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An interview with Pare

On a cold and rainy St. Patrick’s Day in 1976, Alan Fern of the Library of Congress interviewed Pare Lorentz, legendary documentary filmmaker of the 1930s and 40s. They met at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C. just blocks from the White House where forty years before Lorentz had provided a private viewing of his film The Plow That Broke the Plains for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

From that point on, Pare Lorentz was known as “FDR’s filmmaker.” In all, Lorentz would make three ground-breaking and award-winning films: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), The River (1938), and The Fight for Life (1940). In this never-before-heard series of recordings, a reflective Pare Lorentz recounts the influences and struggles he and his small, underfunded band of filmmakers faced in the making of what many believe were the first of the great documentary films in the 20th century.

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Chapter 1: I Had No Particular Horizon

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[Pare Lorentz:] I came to New York City in the summer of 1925 in an old Model T Ford and put up at the Vanderbilt Hotel on a due bill. I don’t know whether you know about due bills? Hotels would advertise in publications, and then the editors and publishers could take out free lodging. I was editor of the West Virginia Moonshine, a humorous magazine at West Virginia University. I had been elected editor. I also had been elected the head of the southern humorous college magazines of southern universities and colleges and one of my assignments was to come to New York and collect over a quarter of a million dollars that a scoundrelly advertising agency owed to the southern universities.

I was a pre-law student and I was discontented with the university and with the prospect of becoming a lawyer because the law faculty used to, over a glass of moonshine, advise me the only way to make a living as a lawyer in West Virginia was either to bribe a jury for the coal operators or bribe a jury for the United Mine Workers.

So, I wandered around the city and went over to the Four A’s advertising outfit [American Association of Advertising Agencies] and met a fellow there that said he was going to China and why didn’t I go get his job. So I went to Harrison, New Jersey and met up with an ex-marine major from North Carolina. And he employed me as the editor of The Edison Sales Builder, a house organ for the Edison Mazda Lamp Company totally owned by General Electric.

I had no particular horizon. I had studied music. As a youngster I gave several fiddle concerts at West Virginia Wesleyan College where I studied music while I was going to high school in Buckhannon, West Virginia. Well, I was discontented with music critics then and now. But, I had no horizon, I thought I might return and go to law school. But, New York City at 25 was a gold cab. It was the beginning of an enormous bull market. It was a place that attracted young people from the interior of America greater or more than it does now. It was a place where the theater was incredibly exciting, the beginning of the Theatre Guild, the beginning of reality on the stage, What Price Glory and the beginning of the Marx Brothers. The general ebullience and excitement of the city was quite exciting to all the people there, certainly a youngster from West Virginia.

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Chapter 2: I Started Writing

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[Pare Lorentz:] Well, I started writing, the only income I had was to write. And I had no absolute blood kin, no soul in New York. I actually went into training.

I got on a swimming team over at the Lamp Company and I ran at night and regard[ed] the city. I used to take advantage of everything that was there, long since gone, but the symphony concerts up at the stadium at City College, great old Minnie Guggenheim would put on for free. I tried to find out where the ocean was and took trips out to the country-side, but it was an exploration where I tried writing. I did sell, that very first summer, a few bits of buffoonery to a new magazine called The New Yorker and to an old magazine called Judge.

Anyway, when I went to work for Judge, there was a wonderful, kind, gentle, experienced journalist named William Morris Houghton who wrote the editorial page, and idly at times, reported on movies. He had been the editor of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly in the First World War. He had been on the old Daily Mail before then, been a war correspondent in the First World War, a gentle, kind, good man. And he was against the Ku Klux Klan and for the repeal of prohibition. And one of the many banks that owned hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of notes on this old magazine, humorous or not, informed the editor, Norman Anthony, that Mr. Houghton was fired by order of the bank, because we were losing circulation in the southern United States by being against the Ku Klux Klan and against prohibition. So in a rage, when this happened, Norman Anthony appointed me movie critic of Judge magazine in the summer of 1926.

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Chapter 3: I Was Never A Gadget Man

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[Pare Lorentz:] I never was a gadget man, [I use] a penny so I can open up a flip-top beer can. I didn’t go into the physics, the light and contrast such as [photographer Edward] Steichen did in his youth. But, I was interested in the form, and sufficiently [so] that in time, the best of the Hollywood directors spoke tolerantly of me, and in time became very good friends.

Well, when I was appointed staff critic at Vanity Fair in 1931, I had an interview in which they asked us, I just said, “I am a critic and that’s all I am!” I never fell in love with a lady in a picture, your movies or any other way, and the banality amused me.

Well, last year a teacher in a high school had one of these telephone conversations and the children looked at The River and then they asked me questions by telephone. And they said, how could I keep the tension in the film? Which pleased me, 30 years, odd years, afterwards that they thought [of] tension. I just said, “Like any good writer, you cut out anything that bores you.”

I was employed by William Randolph Hearst under the editor, Bill Curley, of the New York Evening Journal in 1931. When the New York World failed, Hearst for a while tried to make the Journal more or less a literary newspaper instead of a sensational newspaper or to combine both. He hired Gilbert Seldes, he hired John Anderson as the dramatic critic and I was hired as movie critic. I did something that aroused great dismay. I wrote a two paragraph letter saying I would accept the job with one proviso, that I would never review a movie in which Marion Davies appeared, unless I felt like it. They said they couldn’t sign it, but that well, and I wouldn’t sign a contract because Mr. Hearst had more money than I did and all his men that signed contracts always got fired in time.

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Chapter 4: Nobody Anywhere Was Reporting

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[Pare Lorentz:] I would go home to West Virginia to see my own people and would see the Monongahela Valley practically closed down and the coal cars rusting and this feeling of nobody anywhere reporting. I started to write about it and I even wrote in the Journal. That if I wrote one piece about news reels and how was there was no reality, and I said that if Tom Paine–I believe he sold a hundred thousand copies of the Age of Reason, when there couldn’t have been many more than a hundred, other than a million white people on the eastern seaboard.

That’s almost ten percent of the population bought the Age of Reason. Well, I argued that if he were alive in ‘31 he’d be using a newsreel and not printing Age of Reason, because outside of Main Street and Wall Street, and perhaps one or two men, Stuart Chase and Lewis Mumford perhaps, but [to read something about] the sale of anything analyzing the rampant speculation, careless bank practices looking back in history you will find very few records in words.

I met up with a wonderful group of older men who listened to me tolerantly and I told them about [an idea I had for] a best seller. Two newspaper men in Chicago collected nothing but bloody pictures of the gang wars of all the prohibition gangs and [unclear] so they got out a little publication called X Marks the Spot. But, rightly, they got a newsstand distributor. So instead of going to bookstores, and they sold hundreds of thousands of copies. That gave me an idea.

I went to Mr. Curran who was in New York on a committee to repeal prohibition and tried to do a great big picture book more distinguished than X Marks the Spot. A marvelous man named Tom Cleland, who was the art director of a new magazine not yet out, on which I worked last week, called Fortune, so I tried to pedal it. In other words, I tried to get the literary or financial people to see the power of the photograph used as a polemic, and as you want, propaganda medium. Yes, eventually I finally did put together a book and it was published.

You must remember, you’re too young, but in ‘30, ‘31, ’32, until Mr. Roosevelt was elected, there was a great suppression in news partly from fear. When the banks started failing in Detroit, long before the bank holiday, there was a fear that it would cause panic and there were all sorts of shenanigans that were known to communities, but the publisher was frightened. In a legitimate way, as fear set in. And that fact that nothing to fear but fear itself, of Mr. Roosevelt, had a validity all through the warp and woof of what’s to say. So it wasn’t just that I had a closed idea of photographs, it was that somebody say something about what was going on.

Well, I had been on a cross-country trip and met some in-laws in Detroit. They all had bullet proof glass. There were at least a hundred and fifty thousand unemployed United Automobile Workers, of course there wasn’t any United Automobile Workers [union at the time], but they were automobile workers. And a great, great many of the tire and automobile workers were ex-GIs from the AEF [American Expeditionary Forces] and the First World War and a majority of those ex-veterans–or veterans–were from the southern highlands, my part of the world: Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia. So they were unemployed, standing around, sitting around up at Belle Isle and every type of agitator was at them — Communism, Socialism, Nazism, Fascism, Holy Rollers and they weren’t paying any attention. What they wanted was work. Some of them rode over to Canada and became bootleggers. Some tore down their shacks in the winter in order to get enough fuel. But no one, but no one, was reporting and no one was photographing.

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Chapter 5: Mr. Lorentz Goes to Washington

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[Pare Lorentz:] I had been fired by Mr. Hearst in person from the New York Evening Journal, but Joe Connelly, the head of King Features Syndicate, their feature syndicate, hired me again for Mr. Hearst to come to Washington upon the election of Mr. Roosevelt to write a column called the “Washington Side Show.” It had about three men and they all got fired, but it was a revelation, the extraordinary excitement. The whole country came to Washington. They came with poems. They came with ideas. The great part of it was the NIRA [National Industrial Recovery Act] code hearings. Again, I attended these hearings instead of taking the handouts as did 95 percent of my colleagues of the press who would sit in the anteroom of the Department of Commerce and get a summary of what was going on.

I got fired from that job. Again directly by Mr. Hearst because I had summarized the cabinet and said that [Secretary of Agriculture] Henry Wallace, bumbling as he seemed to the press, was going to prove the strongest and most controversial man in Mr. Roosevelt’s cabinet. I hadn’t known that Hearst had a fruit company. I think the Del Monte Fruit Company. Whatever, he was against Wallace’s agriculture policy because the person who rigged it and in the wire said, “Wallace is crazy, discontinue Lorentz’s column.”

So, I had had enough of the daily grind anyway so I went back to New York. I was still movie critic at Judge. It was failing, but that was my trade and I kept that trade as long as I worked for the government. Matter of fact, the only way I could afford to work for the government. But what I wanted to do is put together a one-hour newsreel from the election of Mr. Roosevelt to the extraordinary events of the repeal of Prohibition, the beginning of horse racing in New York City. The whole, well, I can just say it, not only the 100 days but the hope and yet the violence that took place and the kidnapping and the tear gassing of striking workers.

I only had one or two acquaintances with large money. I didn’t even attempt Hollywood and they just thought I couldn’t do it for limited funds. They thought in terms of million dollar production. So I turned to still pictures, got big 36-inch cardboard and with the help of Dr. Agha, who was the art director of Conde Nast—

Interviewer: Yes, Vanity Fair.

Lorentz:–So we laid it out and brought it out, The Roosevelt Year, 1934.

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Chapter 6: The Roosevelt Year

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[Pare Lorentz:] So we laid it out and brought it out, The Roosevelt Year, 1934.

I put running captions across the top so you could do it like an old stereopticon slide and you could look at the captions and turn the pages, and then, in decent type, I had a summary of the facts, but the big ones in caps were supposed to be like titles and [unclear].

I went to several people in New York City about an idea of forming a company to photograph the U.S. and all the migrants, the great change in the portrait of the country, that we discussed–that nobody was doing it. And as usual, the Wall Street type would say, “Well, what you should do is form a non-profit corporation and get a half million dollar loan from the government,” and all this sort of thing.

Not being a money man, or a corporation man, but it didn’t seem a correct idea to me. So, on a trip to Washington I had the book and it had very good notices. Even Mark Sullivan, the old Republican in this story, wrote a very pleasant notice in the Saturday Review. So I brought the book down and showed Jim [James Le Cron]. Why doesn’t somebody do something? He was the closest friend in Washington. He was assistant to and personal secretary of the Secretary of Agriculture. Jim was an uncompromising, big, old, good, sturdy man. He introduced me to Mr. Wallace.

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Chapter 7: Talk to Tugwell

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[Pare Lorentz:] Mr. Wallace listened to my general idea and said, “I think you should go see Rexford Guy Tugwell. He has a brand new agency, it has no bureau. It doesn’t have anything as a matter of fact; it’s brand new and therefore you would’nt be handicapped. I have all these old bureaus in agriculture and it’s hard for them take on a new idea. So talk with Tugwell.”

Interviewer: Tugwell was the [head of the] Resettlement Administration.

Lorentz: He had just been appointed. I think the resettlement was established as a part of the huge four-and-a-half billion dollar work relief package that had been passed by Congress. And out of that money, the president created the Resettlement Administration to be aimed at dispossessed people, farmers and migrants. I first met the newly-appointed chief of the information office, the public relations director. His name was John Franklin Carter. Carter was a very interesting man. He had written many mystery stories under the name of Jay Franklin, J-A-Y. He also had written political essays for Vanity Fair when I was movie critic there–

Interviewer: But you didn’t know him there.

Lorentz: I never met him. He had been on State Department relief missions after the First World War. He was a very worldly man, not in the sense of drunken or mistresses, but a professional writing man. He had at least three books–serious books–on post-war–post-First World War–history published. So we got along immediately. [He said,] “Sure, great, let’s go see Tugwell,” and from then on, ‘til John quit, and took up a political column–writing, at no time any place was there anything except forward, let’s get the job done, no interference, no suggestions ever. It was extremely unusual for any organization, much less the government. It was an extremely, unusually, friendly, great companionship.

What Rex said right away was, “Well, let’s make 18 movies.”

Interviewer: Why 18?

Lorentz: I don’t know. He just wanted–he had 18 ideas in mind, perhaps 18 departments in Resettlement, 18 topics and I had nothing. I had not even an office. So I suggested that we start out with one of a sufficient merit to prove that it was a worthwhile idea. So, he reluctantly agreed with that.

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Chapter 8: The Sky of New York City was Blotted Out

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[Pare Lorentz:] I had, as I told you, been in the prairies and industrial mid-west in the 30s where the drought was already under way, merciless heat. And I had been working at Newsweek, when the sky of New York City was blotted out in a strange, gray, mustard-colored cloud. So, I found out it was dust from the Great Plains and the prairies that had blown in. And therefore, I was assigned writing for the National Press section, a regular news magazine type of round up.

But I wrote more than one piece about the drought and it seemed to me that that was appropriate because of the size of it and because again the eastern seaboard, much thought the city, had no concept of the size out there anyway. Because I had been startled, driving a second-hand Chevrolet through Iowa and Wisconsin and felt like I was in a row boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean after having been in the city so long. So it seemed to me an appropriate image subject and an appropriate disaster subject, and one that lent itself to the problem of informing city people why do we give money to those people out there.

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Chapter 9: Stryker was a Brilliant Man

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[Pare Lorentz:] I had at no time seen or heard of Roy Stryker because of the nature of my life in New York. He was a professor at Columbia University and I never would have encountered him in the ordinary warp and woof, running around. So the first time I saw Roy was when he came in Judge magazine’s office and said, “I hear we’re going to be working together in the history department of Resettlement.” I want to repeat here that Rexford was a co-professor at Columbia. So I was startled and in an instant thought I think might speak a little, he had a merry face. I had not known he had been in the 34th division.

All I knew was this merry-faced fellow came in eagerly and said that we’re going to be together in the history department. Me, I didn’t want to be together with anybody, anywhere. I wanted to do one thing. So, that’s my first meeting with him. Then, I must reiterate this about the lack of people in Washington. Good hard-bitten newspaper men, good rewrite men, good novelists. This group did not arrive in Washington really until naturally we all go to the Second World War.

So my whole thing, I am not yet 30 years old, was to try to get professionals, trying to get people across the railroad tracks. I had no intent of being a government employee. I wanted to keep writing for a living. I had two books published. Therefore there was no hostility, but I certainly didn’t want to be with an academic group and I didn’t want to think in terms of a library. In no way wanted to join up with a group. The next thing is, as I’ve said before, I had no home in Washington. My home was in Sneden’s Landing [NY]. The inordinate working hours mainly in hotel rooms in New York and a hotel room wherever and in the Carlton Hotel in Washington. So that I lived in a suitcase, very much at this time working for the government.

I did not want to move my life to Washington. I felt it was inbred, a caste system. So, I just wanted to get the work, come, get the money, get out, and get to work. Roy moved his family here and therefore he was part of the hierarchy. I think we were far apart but that was because it was a difference in concept of a college professor thinking of history and me thinking of getting on a public screen to show people something of America, therefore that was our beginning relationship.

I want to be fair, I’m left-handed and I usually start out describing any friend with his absolute worst characteristics. So allow me to start out this way. Stryker was a brilliant man, as I say. First, he lived in Washington. Secondly, he was like a faculty member with his favorite backwards students who said–and he was a mother hen. Now, the men who worked for him were still, well, there’s many of them so they can explain their relationship.

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Chapter 10: Never in the History of America

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[Pare Lorentz:] Never in the history of America has there been an examination before or since as went on in the New Deal. We were getting reports of counties that weren’t just unemployed, but how many churches and what were the religions and what was the nature of the south. The most extraordinary in-depth in places where you’d sink, Red Rock, West Virginia, O.K. Mountaineers. You’d find Lithuanians, Swedes and different types of churches than you might expect.

Therefore, I had suggested to Roy that we had these magnificent reports so that it would be wise to do some detail about identification, not just people. I wasn’t a still picture man and of course the money and the time to make a movie and to think of music, meant a long haul. So he did show me the work of his men. He did ask opinions. And so then, you must bear in mind this: two picture magazines came into existence, Look and Life.

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Chapter 11: We Were Still Experimental

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[Pare Lorentz:] We talked and we would say we were still experimental. I wasn’t on permanent employment until I started to make The River. So I moved up one notch in being put on a weekly payroll or I’m not sure it was not an annual payroll. Getting back to Roy, one amusing thing was I said, “I simply can’t work at these wages.” So I hit a figure like $9, $10,000 a year and D.J. Ward is absolutely stopped and said, “There’s some kind of a rule. But do you realize that that’s what Henry Wallace gets? And you can’t get as much money as the Secretary of Agriculture.” But we did arrange I got $9,999 dollars.

We had many ideas and concepts which didn’t work out. One of mine was, just like any movie director, that I might ask a man to go ahead and do location pictures. That it would make my life easier and cheaper and we had many discussions like that. But it actually wasn’t true as to being feasible. They only had a vague outline except it seemed all right to me. That is, where there was grass, shoot it, where there were heavy equipment, shoot it, where there were cattle, shoot it, where there were dust storms, shoot it.