Pare Lorenz and the U.S. Film Service Take on America’s Problems


Documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz headed the U.S. Film Service. Credit, Wikipedia.

Highlighting the nation’s problems during the Great Depression—and the federal government’s responses to those problems—was the job of the United States Film Service, established in 1938 as part of the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The Service’s inspiration was Pare Lorentz, a pioneer in the production of documentary films. Lorentz, a native of West Virginia, directed the U.S. Film Service from 1938 until 1940.

Lorentz’s first film, The Plow That Broke the Plains, about the Dust Bowl, was completed for the federal government in 1936. Hired to head the Film Service, Lorentz soon added The River, to his film credits. Completed in 1938 under the FSA, The River dealt with the disastrous floods along the Mississippi River and construction of Norris and Wheeler Dams.

The Plow That Broke the Plains

The Plow That Broke the Plains
This classic film about the Dust Bowl has been one of the most widely studied documentaries. It was the first film to be placed in Congressional archives. Photo by Arthur Rothstein. Credit: Library of Congress.

Both films employed forceful narration and a dramatic soundtrack to expose how over-farming and soil erosion contributed to natural disasters and the New Deal’s response in the form of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Soil Conservation Service, Civilian Conservation Corps and other conservation initiatives. Lorentz used this tried-and-true style to direct or supervise three more documentary films for the Film Service.

The Fight for Life (1940), about a community health program to reduce maternal mortality, utilized professional actors. (Will Geer would later portray “Grandpa” in The Walton’s). It concludes with a tense scene in which a new mother pleads, “You won’t let me die, will you doctor?” (No spoilers here!)

Film Poster for "The River," directed by Lorentz and produced by the FSA.

Film Poster for "The River," directed by Lorentz and produced by the FSA.
The companion book to The River was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Credit, NARA.

The excellent, tightly focused Power and the Land (1940) follows a farming family as they go about their daily chores, pre- and post the Rural Electrification Administration that transformed remote areas of the country—no more oil lamps, just a flip of the switch!

The Land (1949) explores farming problems of the 1930s. It features a segment on Latino migrant workers and music by the National Youth Administration, but the narration is dull and the film falls flat.

The U.S. Film Service ended in the same way many other New Deal programs ended—it was defunded by national defense distractions and an increasingly hostile Congress.

After the New Deal, Lorentz created training films during World War II, worked as a film consultant and produced two notable documentaries: Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1946) and Rural Co-op (1947), but struggled to raise money for other film projects. He died in 1992 at age 86.  

His legacy lives on, aided by the Pare Lorentz Center at the FDR Presidential Library & Museum and the IDA Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund, which supports independent films about society’s most pressing problems.

Great Mississippi Flood, Arkansas City, Arkansas, 1927

Great Mississippi Flood, Arkansas City, Arkansas, 1927
Poor farming and timber practices led to one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. New Deal conservation efforts were featured in Lorentz’s films. Credit, NOAA.

Were Lorentz alive today—and running a U.S. Film Service—one could expect to see documentaries about such problems as global warming, ocean pollution, wildfires and America’s growing economic inequality playing at local movie theaters. Lorentz believed in the power of film to enlighten the electorate and inspire social change. (He also felt that Hollywood was spending too much time on the frivolous).

Brent McKee is a Living New Deal Research Associate (the first, in fact!) and core member of the LND team. He lives in West Virginia

The New Deal at the Movies

The Plow that Broke the Plains, 1936

The Plow that Broke the Plains, 1936
The Plow That Broke the Plains, about the Dust Bowl, was the first U.S. Government-sponsored documentary.

Nothing brings to life the countless ways the New Deal saved millions from bleak poverty while catapulting the nation into the 20th century like the movies its agencies produced.

The Living New Deal’s Berkeley Associate John Elrick compiled a list of one hundred films at San Francisco’s Prelinger Archives, which helped Maryland Associate Brent McKee locate and digitize many held by the National Archives film division in College Park, Maryland. Then Chris Carlsson, a San Francisco historian and writer, entered the films into the Internet Archives where anyone can access them.

A few of the New Deal documentaries such as The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains directed by Pare Lorentz with musical scores by Virgil Thompson, are justifiably famous and classroom fare, but most New Deal films were more amateurish, using stock footage and martial music that has nothing to do with the visuals or narration, and little, if any, plot. Nonetheless, they provide a wealth of historical information including typical work days and camp life of CCC enrollees; how farm-to-market roads, enormous dams, and rural electrification improved the lives of farmers and stimulated productivity; productions by the Federal Theatre Project, which hired and entertained millions of Americans; and an array of public works projects and social programs. For example, Making Aviation Safer for America shows how the hundreds of municipal airports built by the WPA laid the foundation for the commercial airline industry, while stimulating local economies.

The River, 1938

The River, 1938
This film about flooding on the Mississippi was distributed by the Farm Security Administration

While most workers shown in the films are white, We Work Again displays the myriad skilled and unskilled jobs that the WPA provided African-Americans, whose unemployment rate during the Great Depression far exceeded the nation’s rate of 25 percent. Other movies show racially integrated WPA-run nursery schools and CCC camps.

A 1935 newsreel produced by Paramount Pictures —Three Billions to Use — opens with an emphatic address by WPA chief Harry Hopkins, insistent that the U.S. must find its own unique way to put its citizens to work to give them a decent standard of living. Hopkins uses the word decent three times in just two minutes, reiterating what Labor Secretary France Perkins recalled as Franklin Roosevelt’s self-imposed moral responsibility to improve the lives of ordinary Americans: “’Decent’ was the word he (FDR) often used to express what he meant by a proper, adequate, and intelligent way of living.”

The ephemeral movies demonstrate how the Roosevelt administration used an activist government to promote common decency. Unfortunately, many of the films have suffered from deterioration as well as from sequential copying to videotape and digital media. The Living New Deal is prioritizing films for repair so that we can make high-quality movies available to scholars, documentarians, and all interested in watching the New Deal in action. Donations for this work are most welcome!

 

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.