A Better United States, c. 1937

Newsreel

Newsreel
Before television, newsreels were a source of current affairs and entertainment for millions of moviegoers.

In order to restore public confidence and hope during the Great Depression, the federal government created a short-lived agency, the U.S. Film Service. Frustrated with anti-New Deal propaganda and obstructionist Republicans in Congress (sound familiar?), Harry Hopkins, chief of the Works Progress Administration, invited commercial producers—“Hollywood,” in popular parlance—to make newsreels that would show mass audiences how workers formerly on relief were building a better United States.

In 1935, with an eye toward the 1936 presidential election, Hopkins invited forty-one firms to bid on a contract for thirty, 600-foot, that is 5-minute, films. Pathé News won the contract with a bid of $4,280 a reel and a promise to include one WPA story each month in its national newsreel.

Colonial Park (now Jackie Robinson Park)

Colonial Park (now Jackie Robinson Park)
African American workers construct Colonial Park pool and bathhouse in Harlem in 1937. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.

It was a challenge to keep to the grueling production schedule. And there was backlash from the Republican National Committee, which charged that these short films would be nothing but “propaganda . . . paid out of relief funds.” But Pathé’s general manager, Jack S. Connolly, countered that the huge array of activities of the WPA would generate enough “straight news for unprejudiced releases.”

(You can judge for yourself by watching these newsreels on the Living New Deal website. The trove of forty-seven films gleaned from the National Archives includes A Better West Virginia,  A Better Chicago, and A Better New Jersey. Some are longer, such as We Work Again, a film about African Americans, and Work Pays America, a survey of WPA accomplishments.)

School Lunch Program

School Lunch Program
A woman makes school lunches in an industrial kitchen. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archive

A Better New York City is in some ways an anomaly in the “A Better” series. Instead of breadlines and beggars the newsreel opens with billowing clouds that part to reveal Manhattan Island; the music swells; the skyline glimmers in the sunshine; and the narrator states that this is, “a great city, the financial, commercial capital of the entire world.” The unfolding panorama features Central Park (restored and improved with CWA and WPA funds and labor) and the Triboro Bridge (built with federal money). Streets, sidewalks, and buildings come into view as the narrator explains the program that “removed residents from relief rolls” and made New York a better city.

Like every newsreel in the “A Better” series, the New York City film highlights work and workers—blue and white collar, unskilled and skilled, men and women, whites and people of color. Manual labor, executed by men with weathered faces, strong hands, and brawny bodies, is valorized.

Caretaker

Caretaker
An African American caretaker and her young charges. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.

They build airports, bulkheads, and highways, and repair streets, sewers, and public buildings. The film heralds public swimming pools and bathhouses the New Deal built in this city.

For all the good that was done here, the New Deal tolerated racial segregation, and the newsreel disseminates a message of racial difference that is consistent across the “A Better” series.

Another consistent message is how the New Deal benefited children. The WPA operated twenty daycare centers in New York City for the children of needy or working mothers. In A Better New York City, youngsters are clean, heathy, and amply fed. They don’t work. Rather, they play in supervised sites such as play streets, parks, playgrounds, pools, day camps, nursery schools, and day care centers and enjoy a school lunch program, substantiating the narrator’s praise “In the knowledge that we are providing healthy bodies in sound minds for our future citizens . . .”  

Play Street

Play Street
Healthy children are shown playing in supervised areas. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.

As we look back to find a way forward, we should assess the imperfections of the New Deal along with its successes. African Americans were the hardest hit by the Depression, and yet they are underrepresented in A Better New York City just as they were underserved by New Deal programs.

Still, the WPA films remind us of the transformative power of the state to improve our wellbeing—and the power of moving images to craft political narratives.

Marta Gutman is professor at the City College of New York and a founding editor of PLATFORM, https://www.platformspace.net where a version of this article originally appeared. [email protected]

Rediscovering Arthur Rothstein’s “Photo Stories”

Families were displaced by the Dust Bowl

Forced to move by drought, North Dakota, 1936
Families were displaced by the Dust Bowl
Photo Credit: Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

My dad, Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) was the first photographer hired by the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal agency that pioneered the use of photographs and “photo stories” to build public and political support for federal relief programs.

Starting in 1935, the Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration– “FSA,” for short–compiled an unprecedented, nationwide photographic survey of life in Depression-wracked America.

During Dad’s nearly seven years working for the FSA he refined the art of visual storytelling, producing hundreds of in-depth photo essays documenting the need for government assistance and the successful New Deal relief programs created in response.

FSA photos put a human face on problems such as “drought” and “failing farms” targeted by New Deal programs.

Dust threatens to engulf a home. Liberal, Kansas, 1936
FSA photos put a human face on problems such as “drought” and “failing farms” targeted by New Deal programs.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

Dad was fiercely patriotic. His parents, Jews displaced from Eastern Europe by pogroms, had found both refuge and opportunity in America. He was drawn to stories of migrants and the dispossessed that, through no fault of their own, needed government help. He brought a powerful sense of purpose to his New Deal assignments.

Dad’s boss at the FSA, Roy Stryker, shared Dad’s sense of purpose. Stryker believed that photography could serve as a tool to advance social justice. He thought that words with pictures provided irrefutable evidence of the need for federal assistance to struggling Americans. More than a dozen FSA photographers would eventually contribute images to Stryker’s extensive visual record of American life during the Depression and the early years of World War II. That collection, preserved at the Library of Congress, includes iconic images my Dad took as a young FSA photographer. His photographs of the devastation wrought by the drought and Dust Bowl remain the most famous of his career.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein for Look magazine

Eddie Mitchell, Birmingham, Alabama
Photo by Arthur Rothstein for Look magazine
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

The values my father inherited from his immigrant parents, reinforced by his New Deal tenure under Roy Stryker, can be seen in the work Dad created throughout his 50-year career as a photojournalist and documentary photographer.

After serving as a photographer in the US Army Signal Corps during WW II, and as chief photographer for a United Nations relief agency in China after the war, Dad spent 35 years as director of photography at the popular Look and Parade magazines. One of Dad’s first and most memorable stories for Look depicted the daily indignities of a young black man living in the segregated South.

Dad’s New Deal portfolio still stands out as surprisingly relevant. My father’s images from nearly 80 years past remind us that we still live among the dispossessed—those denied justice and made vulnerable by forces beyond their control—and that government has a responsibility to shield and support those who need a leg up.

 
Tenant farmer, Tennessee, 1937

Tenant farmer, Tennessee, 1937
The collapse of the rural economy displaced farmers from their land.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection