Hands (1934, five minutes), which screens during the first segment, uses only close-ups of people's hands to make its point—but there was no precedent for the level of artistry he brought to The Plow That Broke the Plains. The movie tells the story of the Great Plains: their settlement in the late 1800s, the overgrazing and overplanting that eroded the land in the early 1900s, and finally the ongoing drought, which was driving destitute families west. Lorentz captures the drama of the wide-open spaces as he notes the spread of cattle across the plains, and skillfully integrates Virgil Thomson's stirring score with the film's movement. The visual storytelling is simple but powerful: the boom in wheat sales during World War I and the subsequent bust become images of ghostly grain threshers running at night, a jazz drummer, a stock ticker crashing to the floor—then a cow's skull resting on parched earth, a line of plows standing idle.

Though Lorentz had wanted his movie shown in theaters, he was distrusted by the Hollywood studios, which at that time controlled the large theater chains. As a critic in 1930, Lorentz had collaborated with a colleague to publish Censored: The Private Life of the Movies, which investigated the studios' self-censorship. Later, when Lorentz was looking for stock footage to use in The Plow That Broke the Plains, he found himself turned away by the major studios and had to rely on his friend King Vidor to intervene. Vidor mustered support for the finished movie among such directors as Rouben Mamoulian and Lewis Milestone, and it enjoyed a triumphant premiere in Washington. But distributors weren't interested; one told the New York Times, "When the government makes it, it automatically becomes a propaganda film." Lorentz arranged for independent screenings in a number of cities, and the film was eventually shown in about 3,000 theaters.

The RA, now the Farm Security Administration, gave Lorentz a more substantial budget for The River, which was conceived as a tour of the Mississippi that would begin in the northern tributaries and end at the Gulf of Mexico. Lorentz began shooting in the fall of 1936, with two crews that eventually converged and traveled downriver to New Orleans. But in January 1937, after the initial shoot, flooding devastated the river valley, and Lorentz called his cameramen back to document the real-life drama. Working long hours, they traveled back up the Mississippi and the Ohio to record the efforts of relief workers, and the footage provided an electrifying climax to the film. Again Lorentz shapes the story as a conservationist parable, showing how rapacious timber and cotton industries wore down the land, and a late sequence records the grim lives of tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the south, the voice-over narrator explaining that "poor land makes poor people."

The River was so highly acclaimed that Lorentz finally got a commercial distributor, Paramount Pictures, and it was named best short documentary at the Venice film festival, beating out Leni Riefenstahl's Olympiad. New Deal opponents had attacked the financing of Lorentz's films because both the RA and the FSA were relief organizations, so President Roosevelt moved to create a film office that would operate as part of the education department. With Lorentz installed as director, the U.S. Film Office produced two other strong documentaries, also included in the third segment of this touring program. Power and the Land (1940, 39 minutes), by Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, warmly observes the daily life of an Ohio farm family before and after their home is wired by the Rural Electrification Administration. And The Land (1942, 45 minutes), by documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), prods the conscience with its haunting studies of migrant workers camping at roadsides and toiling in fields.

But the Film Service's most ambitious project was The Fight for Life (1940, 70 minutes), a drama that featured both nonactors and pros in an examination of the problem of infant mortality. (It screens as part of the first segment.) Lorentz sent actors Myron McCormick, Storrs Haynes, and Will Geer (later Grandpa on The Waltons) to train for six weeks as clinicians at the Chicago Maternity Ward, an innovative program that provided low-cost home births (it was later the subject of Kartemquin Films' The Chicago Maternity Center Story). Lorentz's skill at writing voice-over narration doesn't translate to dialogue, and The Fight for Life is dramatically inert, devoid of conflict or insight. But as in The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains, the locations are revelatory—in this case, block after block of west-side slums, with ragged children playing in junkyards and homeless people pawing through garbage for food.

In his book Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film, Robert L. Snyder carefully details the clashing agendas of congressmen, the executive branch, and the movie industry in early 1940 as the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees debated whether to continue funding the film service. The organization was doomed politically because it was still using funds technically earmarked for relief to employ motion picture professionals who weren't covered by the WPA. But at least one congressional opponent also complained publicly about The Fight for Life, asking Lorentz if its scenes of Chicagoans eating from the garbage had been staged. Propaganda was a convenient label for Lorentz's films, yet in practice they seemed to function more as photographic journalism, confronting politicians and the public alike with the severity of the country's problems. That would change: during World War II the federal government farmed out its filmmaking to Hollywood producers, who gave them all the propaganda they would ever need.v

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