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The Poetics and Politics of Nonfiction: Documentary Film - Labor-Left Documentaries, New Deal Documentaries, Sponsored Documentaries

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The document is a basis, and the document transfigured is the ultimate work of art in the cinema.

—Harry Alan Potamkin, “Movie: New York Notes,” Close-Up 7, no. 4 (October 1930), p. 250

In today’s troubled times, the documentary film has come into its own; it meets an urgent need for a medium of mass education and finds a highly receptive audience eager for the information, instruction, or propaganda it presents. Time, spirit and technique are well matched: the documentary film is on the march.

Lewis Jacobs, “Documentary Film Advances,” Direction 3, no. 2 (February 1940), p. 14

In the ten years between the above remarks, the term documentary for the first time gained wide currency among filmmakers, critics, and cultural commentators in America as films on diverse topics, produced under various circumstances, came to be thought of as kindred works constituting a vital development in the history of the medium. In 1930, Potamkin projected a future cinema born of experimentation with the filmic image as document; by the end of the decade, Jacobs was able to speak confidently of a full-fledged genre, the maturation and social relevance of which seemed amply evident. In the interim, a new generation of American filmmakers acquired professional identities as practicing “documentarists,” “documentalists,” or “documentarians.” In 1938 the New School for Social Research in New York pioneered a course in documentary film, featuring screenings and lectures by leaders in the field. After introducing new British documentaries to American audiences in 1937, the Museum of Modern Art mounted international retrospectives of progressively wider scope in 1938 and 1939, with the last event timed to attract educators and students during the Christmas holidays. Through its circulating film library, the museum then proceeded to distribute programs on the history and art of documentary cinema to colleges, museums, and film-appreciation groups around the country. Government agencies, educational and philanthropic foundations, and blue-ribbon commissions now explored the civic function of work in this vein. Documentary thus emerged in the 1930s not simply as a widely recognized mode of film practice but as a conceptual category through which discussions concerning the history, aesthetics, and social value of cinema advanced.

Yet for all this talk and activity, there was little consensus on the precise boundaries or central characteristics of documentary as a genre. Was documentary fundamentally reportage, propaganda, or art? Did it require the application of specific techniques, or was it more like a general approach, an attitude, a perspective? Were certain subjects more appropriate to documentary treatment than others? 1 Capsule definitions struck a similar note—"the creative treatment of actuality" (John Grierson), “the dramatization of facts” (Richard Griffith), “an emotional presentation of facts” (Joris Ivens)—yet few commentators were prepared to explain what principles of inclusion or exclusion followed from these general descriptions. 2 In the pages of the New York Times in 1938, critic Frank S. Nugent compiled a list of common definitions of documentary, concocted a new one of his own (a film “which is—or successfully creates the illusion of being—an authentic representation of fact”), and then acknowledged what a careful reader had likely already concluded: “The trouble with all these definitions is that it is child’s play to blast any one of them sky high.”

On two related points, however, there was general agreement. First, documentaries were distinguished from more prosaic forms of nonfiction (informational or instructional films, newsreels, travelogues) by greater formal ambition and higher social purpose. Second, measured against the fictional cinema of Hollywood, documentary possessed a privileged relation to contemporary social and political events. In standard accounts of the history of the genre, distinctions of this kind are commonly ascribed to Grierson, founder of the British documentary school, dating back to his critical appropriation of the French term documentaire in a review of Robert Flaherty’s MOANA in 1926. But Grierson’s use of the term on that occasion was unexceptional: the “documentary value” of Moana’s depiction of daily life in Polynesia, Grierson proposed, was secondary to a “poetic feeling for natural elements” emerging from Flaherty’s “mastery of cinematic technique.” 4 Only later, in a series of essays written in the early 1930s, did Grierson recast his notion of documentary (a noun now, not an adjective) to encompass this poetic dimension, proposing an elevated standard for “documentary proper” measured by qualities of observation and organization lacking in lesser works. 5 By this time, however, Grierson was simply one among several critics who—encouraged by the varied experiments of Flaherty, Dziga Vertov, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Walter Ruttmann in the 1920s—were searching for ways to account for, and promote, the particular perceptual effects, aesthetic power, and social impact of emergent documentary forms.

In February 1930, for example, Potamkin, an American critic steeped in the European “art” cinema of the 1920s who was seeking to ground film aesthetics in political terms, advised amateur moviemakers in America that “the film of montage and document offered fundamental, manifold, and independent opportunities,” including “untried possibilities in the simplest relations of motion in familiar subjects.” Two months later, inspired by Ruttmann’s BERLIN , SYMPHONY OF A BIG CITY (1927), Potamkin declared documentary “the wholesome basis for the new cinema.” 6 Concurrently, L. Saalchutz, author of a brief treatise on motion pictures in the international film journal Close Up, described documentary as “the most exacting branch of constructive cinema” and “the ideal training ground for young producers.” 7 Noting that such a cinema had inspired a wide range of contemporary artists, French critic and filmmaker Jean Dréville argued in 1930 that the concept of documentary encompassed the capacity of the medium to dissect the world and enhance the moral quality of objects represented on the screen. Through documentary practices, Dréville proposed, nothing less than “the soul of cinema” was revealed. 8 During the decade to follow, the idea that documentary filmmaking was a poetic activity emerged as a recurring critical theme: the force of cinematic composition, of patterns of light and movement, and of montage rhythms and juxtapositions was widely recognized as central to documentary forms. For American critics and budding documentarists on the Left, the work of Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov was especially influential: here was a cinema that promised, through the assemblage of shots filmed without staging, a creative role for a committed participant in the contemporary political scene. Filmmakers thus could approach documentary work as a dynamic, experimental process through which filmed events were granted conceptual structure or expressive force. The title of the 1939 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, The Nonfiction Film: From Uninterpreted Fact to Documentary, drew what for many was a crucial distinction between the simply “descriptive” function of earlier forms of nonfiction and the “interpretive” ambitions of true documentary. Soliciting emotional responses at the scene of a reconstructed social reality, documentary cinema was embraced as a vehicle for poetry, drama, history, and argument.

In the era of the Great Depression, these ideas resonated within broader debates concerning the role of social documentation in the arts and answered a call for new formal strategies responsive to the economic, political, and environmental crises of the decade. Along with proletarian novels, journalistic exposés, popularized casework studies, and experimental stage work that drew on headline news, documentary cinema was valued for its capacity to render dramatic the social trauma of unemployment, labor violence, and the erosion of the American farmland and to offer explanations for these disturbances and disasters. The “camera eye” emerged as a central metaphor in literature and the arts for a compelling accuracy and vividness to which chroniclers of the contemporary social scene or recent past might aspire. Motion pictures, moreover, could supply a causal or metaphoric logic to a collection of discrete photographs—"fractions of reality," Alfred Kazin labeled them—combining images with vocal commentary and music in a potent compound form. 9 Artists from other media were intrigued by the rhythmic, kinetic, tonal, and dramatic possibilities of such a form: composers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and Hanns Eisler, writers Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck, and poet Archibald MacLeish, among others, lent their talents to documentary projects during this period.

As a distinct mode of film practice, documentary also gained definition by way of contrast with Hollywood. Filmmaking within the studio system was organized to maximize profits through principles of industrial management, such as division of labor and economies of scale. In contrast, documentary projects typically were undertaken by a small group of collaborators who owned their own equipment, worked on shoestring budgets, and performed a range of different tasks. Production was irregular, often inefficient, but also looser, less constrained. The commercial cinema’s star system, with its emphasis on celebrity and glamour, also was shunned. In these respects, documentary filmmakers were heirs to efforts by amateur and avant-garde filmmakers in the 1920s to establish an alternative sphere of film activity outside the studio system, an inheritance most strikingly illustrated by the migration of some experimental filmmakers into the documenary fold over the course of the next decade. Photographer Ralph Steiner, for example, made a series of short abstract films (H 2 O 1929, SURF AND SEAWEED 1930, MECHANICAL PRINCIPLES 1931) on an amateur or experimental basis prior to joining the ranks of the Workers Film and Photo League, and he attempted to keep a playful dimension alive in his documentary work throughout the 1930s. In 1921 photographer Paul Strand collaborated with painter-photographer Charles Sheeler on an experimental short, MANHATTA, which anticipated the international cycle of symphonic “city films” to follow and helped pave the way for Strand’s transition to social-documentary film projects in the 1930s. Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, having earned a reputation in the circles of the European avant-garde for ciné-poems such as THE BRIDGE (1928) and RAIN (1929), announced a shift to political documentary film work in 1931. Proposing that “in the present state of the cinema, the documentary is the best way to discover where the cinema’s real path of development lies,” Ivens stressed the shared struggle of all independent, artisan filmmakers for relief from economic domination by a profit-driven film industry. Upon his arrival in the United States in 1936, Ivens would in turn have a galvanizing impact on political American documentarists.

Autonomy alone, however, could not ensure social impact. Some of the most spirited debates within the documentary community centered on the relationship of creative experimentation to social utility, as filmmakers and critics alike sought to justify aesthetic tastes in terms of social effects, and an unresolved tension between notions of documentary as a medium of artistic expression and an instrument of communication or persuasion informs much critical writing on the genre in the period. This may in part explain the appeal of definitions such as “the creative treatment of actuality” or “the dramatization of fact,” which succinctly signaled both a commitment to the creative capacities of a filmmaker and an awareness of the pressing claims of social reality without specifying a relationship between the two or defining a role for the spectator within the process by which the “actual” or “factual” is creatively shaped or transformed.

Meanwhile, the problem of reaching, building, and motivating an audience remained a nagging concern. During the late 1920s “little cinemas,” modeled in part after the ciné-club movement in Europe, had cultivated an audience for films off the commercial track. Amateur and avant-garde work, and foreign features that had not penetrated the commercial distribution network, on occasion found appreciative audiences in small, independent theaters located in metropolitan centers, notably New York. In the 1930s, documentary films from Europe and America often played in venues of this kind, sometimes attracting the attention of a reviewer in the mainstream press. Yet the social reach of films exhibited in this fashion remained limited. As late as 1937, Archibald MacLeish lamented that even the best documentaries in America were “apt to begin life in a smallish Page 355  radical or art theater and end it in a lecture hall,” a pattern of circulation that paled in comparison with the wide reception and potential impact of commercial movies. 11

In response, some filmmakers and critics argued for a truly oppositional cinema, one that might not only offer a radically different perspective on economic and political events but challenge the infrastructure of Hollywood head on. Others targeted a nontheatrical market that Hollywood had not deemed lucrative enough to corner, in hopes of developing a parallel, secondary structure, with no illusions that such a network would supplant the one to which Hollywood laid claim. In the second half of the decade, moreover, efforts frequently were mounted to negotiate a relationship with the commercial film industry. The most sanguine documentarists thought Hollywood’s priorities might be altered by a clear demonstration of the appeal of their work; at the very least, they hoped to tap into the powerful distribution system at Hollywood’s command.

At issue across these different strategies was the definition of the public sphere that documentary served. In Great Britain, Grierson considered the mass audience to be documentary’s natural constituency; to reach it, he eagerly accepted the power of the state government to counter or limit Hollywood’s domination of Britain’s theatrical film market. But Grierson’s primary lever in this effort, the defense of the principle of a national cinema uncolonized by Hollywood, hardly had the same force in the United States, where the studio system could not easily be cast as an alien presence. If Hollywood was the enemy, it was an enemy within. Perhaps only the class argument of the radical Left had the power to define a distinct constituency, an unassimilated proletariat that a revolutionary cinema might unify across national boundaries in opposition to the “mass” audience for commercial movies. But the notion that a political avantgarde or “shock troop” of elite filmmakers could blaze the path for this new social order was largely spent by mid-decade, and filmmakers on the Left adopted a populist political stance that was less easy to distinguish from Hollywood’s claim to a classless mass audience. One could argue, as critics on the Left were wont, that the commercial film industry created the appetite for the fictions it manufactured. One could plausibly speculate that, given a chance, audiences would respond to a radically different cinema that brought them into closer contact with the social forces governing the drift of their daily lives. But to the extent that the “public” was conceived as synonymous with a “mass audience” as constituted by media, commerce with Hollywood was inevitable, if only on the margins of the system it regulated. Hollywood was difficult to ignore, and it was a rare filmmaker, polemicist, or commentator on the general phenomenon of documentary cinema who attempted to do so.

A persuasive account of American documentary cinema in the 1930s thus requires an assessment of the conceptual field that the term documentary came to designate in relation to the particular institutions that shaped the development of nonfiction filmmaking as a concrete social activity. Julian Roffman, tutored under the auspices of the Workers Film and Photo League in the early 1930s and director of a variety of independent projects later in the decade, recalls that “groups formed and reformed like molecules,” as friendships waxed and waned, disagreements splintered coalitions, and social conditions evolved. 12 As a way of charting this variegated and shifting pattern of activity, the account that follows   is divided according to three institutional structures that buttressed the production and distribution of documentaries in the 1930s: labor and Left political organizations, the New Deal programs of the Roosevelt administration, and private foundation or social-welfare group sponsorship. Throughout, emphasis falls on how documentary practices were articulated and negotiated in specific circumstances. A final section then considers the influence of documentary on Hollywood, pursuing connections across spheres of filmmaking that historians have tended to treat as radically divorced, with a view toward locating thirties documentary within a broader history of American cinema during the dominant years of the studio system.

Labor-Left Documentaries

Throughout the 1930s trade unions and cultural groups allied with the political Left provided a loose structure for the production and distribution of films outside the commercial mainstream. That workers’ organizations could be used in this fashion was recognized as early as the teens, when newsreels and fictional melodramas encouraging working-class solidarity were sporadically produced by trade unions and socialist activists. By 1920, joint stock ventures for financing and distributing pro-labor films had been established on both coasts: the Labor Film Service in New York and the Federated Film Corporation in Seattle underwrote feature films and newsreels, available in the main to union halls and labor lyceums but on occasion exhibited theatrically as well. 14 Founded in Berlin in 1921 to coordinate relief efforts for a war-ravaged Soviet Russia, the International Workers Aid (IWA)—later renamed the Workers International Relief (WIR)—also distributed films in the United States as a means of generating interest in labor struggles abroad and a sense of international solidarity for socialist causes. On behalf of the IWA/WIR, William F. Kruse toured the United States between 1921 and 1927, screening compilation newsreels of revolutionary events in Germany and Russia for audiences in union and nationality halls, mining camps, schools, and rented movie houses. On an ad hoc basis, the WIR also sponsored film projects in support of textile strikes in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1926 and Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1929. In the decade to follow, harsher economic times and an emerging interest in documentary forms would galvanize efforts to develop full-time professional filmmaking units and a more regular system of production.

Crucial to this process was the formation of the Workers’ Film and Photo League (FPL) in New York City at the initiative of the WIR in December 1930. 15 The league quickly became a magnet for aspiring filmmakers, many of them second-generation immigrants who had been politicized by contemporary economic events. At its peak in the early 1930s, about a dozen filmmakers and organizers staffed its core operation and as many as a hundred associate members paid annual dues of $2.50. By 1934, satellite Film and Photo Leagues had sprung up in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, as well as smaller cities such as Marquette, Michigan, and Laredo, Texas. Filmmakers owned and shared 35-mm cameras (portable DeVrys or Bell & Howell Eyemos); additional equipment was donated or purchased with money raised from film screenings, photo exhibitions, and periodic fund-raising events. The WIR   frequently supplied film stock and developing; by shooting with available light and without sound, filmmakers kept production costs low. The league founders, Lester Balog, Sam Brody, Leo Seltzer, and Robert Del Duca, trained less proficient newcomers in an informal and ongoing production workshop. All members worked without salary, and unemployed filmmakers often treated league headquarters as home.

Film projects initially were keyed to strikes and demonstrations in which the WIR or affiliated mass organizations of the Communist party participated. Typically, footage was first screened for demonstrators to boost morale and then sent back to league headquarters to be edited into a WORKERS’ NEWSREEL, sixteen issues of which were released between 1931 and 1934. Major events—such as two national hunger marches organized by the Unemployed Councils in the winters of 1932 and 1933, and the Bonus March on Washington by army veterans in the summer of 1932—occasioned the production of longer protodocumentaries that provided a rudimentary analysis of the reasons leading up to these visible acts of social protest. At year’s end, footage from these films was edited into an annual compilation feature, AMERICA TODAY, which served as an alternative to the “year in review” releases of the commercial newsreel companies.

Distribution efforts, spearheaded by Thomas Brandon, were ingenious and varied, yet a recurring source of frustration. From the outset, small art theaters that showcased Soviet and European features (the Acme in New York, the Filmarte in Los Angeles) booked FPL newsreels, but the irregularity of league productions made it difficult for Brandon to negotiate long-term agreements with independent exhibitors. The fact that all league films lacked a soundtrack also diminished their appeal in theaters featuring films that now “talked.” As a result, much of Brandon’s energy was devoted to expanding the old WIR circuit, incorporating FPL newsreels into programs of Soviet or German features, sometimes accompanied by an American comedy short or Soviet cartoon. Within a hundred-mile radius of New York, Brandon also supplied lecturers and projectionists from the ranks of the FPL. In industrial cities with substantial immigrant and working-class populations, large auditoriums were rented, providing a middle tier of exhibition between commercial theaters and union halls, schools, and rural camp settings. Meeting halls of European nationality groups were considered especially reliable venues because they housed audiences sympathetic to labor films and maintained silent 35-mm projection equipment long after commercial theaters had converted to sound.

The cultural impact of the Film and Photo League extended beyond its only modest success in distributing and exhibiting films. Members wrote film criticism for the New Masses and the Daily Worker, as well as new film journals, such as Experimental Cinema (1931-1934), Filmfront (1934-1935), and New Theatre and Film (1934-1937), the latter two of which had official ties to the league. Prior to his death in 1933, Harry Alan Potamkin, a central figure in league planning, drafted a proposal for a film institute where cinema could be studied; in November 1933 the FPL established the Potamkin Film School in his name. Here Sam Brody, Leo Hurwitz, David Platt, Lewis Jacobs, and Irving Lerner taught courses in film history, criticism, and analysis. From the fall of 1933 through the spring of 1935, the league also sponsored Saturday-night film screenings at the New School for Social Research, including series devoted to the history of Soviet cinema, recent amateur and experimental shorts from Europe and America, and acclaimed European features. On occasion, Hollywood films were screened as well, although accompanying program notes typically contrasted them unfavorably with foreign and experimental works on both aesthetic and political grounds.

In print and in person, league members also protested the theatrical exhibition of Nazi films in Yorkville, the German section of Manhattan, and called for boycotts of Hollywood films and newsreels thought to espouse a fascist line or stimulate interest in war. Concurrently, censorship of pro-labor or pro-Left sentiments in American films by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association or the Catholic Legion of Decency (the latter, in effect, a rival and more powerful pressure group) was vigorously denounced. Campaigns also were mounted against state and local officials who sought to suppress league films or jail league cameramen or projectionists. Members traveling in remote locales were especially at risk: in 1934, for example, Lester Balog spent six weeks in jail in Tulare, California, for screening footage he had shot of a cotton pickers’ strike in the region the year before, accompanied by a celebrated Soviet film on homeless youth, Nikolai Ekk’s THE ROAD TO LIFE (1931). In urban areas, however, group protests were promptly organized to call attention to acts of suppression of this kind. Efforts to establish a cohesive, alternative film culture thus proceeded on several fronts, with the WIR providing political expertise and muscle for collective action.

The call for a working-class cinema had a compelling logic: if Hollywood ignored or appeared to distort the social experience of workers, films by and for workers could establish a new sense of community for a disenfranchised class. The Soviet revolution, moreover, could be interpreted as the harbinger of a new international confederation that a revolutionary, workers cinema in America might serve. From this perspective, building an audience for FPL films was fundamentally related to building a mass political organization, an activity at which the Communists, among Left groups, had proven most skillful. In 1934 the formation of the National Film and Photo League, with branches in major cities throughout the country, gave the organization a national reach that only the commercial film industry could match. Yet not all members of the Film and Photo League were, strictly speaking, of the working class, nor did all identify their political allegiances with the Communists. Moreover, in the absence of the domestic political revolution that hardliners predicted, the relationship of the “proletariat” to the “mass audience” for movies was never clearly articulated. As the New Deal gained momentum and the prospects of full-scale revolt on either the Left or the Right diminished, so, too, did the rhetorical power of the proposition that the working class would serve as the vanguard of a new, unstratifled culture—of the new masses.

By 1934 the precise role of the league and its filmmakers had become a topic of intense internal debate. Members with ties to the WIR and a background in political organizing (Brody, Brandon) contended that the agitational work of the league remained primary: filmmaking was simply one among many activities in which all committed members were engaged, and the value of films—as the procedure of recycling footage in varied formats to different audiences suggested—resided solely in their immediate political function. Other members sought greater autonomy and time to develop their craft; only from a cadre of professional filmmakers, they argued, could a truly revolutionary cinema emerge. Hurwitz, Steiner, and Lerner, in particular, pressed hard for the chance to work closely and experimentally with writers and actors in search of a cinema of greater expressive power than editing unstaged footage allowed. 19 In the fall of 1934, a proposal by Hurwitz that the league set up a full-time, permanent filmmaking section was rejected on the eve of the first National Film and Photo League convention in Chicago. Although they acknowledged a need for special film units at local branches, representatives at the national convention then formally endorsed the league’s commitment to newsreel coverage of topical political events.

In the wake of these decisions, Hurwitz, Steiner, and Lerner, together with still photographer Sidney Meyers, left the FPL to form Nykino, an experimental   film unit allied with the Workers Laboratory Theatre. Hence, just as the FPL consolidated its national base and mapped new strategies for the efficient exchange of films from coast to coast, the New York branch splintered. It was the first in a series of departures, as members accepted film work outside the league: Brody and Seltzer with the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration in New York; Platt as full-time film critic for the Daily Worker; Edward Kern and Frank Ward as members of the executive committee of the New Film Alliance, a group with broad ties in the Left arts community and ambitions to coordinate independent film production throughout the country. 21 Returning from a tour of regional circuits in March 1935 with word that FPL production was still lagging, Brandon began to devote his own energies to developing Garrison Films, a small commercial distribution company that previously had handled WIR films in the United States. About the same time, the WIR was abolished by the Seventh Congress of the Communist International and the league’s original political ties were severed. The photo section split off from the filmmakers in 1936 and was reconstituted as the New York Photo League, free of previous affiliations, in 1937. The same year, a lingering film contingent composed of Jules Roffman, Robert Del Duca, and Victor Kandel officially dissolved the league’s cinema section. By this time, regional branches around the country had withered as well.

Out of Nykino, however, emerged the most stable and productive documentary group aligned with labor-Left organizations in the late 1930s. Hurwitz and Steiner cast wide nets in soliciting talented collaborators, including internationally renowned photographers such as Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and newcomers to the social-documentary scene, such as West Coast photographer Willard Van Dyke and a recent graduate of Columbia University, poet Ben Maddow. They also found natural allies in the Group Theatre, a Left drama troupe with whom Hurwitz and Steiner studied; in turn, they attracted Elia Kazan and Michael Gordon to Nykino’s ranks. Devoid of outside funding, the film group scraped together money to complete two experimental shorts by Steiner and presented them with a mix of Soviet features and assorted short subjects at New School screenings in March and May 1935. Later that year, Steiner, Hurwitz, and Strand were hired by the New Deal Resettlement Administration to work on THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS; although there was friction with director Pare Lorentz during filming, the Nykino group gained a measure of prestige for their labors. Eager to shift to sound film production, Nykino also embraced the new style of dramatic reenactments introduced in Time magazine’s celebrated newsreel series, The March of Time, and completed two segments of a left-wing version, entitled The World Today, under Gordon’s direction in September 1936.

The following spring, the group launched a new large-scale, nonprofit production company, Frontier Films. Strand was named president, Hurwitz and Steiner vice-presidents, and an advisory board was culled from the ranks of major cultural figures, including Aaron Copland, Malcolm Cowley, John Dos Passos, Waldo Frank, Lillian Hellman, Archibald MacLeish, and Clifford Odets. The Film and Photo League had been born amid the intensely sectarian politics of the Comintern’s Third Period, inaugurated in 1928; anti-Socialist, later anti-New Deal, official policy had followed from the premise that capitalism soon would collapse. Frontier Films, in contrast, caught the crest of a wave of cultural support for the emergent Popular Front, an informal political alliance formed at Page 362  mid decade by a spectrum of liberal-to-radical Left groups in common cause against fascism, with a new emphasis placed on the continuities between progressive politics and traditional American themes. The change in name by the filmmakers signaled this shift in tack: from Nykino—shorthand for New York plus kino, the Russian word for "camera"—to Frontier, the title of a recent film by Alexander Dovzhenko that many members admired, yet also evoking the era of American pioneers and a wider territorial expanse than a metropolitan center in which the contrast between Wall Street and immigrant neighborhoods was sharply drawn. That a broader coalition of this kind could grant the work of Left documentary filmmakers greater prominence was confirmed a few months later by the success—impressive by documentary standards—of Joris Ivens’s THE SPANISH EARTH , a tribute to the heroism of Loyalist forces in the civil war in Spain. Underwritten by Contemporary Historians, a group formed by Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Herman Shumlin, and several literary figures on Frontier’s advisory board, THE SPANISH EARTH was screened for President Roosevelt at the White House and at a series of conspicuous fund-raising events in Hollywood in July 1937, enjoyed a lengthy and celebrated run at the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse in New York, and subsequently was distributed to eight hundred theaters in sixty cities throughout the United States. The critical attention the film attracted could only have bolstered the confidence of Frontier’s members as they sought to consolidate support for professional documentary filmmaking on the Left in the United States.

Financially, Frontier relied primarily on loans and donations from wealthy contributors, with executive secretary Lionel Berman overseeing a variety of fund-raising initiatives. Local trade unions also provided modest support, but permanent funding from international unions was never established. All staff members were considered full-time salaried employees, but in practice, paychecks were not distributed during lean periods and the organization relied heavily on unpaid work time. Slow to get its own projects off the ground, Frontier established a high profile in 1937 by editing additional footage shot by Herbert Kline of the Spanish civil war and by Harry Dunham of the Japanese invasion of China, and successfully releasing the films under the Frontier banner as HEART OF SPAIN and CHINA STRIKES BACK . When in 1938 Maddow added English commentary to a third documentary on the Spanish conflict, shot by Cartier-Bresson and Kline, Frontier released the film as RETURN TO LIFE . Frontier also edited and added a sound track to UNITED ACTION , a documentary by the United Auto Workers about their strike at General Motors in 1939. In addition, nonpolitical assignments were accepted: Frontier edited a compilation film, HISTORY OF ROMANCE AND TRANSPORTATION , which was showcased by the Chrysler Motor Corporation at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and an Alaskan travelogue, WHITE F LOOD (1940), culled from footage shot by one of Frontier’s benefactors and accompanied by Hanns Eisler’s score. Frontier also supervised, from the moment of conception, PEOPLE OF THE CUMBERLAND (1938), an overtly political documentary on the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, under the direction of Meyers and Leyda, with assistance from Kazan. Throughout this period, moreover, Strand and Hurwitz lavished attention on Frontier’s prize project, an exposé of recent civil rights abuses suffered by labor unions, released as NATIVE LAND in 1942.

PEOPLE OF THE CUMBERLAND and the films on Spain and China all received   theatrical distribution by Garrison Films, with Frontier receiving 65 percent of all earnings after the cost of prints, press sheets, and promotional material had been deducted. At a flat rate for shorts of $3 per week per theater and distribution restricted to independent theaters, little revenue was raised through commercial release, but the films were reviewed in the mainstream press and literary magazines, thus keeping Frontier in the public eye. A wider audience for the films was located through 16-mm rental and sales to a nontheatrical market—encompassing schools, churches, civic organizations, unions, and colleges—which Brandon now sought to centralize. Local unions were requested to pressure independent theaters to book individual films on a states’-rights basis (“Organize Your Audience—Get Your Share of This Market,” read a Garrison flyer for PEOPLE OF THE CUMBERLAND ), but there is no evidence that this strategy worked to an appreciable degree. 23 The solvency of Frontier thus depended principally on fund-raising.

The advantages and limitations of Frontier’s mode of operation are illustrated by the production history of NATIVE LAND . Originating with the idea of a segment on labor espionage for The World Today in the summer of 1937, the project gradually evolved into an eighty-three-minute feature that interwove documentary and enacted passages in a history of labor struggle in the thirties and linked that history to a promise of personal and civil rights vouchsafed by America’s Founding Fathers and the sacrifice of pioneers. In a period in which questions of national identity and historical roots were evident throughout much of American popular culture, NATIVE LAND thus staked a claim for labor’s authentic inheritance of the Jeffersonian tradition. It was Popular Front historiography writ large, with the FPL’s working class constituency reconceived as “we, the people,” a democratic, classless force. Time and great care were devoted to the production of the film over the course of four and a half years. Footage shot by Gordon and Van Dyke was abandoned early on, and an entirely new script was drafted by Hurwitz, Strand, and Maddow in 1938. Filming continued at least through the summer of 1939, and a sound track scored by Marc Blitzstein and narrated by Paul Robeson was finally recorded in 1941. When funds ran out, endorsements were solicited and new contributors cultivated, with existing footage screened as an incentive.

Upon its release in 1942, NATIVE LAND was hailed by many critics for its pictorial beauty, intricate structure, and dramatic power, but these achievements had a price. Delays in production rendered the topic of the film less pertinent: amid calls for home-front unity in response to events abroad, NATIVE LAND’S critique of labor espionage and repressive violence at home was widely viewed as out of date. Meanwhile, resources had been drained from other productions; the inability of Frontier to generate any new social-documentary projects after 1939 is especially telling. With no films in development and no national distributor for NATIVE LAND forthcoming, Frontier Films closed up shop in 1942.

Documentary filmmaking in support of labor-Left causes in the 1930s was not restricted to the activities of the Film and Photo League, Nykino, and Frontier. Notices of diverse productions in cities around the United States dot the pages of Film Front in the early 1930s, and it is likely that scores of other projects were undertaken, if not completed, without benefit of press coverage. This outburst of activity suggests the range of interest in social documentary in an era of economic and political crisis. Yet production in outlying regions, diffuse and remote, offered no answer to the fundamental question of how to construct a stable base for political filmmaking at the national level. Among labor-Left groups, Frontier Films constituted the boldest bid to secure a permanent place for social documentary production and distribution in the United States, and with the dissolution of Frontier in 1942, plans for this alternative network faded too. NATIVE LAND convincingly demonstrated that Frontier could match in formal terms—and decisively recast in an American idiom—a politicized art cinema from abroad, but not that existing structures could sustain a domestic cinema of this kind.

New Deal Documentaries

The two most acclaimed American documentaries of the 1930s were THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS (1936) and THE RIVER (1937), films made by Pare Lorentz for the federal government with relief funds allocated to the Roosevelt administration by Congress. Enthusiastically endorsed by the president, studied by social scientists as instruments of persuasion, and the topic of wide critical discussion and political debate, these works in large measure bear responsibility   for the term documentary passing into common parlance in the second half of the decade. They also paved the way for the establishment of a short-lived but active federal film agency, the U.S. Film Service, and introduced into popular culture the imagery of dust, erosion, and flooding that still informs historical accounts of the American heartland during the Depression years.

At the time of Lorentz’s arrival in Washington in the summer of 1935, motion-picture units had long been in place at the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army Signal Corps. A score of other federal departments and agencies also contracted with independent producers for instructional or informational films, most of which were used internally or distributed free of charge to schools, churches, professional groups, or community organizations—the nontheatrical circuit that labor-Left filmmakers also targeted. During World War I, moreover, newsreel shorts and features compiled by the government’s Committee on Public Information had been distributed to theaters around the country by Pathé, establishing a precedent for quiet cooperation between Washington and commercial exhibitors.

New Deal documentaries, however, aroused passions and sparked controversies that far outstripped public responses to previous ventures in nonfiction filmmaking by the federal government, a reaction attributable in large measure to the high public profile of New Deal programs and the campaigns attending their enactment. From its inception, New Deal filmmaking was bound up with the politics of economic and environmental recovery. Bolstered by Democratic victories in the 1934 election, Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act (April 1935), which placed nearly $5 billion at the disposal of Roosevelt’s administration. The heads of two agencies funded by the bill, Harry L. Hopkins of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Rexford Tugwell of the Resettlement Administration (RA), at once mapped plans to use motion pictures to explain relief activities to American voters. Access to this electorate, both concluded, required entry into the theatrical exhibition sector Hollywood dominated. By design, then, motion pictures were a prominent component of highly controversial programs concentrated in the executive branch of the government and subject to congressional inquiry. Conditions were ripe for media attention and partisan protest.

Hopkins’s mandate at the WPA was to move unemployed workers from government relief rosters to salaried jobs, either on government projects or in the private sector. In July 1935 he hired experienced newsreel cameramen to staff the Motion Picture Records Division, fulfilling two goals simultaneously. The relief activities of the WPA were to be documented by skilled workers who would otherwise be unemployed. By placing their footage in commercial newsreel programs, Hopkins also hoped to gain wide publicity for WPA projects. When newsreel editors resisted the informal lobbying of the WPA, Hopkins was forced to adopt a new strategy. In the spring of 1936, the WPA solicited bids from independent producers for a series of 35-mm shorts of “high entertainment standard,” each to focus on regional WPA projects, with bidders required to guarantee monthly distribution to commercial theaters. In August a contract was awarded to Pathé News, which promised distribution through its new parent company, RKO, but the agreement immediately came under attack. In a complaint that was front-page news in the New York Times, Republican officials contended that relief money now was to be spent on New Deal propaganda keyed to the fall election campaigns. Independent producers protested that they had been prevented from bidding because they lacked distribution contacts, and several newsreel companies announced that they had refused to bid because the distribution requirement placed newsreel space up for sale, a violation of journalistic ethics. Independent theater owners joined the attack, arguing that such a contract could be construed as an attempt by the federal government to book its films in blocks, a contemporary practice of the major Hollywood studios that independent exhibitors strenuously opposed. In response, WPA officials cited the precedent of government newsreel production during World War I and noted the substantial use of newsreels by Republican administrations in earlier years. Given the political climate, however, it was not difficult for opponents to paint WPA “information” films as political propaganda and take particular offense at the fact that relief money was now to be routed into the production of films that taxpayers then had to pay to see. 27 Concerned about the WPA’s public image, Hopkins did not push the issue hard; after the Pathé contract had run its course the project was abandoned.

Lorentz, appointed motion-picture consultant at the Resettlement Administration, navigated equally turbulent waters with greater success. A film critic known for an irreverent and polemical style, Lorentz lacked experience either as a practicing filmmaker or a government insider, but he brought to his post a keen interest in movies and politics. In his criticism, Hollywood had often come under attack for its monopolistic control of commercial production and eviscerating censorship, themes Lorentz developed in detail in a book-length study of the film industry with Morris L. Ernst in 1930. 29 Lorentz’s early and ardent support of Roosevelt and of New Deal agricultural policies further commended him to Tugwell, a liberal member of FDR’s brain trust who now oversaw the government’s program to resettle submarginal farmers on productive land and urban slum dwellers in suburban greenbelt communities.

With the aid of Arch Mercey, the RA’s deputy information director, Lorentz designed a filmmaking policy that was more focused and provocative than that of the WPA. A tour of the dust bowl as a journalist in 1934 had convinced Lorentz that a powerful film could be made about environmental disasters in that region. In lieu of Tugwell’s initial and more conventional proposal for a series of short information films, Lorentz outlined a plan for the production of a single, dramatic documentary on the abuse, erosion, and impoverishment of the Great Plains, a film that could circulate in commercial theaters and focus national attention on the urgent need for government action. With Tugwell’s approval and a minimal budget ($6,000 at the outset, although three times that sum before the film was completed), Lorentz promptly charted a new course for government filmmaking. Locations were scouted using dust-bowl photographs taken by members of the RA’s photo section. In search of seasoned assistants, Lorentz hired the Nykino trio of Strand, Hurwitz, and Steiner, paying them $25 a day and expenses for a seven-week tour of the dust bowl in the fall of 1935. Along the way Strand and Hurwitz, seizing an opportunity to put their ideas to the test, rewrote Lorentz’s loose script to sharpen its political critique, but Lorentz survived the battle of egos, retaining control over the production. When Hollywood studios balked at providing him with stock footage for some historical passages, maverick director King Vidor came to Lorentz’s aid. Editing the film in New York, Lorentz collaborated closely with celebrated composer Virgil Thomson, whose score was recorded by first-chair members of the New York Philharmonic under the direction of conductor Alexander Smallens. Poetic commentary written by Lorentz was read by Thomas Chalmers, veteran of the Metropolitan Opera Company and an editor with Pathé News. In sharp contrast to the typical information film released by the government, THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS hence clearly bore the stamp of an innovative, artistic production.

In March 1936, Lorentz and his associates began a careful campaign to promote the film. Private screenings garnered support from President Roosevelt, sympathetic Hollywood directors such as Vidor and Lewis Milestone, and members of the New York arts community. On 10 May 1936, THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS officially premiered in Washington, D.C., at the close of a program of European documentaries sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art, a prestigious debut for Lorentz as a filmmaker, with wide and enthusiastic coverage by the Washington press. Yet when distributors from the major studios were offered the film free of charge, they turned Lorentz down. Recalling the rebuff he had received when in search of stock footage, Lorentz took his case to his friends in the press, accusing Hollywood of an anti-New Deal bias and a fear of government competition—arguing, in short, that his work had been censored by the industry. Studio representatives denied the charge, claiming that the length of the film—at twenty-eight minutes, too long for a short, too short for a feature—prohibited easy distribution. Yet rumors of political uneasiness in Hollywood abounded, perhaps exacerbated by a circuit court ruling in April that challenged the very constitutionality of the Resettlement Administration and thus rendered Lorentz’s project more vulnerable to partisan attack.

Instead of retreating, Lorentz went on the offensive. On 24 May, critic Frank S. Nugent drew on Lorentz’s complaint to deliver a broadside against Hollywood and an encomium to the film in the pages of the New York Times. Four days later, independent exhibitor Arthur Mayer opened THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS at the Rialto theater on Broadway, accompanied by a publicity campaign that promised viewers, “The film they dared us to show!” Bookings at independent theaters in other East Coast cities quickly followed. With favorable reviews in hand, Lorentz toured midwestern cities and towns to drum up support for the film. Principal distribution points were set up in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Lincoln, Nebraska, and RA information field officers served as distribution agents to regional communities. By the middle of July (just prior to the WPA-Pathé flap), independent theater chains in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Texas had booked the film. Mercey estimated it eventually played in more than three thousand commercial houses.

Buoyed by this success, Tugwell granted approval for a second project, this one to focus on the erosion and flooding of the Mississippi Valley, a topic much in the news (and newsreels) in 1936. Production strategies on THE RIVER followed that of the first film, with a $50,000 budget allowing Lorentz a slightly less Spartan approach. After scouting locations in person, he hired a four-person camera crew: Nykino’s Van Dyke; Stacy and Horace Woodward, an Academy Award-winning team of nature filmmakers; and Floyd Crosby, also the recipient of an Academy Award for his camerawork on F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty’s T ABU (1930), a South Seas idyll that Lorentz greatly admired. Filming took place over the course of a 2,100-mile journey up and down the Mississippi River in the fall of 1936. When a flood struck the valley in January 1937, cameramen from the   Department of Agriculture and Soil Conservation Service, and Coast Guard boats, airplanes, and facilities, were placed at Lorentz’s disposal for additional filming. Reassembling his postproduction team of Thompson, Smallens, and Chalmers, Lorentz took even greater pains to cut the film precisely in rhythm to the score. Successful screenings of THE RIVER in New Orleans, Memphis, Saint Louis, Des Moines, Minneapolis, and Washington, and a three-week run in Chicago, led to a contract with Paramount Pictures for national distribution in the spring of 1938. A national exhibitor’s organization, without apparent objection to the film’s medium-length format, honored THE RIVER as the best three-reel film of the year. International acclaim followed when THE RIVER won first-place honors at the Venice Film Festival in the summer of 1938. Soon Lorentz’s second production became the most requested government film in nontheatrical outlets as well.

How might one account for the extraordinary reception of Lorentz’s first two documentaries during this period? Clearly the institutional base from which he worked was a crucial factor. In contrast to labor-Left filmmakers, Lorentz had access to the resources of a federal agency with a regional “distribution” staff answerable to central headquarters in Washington. Furthermore, Lorentz’s background as a combative journalist had taught him how to turn attacks to his own advantage, and he successfully marshaled the support of sympathetic reviewers and commentators to his cause. In the long run, moreover, Lorentz’s ties to the Roosevelt administration not only attracted the attention of the mainstream press but may have earned him a measure of respect in Hollywood. When it was in their own interest to do so, studio executives warily courted those federal institutions empowered to regulate industry practices and were not inclined to aggravate existing tensions arbitrarily. It is logical to assume that the initial suppression—if it was that—of THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS had less to do with organized opposition to New Deal policies per se than personal resentments inspired by Lorentz’s earlier attacks, the ingrained reluctance of the studios to yield control over commercial screens, and an accurate perception that leaders in Congress were sharply divided on the merits of the film. Subsequent critical acclaim for THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS , however, cast the film in a new light; in the absence of any immediate political liabilities attached to THE RIVER , Paramount then accepted the government’s request that the film be distributed in first-run theaters throughout the country. Lorentz’s documentaries thus acquired national prominence both despite and because of Hollywood—and inevitably in relation to Hollywood—however barbed his own criticism of studio policies and practices.

The cultural impact of THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS and THE RIVER can also be traced to certain formal and thematic characteristics of the films that critics and commentators sought to identify, label, and assess. Were Lorentz’s documentaries simply information films or government propaganda? Although lawmakers were attracted to this question, critics discovered other ways of approaching the films. They spoke of Lorentz’s style, a unique admixture of powerful imagery and cadenced commentary and music, and noted a disturbing undercurrent that pressured even the New Deal antidotes to environmental and social catastrophe set forth at the close of the films. Rather than cheerful government ballyhoo, THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS and RIVER were seen as stories of the tragic loss and tentative reclamation of the American   heartland, told in a modern form that interwove familiar images and fragments of verse and folk tunes through incremental variations on a few powerful visual, verbal, and musical themes. “Without the benefit of Hollywood,” declared reviewer Gilbert Seldes, “Pare Lorentz has created in The River one of the splendors of the American film. He has done it in a field more cultivated by the Europeans than ourselves, that is, the documentary film.” If this was propaganda, Seldes among others argued, then so be it: dramatic effect could serve two masters or align them. “It fuses propaganda with art,” claimed V. F. Calverton, “makes the river a thing of wonder, and conjures out of water and earth a magical symphony of design and motion.” 32 Lorentz’s documentaries thus called attention to a cinematic dimension inherent in a new body of cultural imagery central to the arts and literature of the 1930s. As a fit was found for Lorentz’s work within critical discourses on the arts, a cultural space opened up that had been unavailable to previous government films.

Following the success of THE RIVER , Lorentz moved boldly again, winning approval from Roosevelt for the formation of a new federal film agency, the U.S. Film Service (USFS), and a commitment to feature-film production. An executive order issued in August 1938 authorized the USFS not only to produce its own films but also to coordinate the production and distribution of motion pictures throughout the federal government, maintain and distribute a library of films for educational institutions, and serve as a consultant to government agencies and educational organizations and foundations. One month later, additional responsibilities were assigned, including the drafting of minimum standards for government films, the ongoing review of all scripts and contracts, and the supervision of the use of federal personnel and property by commercial film producers. Named director of the agency, Lorentz embarked at once on an ambitious feature-length project, ECCE HOMO !, the fictional story of the migration of a jobless family from the Deep South during the Depression years. Floyd Crosby rejoined Lorentz as the agency’s director of photography. The consolidation of distribution and educational activities proceeded largely under the supervision of Mercey, now the Film Service’s assistant director. Consultant work for an interdepartmental committee on Latin America affairs also was undertaken in 1938 and 1939. When production of ECCE HOMO ! bogged down in the fall of 1939, Lorentz set aside the project for THE FIGHT FOR LIFE , a dramatized account of the work of the Chicago Maternity Center, hoping to score a quick triumph with the press as well as the president, who was launching new public-health initiatives. He succeeded: released in March 1940, THE FIGHT FOR LIFE was featured in photospreads in Life and Look magazines, hailed by many critics as an original and powerful experiment in mixing documentary and fictional forms, and theatrically distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Lorentz also sought to add luster to the USFS by importing renowned documentarists to work on other government projects. Joris Ivens was hired to direct THE POWER AND THE LAND , a film on the delivery of electricity to farmers cut off from private utilities, made at the behest of the Rural Electrification Administration. Focusing on the daily life of an Ohio farm family, Ivens’s film was distributed by RKO in December 1940, reaching a general, as well as a specialized rural, audience. Less widely seen, but no less   suggestive of Lorentz’s aspirations for the agency, was THE LAND , a plea for the conservation of farmland proposed by the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and assigned to Robert Flaherty. Flaherty chafed under bureacratic restrictions, however, and the production dragged on for two years. When THE LAND was completed in the summer of 1941, AAA officials found Flaherty’s critique of mechanized farm production out of tune with current government policy and limited distribution to some farmers. Following an official premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in April 1942, THE LAND was dropped from circulation entirely.

By this time, however, the U.S. Film Service had disappeared from view as well. Throughout Lorentz’s tenure as a government employee, his base of operation had been highly provisional and often under attack. Prior to the formation of the USFS, the Resettlement Administration had been declared unconstitutional, and its film and photo sections transferred to the Farm Security Administration at the Department of Agriculture, where THE RIVER was completed. Subsequent investigations by the General Accounting Office prompted Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace to rule in June 1938 that relief money could no longer be used for documentary films by his department. Two   months later, Roosevelt established the USFS under the administration’s National Emergency Council, with funding drawn from the Public Works Administration and the WPA, but the NEC, weakened by congressional scrutiny, was abolished in July 1939 and the USFS relocated in the Office of Education under the Federal Security Agency. Throughout these dizzying organizational shifts, Lorentz’s power was sustained in large measure by the personal backing of Roosevelt rather than by any stable footing within the federal bureaucracy.

In February 1940, however, Mercey appeared before hearings of the House Subcommittee on Appropriations with a cautious proposal for the permanent funding of the USFS’s distribution programs. The plan backfired: the committee not only denied Mercey’s request but attached a provision to its 1941 relief bill that specifically prohibited the allocation of money to the USFS by any relief agency. In April an amendment to restore funding was debated on the floor of the Senate, but failed, 24-36, with the vote dividing along party lines. Roosevelt, facing a new set of challenges in his dealings with Congress concerning U.S. commitments overseas, publicly protested the defeat of the amendment, but decided not to fight to keep the agency alive.

From the outset, New Deal filmmaking was a slippery operation: circuitously funded, it was also conceptually ambiguous, as New Dealers stressed in public the informational and educational value of works they clearly hoped fulfilled a political function, and Lorentz experimented with innovative documentary techniques while keeping FDR, his chief benefactor, satisfied that administration programs also were being served. Congressional deliberations in 1940, however, narrowed the terms for assessing the value of government filmmaking. In a lengthy (and some analysts think decisive) speech during the Senate debate, Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) drew on what was by now a familiar distinction between information films, communicating scientific or technical knowledge, and the domain of social-documentary cinema, in order to place the latter category outside the pale of legitimate government activity. The Department of Labor, Taft pointed out, had produced an instructional film on prenatal care for $1,000; Lorentz’s FIGHT FOR LIFE , in contrast, cost $150,000. How could it be argued, then, that the U.S. Film Service brought efficiency to government filmmaking? The dividend bought with the money—drama, rhetoric, the power to persuade and arouse constituents—was propaganda, an appropriate activity of private organizations but not the federal government.

Throughout the House and Senate hearings, moreover, unsympathetic interrogators frequently complained that documentaries financed through relief agencies—whatever their merits or professional craftsmanship—did not employ or train jobless workers. The complaint touched on an ambiguity at the foundation of agency policy. Whom did the U.S. Film Service serve? The unemployed, who might receive the direct benefits of a job? Officials, from FDR down, who tendered requests for particular projects? Documentary filmmakers with established reputations and new ambitions? Or an audience for new cultural works, whose vitality might be restored by film projects equivalent to those concurrently sponsored by the WPA in theater, literature, and the arts? Critics in Congress focused on the first two beneficiaries, at times unctuously alleging support for the unemployed while assailing the new power granted administration officials. Meanwhile, defenders of the USFS never mounted a far-reaching argument on aesthetic or cultural grounds. Linked together with a case for the funding of a new federal radio service in the Office of Education, the defense of the USFS was based upon a communications model: the efficient flow of information from the government to a diverse and remote populace. Detailed discussion of the aesthetic or cultural value of these films—central to critical commentary on them—perhaps seemed impertinent in this context. With elements of social advocacy and dramatic power factored out of the equation, defenders of the USFS fell back on narrow arguments concerning the legal language defining their authority, the economic advantages of a streamlined distribution system, and the sense of civic pride in government work that the Film Service fostered. With the social function of the agency thus circumscribed, New Deal filmmaking succumbed to a partisan vote.

During its brief existence, the U.S. Film Service was an inventive experiment in the development of a nonprofit, state-financed system of social-documentary production and distribution, with Lorentz briefly functioning as a de facto production chief, overseeing the development of projects, supervising the preparation of scripts, and hiring talent with the reputation of an Ivens or Flaherty. In keeping with his initial advice upon arriving at the Resettlement Administration in 1935, Lorentz focused resources on a few carefully crafted, innovative productions. Securing theatrical distribution was a cornerstone of USFS policy, designed to maximize public exposure and media interest in the films the agency released. Yet the very conspicuousness of the USFS as an autonomous film agency—heralded in the press, attracting prominent filmmakers into its ranks—may have contributed to its undoing by making it more difficult for Lorentz and his colleagues to go about their work behind the shifting, protective screens of parent agencies and departments. Given this political context, USFS policy appears to have been inevitably at cross-purposes with the agency’s capacity to survive. House hearings in 1940 then afforded congressional opponents, long annoyed at the sub-rosa financing by the Roosevelt administration, an occasion to lower the ax.

Sponsored Documentaries

As social-documentary filmmakers gained recognition in cultural quarters in the second half of the decade, their services were increasingly solicited by private foundations and social-welfare or professional groups. When hiring filmmakers, the latter organizations typically had specific social objectives in mind—a problem to expose, a program to set forth. Foundations, in contrast, tended to justify their support of documentary production in terms of a broad mandate to fund programs in the “public interest,” a concept that itself had a political dimension. Like labor-Left groups, educational organizations had used films as early as the teens to disseminate information to schools, factories, and community groups, and small companies specializing in the production of inexpensive instructional films flourished after the standardization of a nontheatrical 16-mm format in 1923. 36 New in the late 1930s, however, was an infusion of philanthropic money and an interest in sophisticated techniques that, unlike arid information films, could vivify social issues for general audiences. Often working in concert, foundations and special-interest groups thus came to sponsor a flurry of social-documentary projects as the decade drew to a close.

Precedent for privately funding the work of labor-Left documentarists was established in 1935 when Julian Roffman convinced the Consumers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group, to spend $500 on a film that explained product-safety testing and exposed fraudulent advertising. The popularity of the film led to the four-part GETTING YOUR MONEY’S WORTH and inspired Roffman, Del Duca, and Kandel to depart the weakened Film and Photo League to form their own company, Contemporary Films. 37 In 1937 an offer from the American Institute of Planners to work on THE CITY, backed by a $50,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation, likewise emboldened Steiner and Van Dyke to cut loose from Frontier and form American Documentary Films. 38 Veterans of labor-Left filmmaking also were hired by Spencer Pollard’s Educational Film Institute at the New York University Film Library, established in 1939 by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to produce and circulate documentaries on economic and educational themes. Under the aegis of the institute, for example, Roffman collaborated with John Ferno, Ivens’s former cameraman, on a film on rural nutrition, AND SO THEY LIVE (1940). After completing THE POWER AND THE LAND for the moribund U.S. Film Service, Ivens and Crosby set out for Colorado on another Sloan/EFI project, NEW FRONTIERS. When work on THE CITY was concluded, Van Dyke formed his own company, Documentary Film Productions, under whose banner he directed two other Sloan sponsored projects, VALLEY TOWN and THE CHILDREN MUST LEARN (both 1940), as well as several promotional films for private companies.

The broadest role of any philanthropic organization, however, was assumed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which as early as 1936 had funded research in educational film technique at the University of Minnesota and financed film projects by the American Council for Education and the Progressive Education Association. In the winter of 1937-1938, the foundation also subsidized a six-month visit to the United States by Paul Rotha, a prominent British documentary film producer, critic, and leading advocate of commercial sponsorship for social-documentary production. Lecturing extensively at the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University during his tenure as a Rockefeller fellow, Rotha argued that in contrast to Great Britain’s integrated system of government and private support, documentary film work in America was ineffectively administrated. The suggestion rankled Lorentz and many members of the Frontier collective, but Rotha’s critique was to have an impact on Van Dyke and Steiner, whom he befriended during his stay, and on the Rockefeller Foundation itself, which shortly after his visit established the American Film Center as a link between sponsors and filmmakers. 40 Headed by Donald Slesinger, a former law professor at Yale and dean of social science at the University of Chicago, the American Film Center set up headquarters in August 1938 at Rockefeller Center, where it provided research space to film producers, awarded modest grants for selected projects, and kept filmmakers apprised of recent activity through a monthly newsletter. The American Film Center also investigated the possibility of documentary film production and distribution in Latin America, anticipating (perhaps not coincidentally) Nelson Rockefeller’s role as coordinator of inter-American affairs for the federal government in the early 1940s. Although not to play as enduring a role as initial publicity predicted, the American Film Center nevertheless constituted the most far-reaching effort by a major foundation to promote the expanding field of documentary in the prewar years.

The formation of the Association of Documentary Film Producers (ADFP) by Mary Losey in 1939 offered yet another mechanism to connect filmmakers with sponsors. A 1932 graduate of Wellesley, Losey had worked for noted advertising consultant Edward L. Bernays and headed the research department for The March of Time before traveling to Great Britain to study documentary production in that country. Upon returning to a post at the American Film Center in 1938, Losey launched a drive for a new association that would promote innovative documentaries, develop artistic and technical standards, and foster cooperation among professionals in the field. 42 Her idea at once struck a chord; within a year, the ADFP had nearly a hundred members. Although filmmakers with a background in labor-Left documentary played a leading role—Ivens, Strand, Van Dyke, Seltzer, and Leyda all served on ADFP’s executive board—its membership was broad, encompassing representatives of government agencies, foundations, and private businesses. In 1940, Losey edited and published Living Films: A Catalog of Documentary Films and Their Makers, a reference guide to available documentaries with accompanying biographies of all ADFP members. In it political or institutional divisions were downplayed; films made for commercial companies (Eastman Kodak, Lockheed Aircraft, American Can Company, and the like) received attention equal to the political documentary projects of Frontier. The catalog, Losey noted in her introduction, sought not to classify or index works but rather provide a “who’s who of documentary film in America.” As for definitions of documentary, Losey simply observed, “This an art unlimited. The world is its studio and its people the actors.” Under such a rubric, a vast range of films and filmmakers could be accommodated.

Perhaps the greatest promotional achievement of the ADFP was a program of American and European documentaries organized by Losey and Philip McConnell for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Including works by Flaherty, Lorentz, Ivens, and Roffman, and highlighted by the fair’s most popular film attraction, THE CITY, the ADFP program served as the focal exhibit at the Fair Corporation’s Science and Education Building, placing the recent achievements of social-documentary filmmakers on conspicuous display. Between the 1939 and 1940 fair seasons, the ADFP also organized a twelve-part documentary retrospective, The Nonfiction Film: From Uninterpreted Fact to Documentary, at the Museum of Modern Art. Opening with a three-part chronology of the development of the genre, the series branched out into related forms such as travel and instructional films, and then settled into a sequence of programs built around specific social issues, such as housing, labor, and national affairs. Although the retrospective reached far fewer viewers than the show at the fair, the museum program generated favorable commentary in the press and shaped an emerging critical view of documentary as a genre with a discernible lineage, a record of distinguished achievement, and wide potential for future development.

Despite these triumphs of promotion, the ADFP did little to counter the diffusion of political and economic energies that diverse sponsorship of documentary films fostered. The organization’s base of support was broad but shallow; without institutional affiliation, capital resources, or even a core social philosophy, the ADFP lacked the muscle—and perhaps the will—to establish production priorities or otherwise intervene in contemporary political debates. Nor did it solve the chronic problem of documentary distribution. The Living Films catalog routed interested parties to the distributors of available films and offered the association’s assistance in assembling film programs for a small fee, yet the ADFP itself did not emerge as an agency empowered to extend or streamline nontheatrical distribution networks. Theatrical distribution, moreover, was largely beyond its scope of concern. Thus, while art-house events like the museum retrospective helped secure a higher profile for social documentarists, the activities of the ADFP only had an indirect impact on developing a wider audience for their films.

In light of the ongoing problem of documentary distribution and exhibition, the New York World’s Fair was an intriguing venue. Nonfiction films abounded at the various fair pavilions; estimates of the total number screened run as high as five hundred. In a sense, this showcase returned documentary to cinema’s roots as a turn-of-the-century fairground amusement in which movies vied for attention among rival attractions. Yet unlike the typical fairground, the New York World’s Fair combined hoopla with high purpose in a public celebration of the conquest of new technological frontiers; tourists from around the world were invited to Flushing Meadows to catch a glimpse of “the World of Tomorrow.” Here the ADFP program at the Science and Education Building was surrounded by an array of new optical displays in the pavilions of corporate sponsors. Chrysler Motors, for example, presented a 3-D Technicolor stop-motion film in which the company’s new line of automobiles, composed of mechanical parts that sang and danced, magically assembled themselves without benefit of human labor, a more cheerful view of industrial automation than would be found in social documentaries by, say, Van Dyke or Flaherty. At the General Motors Pavilion, an estimated 25 million visitors glided through “Futurama,” a coast-to-coast aerial view of America, circa 1960, built by stage designer Norman Bel Geddes. Riding in upholstered armchairs, listening to a recorded commentary amplified through personal speakers, spectators peered down upon an immaculate system of arterial highways and planned communities, a social scheme devoid of the economic and political backdrop against which such a vision of the future might be assessed. As for a view of the past, historical accounts supplied in social documentaries could be compared with the variant treatment of Cecil B. DeMille’s LAND OF LIBERTY, a compilation film culled from Hollywood’s costume epics and regularly screened at the U.S. Pavilion. Surveying the full range of films at the fair (under the auspices of a grant from the American Film Center), Richard Griffith concluded that social documentarists outshone the competition across the board. But a poll of fairgoers, instead of critics, might have rendered a different verdict. Or perhaps no verdict at all: deposited amid this feast of sensory pleasures, documentaries may have been experienced as simply one among a host of audiovisual reports on the world—past, present, future. The fairground setting, in short, may have dulled distinctions rather than sharpened them.

However perceived in this instance, sponsored filmmaking as a general phenomenon raised questions about the integrity of social-documentary practices. The shift toward sponsored financing was in part symptomatic of a broader trend toward professionalizing documentary production in the second half of the decade: filmmakers affiliated with both Frontier Films and the U.S. Film Service, for example, sought to establish standards for, and make a living from, the practice of their craft. But a different dynamic was introduced when social documentarists set up shop as filmmakers for hire, seeking clients, and following production money wherever it appeared. Devoid of a political base of their own, “independent” filmmakers were vulnerable to political pressures from the clients they served. A diffusion of documentary production could easily lead to an attenuation of the role of the filmmaker as a central participant in the shaping of social materials. Moreover, “public service,” as defined by a private foundation bent on acquiring prestige, could quickly shade toward “public relations”—the projection of a favorable corporate image—robbing controversial topics of any political bite. Under these conditions, distinctions between sponsorship and self-promotion, between social documentaries and sponsored business films or “industrials,” could become exceedingly fine.

Films like THE CITY and VALLEY TOWN eventually bore the marks of these tensions and conflicts. Based on a scenario supplied to the Institute of American Planners by Pare Lorentz, THE CITY recounts the transformation of the American village into a modern metropolis, a story punctuated by stylistic and tonal shifts. A lyrical evocation of village life in the eighteenth century yields to a caustic indictment of poverty and pollution in industrialized cities, which in turn gives way to a playful and mildly satiric orchestration of urban movement and congestion in New York City and its vacation escape route into New Jersey. A solution is then offered: a decentralized greenbelt community, combining the security and open spaces of village life with the conveniences of modern engineering and planning. If reviews are an accurate index, THE CITY’S indictment of industrial conditions pleased social critics, the humorous metropolis section delighted audiences at the fair, and the protracted greenbelt section (twice the length of any other) mainly satisfied the sponsors, who insisted, over the objections of Steiner and Van Dyke, that the conclusion promote their plan unequivocally and at great length. In the case of VALLEY TOWN, no such bargain was finally struck between filmmaker and sponsor. In his original version, Van Dyke employed an experimental sound track scored by Marc Blitzstein and commentary scripted by Ben Maddow to evoke a melancholic portrait of technologically induced unemployment in a Pennsylvania steel town. Displeased with Van Dyke’s treatment of this economic theme, General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan (whose World’s Fair Futurama transported tourists undisturbed) promptly blocked the film’s release and then authorized its reediting and redubbing. Other Sloan/Educational Film Institute works were subsequently amended as well, and projects still in production (most notably Ivens’s NEW FRONTIERS ) were abruptly canceled.

The pressures these filmmakers experienced followed in part from processes of collaborative judgment fundamental to all social-documentary production. Political or aesthetic ambitions often ran up against ideological and financial constraint; compromise came with the territory. But sponsored filmmaking resituated questions of compromise within a gray zone that had emerged between committed documentary film work, on the one hand, and labor for hire, on the other. Selected by sponsors for their past achievements in the field, documentarists who chose not to check their political baggage when accepting paid assignments often confronted difficult choices for which no guidelines had been drafted. Social-documentary practices were not introduced, fully codified, at the outset of the 1930s; rather, they were debated, tested, and refined in concrete situations. By the late 1930s, proposals for commercial sponsorship—vigorously opposed in some quarters—forced social documentarists to clarify their notion of the genre anew. For many filmmakers, boundary lines were drawn only after they had been crossed.

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