The shock that the Great Depression delivered to Americans created a profound crisis of confidence in individual and collective notions of what was really Real. As institutions and lives collapsed under the weight of economic failure, all seemed to have been illusory. The decade long preoccupation with corrupt politicians, shyster lawyers, huckster businessmen, sensationalist reporters, and confidence men of every stripe betrayed a pervasive sense that nothing was actually as it seemed. And the documentary impulse of the period, in photography, film, and audio, was an attempt by a wide variety of actors to define and disseminate "realities" that could command belief across a divided and dispirited nation.
Not the smallest irony in this process was that the very means of capturing and communicating these "realities" was itself profoundly suspect. In the age of mechanical reproduction, the photograph or sound recording were paradoxically both trustworthy and open to subtle manipulation and deception. And their use by competing interests or ideological perspectives who offered up contradictory "realities" simply added to the confusion. Through the decade one can see the evolution of increasingly complicated warrants of authenticity, everything from the persona of the photographer or reporter to technical properties of the document that seemed to escape convention or artfulness and thus seem actually real rather than merely apprently real.
The search for warrants of authenticity is, of course, endless, limited by the audience's ability to see the conventions of reality at work and the producer's need to move to hide them more carefully. In the end, belief probably comes to depend on the conscious willing suspension of disbelief, a kind of double consciousness or a tolerance for intolerable ironies.
What follows is a gallery of responses to the documentary quest in film for "reality" in the Depression.
New Deal Agencies
Pare Lorentz: Poet and Filmmaker
Documentaries, Docudramas and Infomercials
in the Great Depression
(The Plow that Broke the Plains, The River, and The City. (Resettlement Administration) )
Work Pays (WPA)
Primarily a catalogue of WPA projects, roads, dams, airports, housing, parks, etc., with martial music. The film presents blue collar workers on various construction projects, with white collar workers doing office, technical and professional work.
We Work Again (WPA)
This film focuses on the WPAs programs for black workers and, in tandem with Work Pays (above) reflects the New Deal's "separate but decidedly not-quite-equal" treatment of race.
The Tennesse Valley Authority (TVA)
A curious film that begins with a condescending portrait of the benighted locals who will be displaced and 'civilized' by the TVA then turns to Wendell Wilkie and the private utility companies who have been unhappily converted to public utility companies. This clip ends abruptly, but not before having offended just about most of the locals.
Man Against the River (1937)
Works Progress Aministration account of the 1937 Ohio River floods, the WPA's actions including strengthening levees downstream as the flood crest moved south and in cleanup and rebuilding afterward.
The most important and productive group of leftist documentary filmmakers including Paul Strand, Ralph Steiner, Leo Hurwitz, Willard Van Dyke, and Joris Ivens.
(Native Land, Power and the Land, People of the Cumberland, The Spanish Earth, Heart of Spain, Return to Life and China Strikes Back.)
The March of Time
Also, see additional broadcasts in the 30s Timeline.
- Frontiers of the Future
- During the Depression, the company that invented installment buying in the 1890s, Household Finance Corporation, mounted a major campaign to educate prosopective customers on the management of household finances and the virture of home ownership.
- America Marches On
- Narrated by Lowell Thomas, this docudrama from the National Industrial Council argues for the benevolence of technology and capitalism and the inevitability of progress in a consumer society.
- Master Hands pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3, pt. 4 (1936)
- A remarkable industrial realist film from General Motors that presents a balletic and symphonic picture of automobile manufacturing. Released in 1936 just months before the sit down strike that would end in union recognition at the plants, this aesthetically quite beautiful film marks some sort of high water mark for corporate liberalism's hopes for reconciling capital and labor through technology and enlightened professional management.
- From Dawn to Sunset Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3 (1936)
- A GM film that takes us across the continent stopping at major industrial cities where the Company operates. At each stop, we are shown brigh, clean workplaces, happy and productive workers who become prosperous consumers and contented citizens after each shift.
- Frontiers of the Future, a screen editorial from the National Industrial Council narrated by Lowell Thomas. (1937)