Pare Lorentz (1905-1992)

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Pare Lorentz was a movie critic, a pioneer in the production of documentary films, and the director of the U.S. Film Service, 1938-1940. He was described as an “enthusiastic New Deal Democrat” [1] and someone “who believed that film holds enormous potential for advancing social justice and education” [2].

Leonard MacTaggart Lorentz was born on December 11, 1905 in Clarksburg, West Virginia, to Pare and Alma Lorentz (in his twenties Leonard would adopt his father’s name). Lorentz graduated from Buckhannon High School (now known as Buckhannon-Upshur High School) in 1922 and then attended classes at West Virginia Wesleyan University and West Virginia University. He did not graduate from either, instead heading off to New York City to pursue a writing career [3].

With energy and persistence—and a little resume embellishment [4]—Pare Lorentz made his way into the professional writing world, first at a small trade publication, The Edison Sales Builder, and then onto prominent publications like the New York Evening Journal, Vanity Fair, and McCall’s. He quickly gained notoriety as a film critic, but, “His criticism was not always well received and it may be said that his directness and honesty got him fired almost as often as he was hired” [5]. Lorentz seems to have had a penchant for getting under the skin of the very wealthy, including Hollywood executives, Nelson Rockefeller, and William Randolph Hearst [6].

While working at Vanity Fair, Lorentz became interested in using photography and motion pictures to highlight the problems of Depression-era America. “Shortly after Mr. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, I went about [New York City] trying to get money to make a newsreel of the tragic events that were going on in our country, including the foreclosure of homes and dispossession of farms, the failure of banks, and the migrants from both industry and farms riding the freight trains west” [7]. Lorentz could not secure enough funds for a film, but he was able to publish a book in 1934, The Roosevelt Year: A Photographic Record, highlighting the Great Depression’s turmoil, as well as the hope and relief that the New Deal ushered in [8].

The Roosevelt Year consisted of 197 pages of photographs and commentaries; it was noticed by other writers and opened the door to a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace in 1935. Wallace sent Lorentz to speak with Rexford Tugwell, head of the newly-created Resettlement Administration, and Tugwell was very receptive: “Tugwell was so enthusiastic that he suggested that we make eighteen movies… I thought we’d better make one first and see how it went before we scheduled more” [9]. This exchange highlights the difference between New Deal administrators, who were more interested in the production of short educational films, and Lorentz, who was emphatic about creating longer films (30-60 minutes) that gave room for dramatic tone and narration.

Working for the Resettlement Administration, Farm Security Administration, and U.S. Film Service (which he directed), Lorentz made three memorable films that have had a lasting impact on the history of the 1930s and on documentary film-making– The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), The River (1938), and The Fight For Life (1940). These films addressed the great problems of the day, such as soil erosion, drought and poverty, and the New Deal’s response. Far from dry government documentaries, Lorentz’s films featured inspirational music, provocative narration, and sincere anger over misuse the nation’s land. (For more information, see our summary for the U.S. Film Service.)

After the New Deal, Lorentz created training films during World War II, worked as a film consultant and produced two more notable documentaries: Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1946) [10] and Rural Co-op (1947). Sadly, he was not able to obtain funding for other film projects. Yet, his legacy lives on, aided by the Pare Lorentz Center at the FDR Presidential Library & Museum and the Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund, administered by the International Documentary Association [11].

Pare Lorentz died on March 4, 1992, at the age of 86. He was survived by his second wife Elizabeth, son Pare Lorentz, Jr., daughter Matilda Lorentz Grey, and two grandchildren [12].


(1) Robert L. Snyder, Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film, Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 1968, p. 31.  (2) “The Pare Lorentz Center,” The Pare Lorentz Center at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library (accessed November 15, 2021).  (3) Pare Lorentz, FDR’s Moviemaker: Memoirs and Scripts, Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1992, pp. 4-16.  (4) Ibid., p. 10-12.  (5) “Biography of Pare Lorentz,” The Pare Lorentz Center at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library (accessed November 15, 2021).  (6) For example, see previous note.  (7) Note 3, p. 28.  (8) Pare Lorentz, The Roosevelt Year: A Photographic Record, New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1934.  (9) Note 3, pp. 35-37.  (10) A part of this film can be viewed at “Nuremberg: It’s Lesson for Today,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (accessed November 15, 2021).  (11) See note 2; and also “Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund,” International Documentary Association (accessed November 15, 2021), and “International Documentary Association Awards $115,000 to Seven Films Through Pare Lorentz Fund,” Variety, January 26, 2021 (accessed November 15, 2021). (12) See, e.g., “Filmmaker Pare Lorentz; created ‘The River’ in ‘30s,” Associated Press, in the Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1992, p. 104.

Pare Lorentz
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