uring the second half of the 1930's, the United States Government embarked on unique project, a public relations campaign to keep the American people informed about the New Deal and the necessity of its programs. Under the direction of the Resettlement Administration, the Government first sponsored radio and photography campaigns, which produced some of the most famous work of artists including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn. Some of the photographs that Evans took went into the critically acclaimed book that he worked with James Agee to produce, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1935, the Resettlement Administration decided to produce films as a method of getting its message to a wider segment of the public. The films produced under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration represent the only peacetime production by the United States Government of films intended for commercial release and public viewing ever. They also heralded a new direction for American documentary filmmaking because of the sophistication with which they were made. These films were known as the Films of Merit, and the first of them were directed by Pare Lorentz.
The Resettlement Administration was founded on May 1, 1935 as part of the second phase of the New Deal. Dr. Rexford Guy Tugwell, the Under-Secretary of Agriculture, was appointed as its administrator. The goal of the Resettlement Administration was the relocation of impoverished farm families and poor city families. It also focused on the prevention of unprofitable farming techniques and improper land use, as well as the preservation of natural resources. Finally, it was responsible for the creation of three "Greenbelt" communities, suburban housing developments outside of Washington D.C., Cincinnati, and Milwaukee, intended to provide improved living conditions for city dwellers. Like many other New Deal agencies, it was founded on the belief that a control of social conditions would produce better lives for American citizens.
The Resettlement Administration chose Pare Lorentz to be its film consultant. In Lorentz, the RA found a perfect match to its purposes. Lorentz was a passionate patriot and a staunch supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal. He believed that the American people had a right to expect the American government to provide them with information. And he also believed that the government should take advantage of the film medium to present the public with more truthful information than he felt they were receiving from the commercial media.
Lorentz came to the project with the first film already conceptualized. Dr. Tugwell originally envisioned that the Resettlement Administration would produce a series of eighteen films, the first of which he suggested should deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA had been created in May of 1933 and was charged with building dams and establishing flood control, projects that dovetailed with the Resettlement Administration's commitment to environmental conservation. But Lorentz wanted to make a film about the Dust Bowl, an idea that he had unsuccessfully pitched to the Hollywood studios a year earlier. Lorentz was able to convince Tugwell to make this film, which became The Plow That Broke the Plains. But Lorentz' second film for the RA would explore Tugwell's idea. The River, which many film critics argued was an even greater artistic success than The Plow That Broke the Plains told that story of the great rivers of the American continent and the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The success of these projects led Roosevelt to establish the United States Film Service in 1938 under Lorentz' direction. The USFS was active until 1940, when Congress cut off its funding. In that time, the USFS produced Ecce Homo! (1939), a film about unemployment, and The Fight for Life (1940), a film which dealt with public health services. Both projects were overseen by Lorentz.
Lorentz' somewhat revolutionary use of the documentary format inspired other groups in the 1930's as to the usefulness the film media in transmitting social and political messages. In 1939 the American Institute of Planners commissioned a film to be released at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The result was The City, a film about the historic importance of rural, small town life in America, the evils of the city dwelling that had developed as America industrialized and the possibility of reclaiming the "good life" through suburban housing initiatives.
Pare Lorentz did not direct The City. It was directed by Willard Van Dyke, one of the cameramen on The River. The concept and much of the script was developed by Lorentz, and the same poetic style that he employed in the narratives of The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River can be found in The City.
This project takes its title from a line section VII of Lorentz' script for The Plow That Broke the Plains. To Lorentz, "the golden harvest" was an image that represented the land of plenty that America was before the Depression and the plenty that she might again produce if use of her land was brought back into the balance that had existed earlier in her history. But it is also symbolic of the ideas inherent in Lorentz' own work, ideas that sprang from his sincere belief in the promise of America. In the face of the great hardship that the United States was experiencing, Lorentz and others like him looked back with a traditional fascination at America's pastoral qualities for answers to the questions that plagued an ever more modern nation. The images that he employed in his films, the lone cowboy, waving fields of grass, the merging of the tributaries into the great Mississippi River, the simplicity of small town New England life, all spoke to simpler, golden past.
Lorentz' worked expressed a belief that in turning away from the negative aspects of the present and looking back to the more successful past, America would be able to reclaim the best aspects of that past and bring themselves out of the malaise into which they were floundering. Lorentz used the films that he made for the U.S. Government to spread this message to the American movie-going public.
The scripts that Lorentz wrote for these films are closer to poetry than to film narration. They played on tradition American poetic forms, and have often been compared to the work of Walt Whitman. The script of The River was even nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1938. Lorentz combined poetry with powerful visuals and moving music to create a new medium, one complex enough to accomplish the somewhat contradictory task of both praising and chastening the country that he so loved. He must be considered then not only a filmmaker, but also a poet.
As a part of the 1930's Project, this site offers a short biography of Lorentz and his role in the creation of the Films of Merit. It examines individually the two movies, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, which set the standard not simply for the rest of the Films of Merit but for American documentary films in general, as well as a third film The City, with which Lorentz was involved. An analysis of these three films, including Real Video segments of each, illustrates one type of response to the Great Depression, a response that is part of the ongoing American search for a usable past.
Other sites in the AS@UVA 1930's Project which relate to this site and which should be of interest include: