United States Film Service (1938)

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The U.S. Film Service was created by Lowell Mellett, executive director of the National Emergency Council, on August 13, 1938. That same day, Mellett had received a letter from President Roosevelt expressing FDR’s desire for such an agency [1]. The mission of the Film Service was to coordinate motion picture activities for the federal government; establish a national film library; set minimum standards for future government films; examine scripts for prospective films; give advice to other movie-making entities (public and private); and directly produce a small number of films in conjunction with other federal agencies [2].

The inspiration behind the Film Service was Pare Lorentz’s two well-received documentaries, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938) [3]. Lorentz’s films—produced under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration—enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success. They highlighted national environmental problems, such as soil erosion, deforestation, droughts and floods, and the federal government’s response through the Soil Conservation Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps, Tennessee Valley Authority and other New Deal programs.

FDR had received advance showings of both films by Lorentz. After a White House showing of The Plow That Broke the Plains, the president “was brimming over with enthusiasm, and had a long talk with Lorentz, praising him for his work”; after watching The River at his home in Hyde Park, FDR said, “That’s a grand movie. What can I do to help?” [4]. Thus was born the Film Service, with 37-year-old Pare Lorentz as its director and the National Emergency Council as the parent agency (the Film Service would later be moved to the Office of Education, Federal Security Agency).

Funding for the general operations of the Film Service came from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) (this funding arrangement would come back to haunt the Film Service – more on that below). On a modest budget of a few hundred thousand dollars and with just sixty-eight employees, the Film Service accomplished much, including continued distribution of The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, which were widely shown in commercial movie theaters; publication of several reference and educational items (for example, an inventory of all films the federal government had created, 1911 to 1938); film advice to other federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Prisons, the Social Security Board, and the Forest Service; technical consultation for non-U.S. government entities, such as the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Columbia Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Standard Oil; and aid to educational institutions, such as the New School for Social Research and Ohio State University [5].

The Film Service produced three documentaries – The Fight For Life (1940), about the problems of  maternal mortality and childhood poverty; Power and the Land (1940), about farms, pre and post-electrification; and The Land (1941) (completed under the Agricultural Adjustment Administration), about farming issues and migrant workers during the 1930s [6].

Despite the high quality of its work, the Film Service was criticized by conservatives for making what they considered to be New Deal propaganda. U.S. Senator Kenneth McKellar, a conservative Democrat from Tennessee, accused the Film Service of misusing WPA funds, declaring during a 1940 budget hearing that the law pertaining to the proper use of WPA funds had no provision for making motion pictures [7].

Hollywood executives also expressed their displeasure with competition from the Film Service, even though Hollywood was not significantly involved in making documentaries. Floyd Crosby, an Academy Award and Golden Globe-winning cinematographer who had worked with Lorentz, claimed, “The Film Service was closed down largely because Hollywood was becoming worried about the fact that the government was making good pictures, and brought a good deal of pressure to bear” [8].

Congress refused to appropriate money for the Film Service and disallowed its use of relief funds, which ended the agency’s work by June 30, 1940. Short-lived as it was, the Film Service showed that the federal government could produce dramatic films that highlighted environmental and socio-economic problems in a way that was both popular and educational.

(For more information, see our biography of Pare Lorentz.)


(1) See, e.g., Robert L. Snyder, Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, pp. 204-208.  (2) Ibid.  (3) These films can be viewed on YouTube, for example, at The Plow That Broke the Plains (National Archives) and The River (FDR Library) (accessed October 23, 2021. (4)See note 1, pp. 39 and 64.  (5) Report of the Executive Director of the National Emergency Council to the President, Calendar Year 1938, Washington, DC, January 1939, pp. 7-9 (available at Hathitrust, accessed October 23, 2021).  (6) These films can be viewed YouTube, for exampleThe Fight For Life and Power and the Land (PublicResourceOrg), and at Internet Archive, The Land (accessed October 24, 2021).  (7) Hearings Before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, United States Senate, Seventy-Sixth Congress, Third Session onH.R. 9007, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940, p. 229 (Google Books, accessed October 24, 2021).  (8) Note 1, p. 173.

United States Film Service
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