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Biography of Pare Lorentz

Pare Lorentz, known as FDR’s moviemaker, felt strongly that movies held enormous potential for social justice and education, and that corporate and commercial interests in Hollywood were stifling those qualities. Under the Roosevelt Administration, Pare worked to create what he called films of merit, federally funded movies good enough to share billing on commercial screens with Hollywood productions. His film The River received first prize as best documentary at the 1938 Venice International Film Festival and was the first American film to be honored in this category.

List of Projects & Films

Interview with Pare Lorentz

This biography is based on accounts of Pare Lorentz’s life as told through his own words in Pare Lorentz: FDR’s Moviemaker and by his biographer Robert L. Snyder in Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film.


Pare Lorentz was born Leonard MacTaggart Lorentz on December 11, 1905 in Clarksburg, West Virginia. His father, Pare Hanson Lorentz, was a printer and publisher of high school and college yearbooks; his mother, Alma MacTaggart Ruttencutter Lorentz, was a professional singer.

There was always music in the Lorentz home, which led to his lifelong love and appreciation of music; young Leonard studied the violin for ten years. He graduated from Buckhannon High School in 1922 and attended West Virginia Wesleyan University for a year; in 1923 he transferred to West Virginia University. He played fiddle in an orchestra and was editor of Moonshine (the university’s humor magazine) and a member of an honorary journalistic fraternity “Sphinx.”

The Journalist’s Life

Lorentz left the university before graduation and traveled to New York where he parlayed his college writing experience into writing a few short pieces for the newly-launched magazine The New Yorker. Soon after, he adopted his father’s first name, Pare, for all future publications and projects.


Lorentz soon realized that he needed solid employment or he would have to return to West Virginia. By 1925, as editor of The Edison Sales Builder, Lorentz had his first full-time job as a professional writer. Despite his lack of experience, within a year he was hired by the popular humor magazine Judge and in short order was named as the magazine’s motion picture critic.

Lorentz was not afraid to hold an unpopular position, a useful quality in a critic. He criticized the high and low with equal candor. Described as someone who was never satisfied with holding just one job at a time, he was soon writing film criticism for the New York Evening Journal newspaper and magazines including Vanity Fair, Town and Country, and later, McCall’s. His criticism was not always well received and it may be said that his directness and honesty got him fired almost as often as he was hired.


Lorentz felt strongly that the movies held enormous potential for social justice and education, qualities that he felt were being stifled in Hollywood by corporate and commercial interests. In 1930, at the unusually young age of 22, he partnered with distinguished attorney Morris Ernst on the book Censored: The Private Life of the Movies, in which they set forth a remarkable early assessment of the importance of film. “The movie was created, tried, and developed in America. Supported by the dumb and the quick, rich and poor, it is the most powerful medium for news, opinion, and art in the world,” they wrote.


In Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film, biographer Robert L. Snyder states, “At the time, Lorentz was 25 and had been a critic and student of film only two years; yet he clearly revealed a powerful insight into the potential of motion pictures, a potential he was among the first to fulfill in this country.”

In 1931, Lorentz married actress Sally Bates and successfully contrived to get newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst to finance his honeymoon in Europe on the pretext that he would interview director René Clair in France and meet Alfred Hitchcock in England. Shortly afterward, he was fired for a review of Svengali that castigated actor John Barrymore and screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur for making “junk.” Unfortunately the review appeared when Hecht, MacArthur, and Barrymore were guests at Hearst’s California castle San Simeon.

Mr. Lorentz Goes to Washington

After a short, ill-fated stint as film critic at Vanity Fair (this time he was fired for upsetting Nelson Rockefeller), Lorentz was once again hired by Hearst Newspapers to (according to Lorentz in his memoir FDR’s Moviemaker) “go to Washington and write about spies,” who were assumed by right-wingers such as Charles Lindbergh to be lurking in the Roosevelt Administration.


As Lorentz later wrote in FDR’s Moviemaker, “Those were exciting days in Washington.” He had been fascinated by the Roosevelt presidency from its inception and, while working at Vanity Fair, had tried unsuccessfully to raise money for a film called The Roosevelt Year that he described as a “newsreel of the tragic events that were going on in our country, including the foreclosure on homes and dispossession of farms, the failure of banks, and the migrants from both industry and farms riding the freight trains west.” Undeterred, Lorentz converted the idea into a book of the same name, using newspaper photographs and clever captioning.

The Roosevelt Year came out in 1934 while Lorentz was working in Washington. It admirably conveyed the extraordinary upheavals that America was experiencing in the depths of the Depression and the high drama of national recovery. He used it to try to get an introduction to Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture. When Lorentz wrote a glowing comment about Wallace in his Washington column for Hearst papers, he was promptly fired again!

Pare Lorentz: Filmmaker

Finally, in 1935, Pare Lorentz succeeded in meeting Secretary Wallace who introduced him to Rexford Guy Tugwell, a former Columbia University economics professor and chief of the Resettlement Administration. Tugwell was enthusiastic about Lorentz’s idea of making films and suggested that they make eighteen films. In FDR’s Moviemaker, Lorentz recalls that he suggested they instead focus on just one that would be what he called a “film of merit.”


Later, in an interview with biographer Robert Snyder, Lorentz defined a film of merit as “one produced by the federal government that could stand on its own merits and share billing with commercial Hollywood productions.” The films would be good enough to be shown on commercial screens, something the federal government had never attempted with its previous informational films. 


As the initial subject, Lorentz suggested the Dust Bowl: “I remembered the great vast landscape from my first trip in 1924, particularly the huge arc of sky. I also remembered one day in New York when I was working at Newsweek and a heavy, slow-moving, gray cloud, dust from the drought stricken Great Plains, blew down in the middle of Manhattan Island and settled like an old blanket over the tower of the New York Times building in Times Square.”

Making The Plow That Broke the Plains

Having never made a film before and armed with a meager initial budget of $6,000, Lorentz had to make certain key decisions before he began shooting. He decided against using studios; instead, he would shoot everything on location. Nor would he use professional actors—only real people who really lived on the Great Plains. Similarly, there would be no sound recording on location; the story of the film would instead be told using a narrator and background music. Lorentz had little trouble assembling a film crew and he selected the best men available. Unable to persuade anyone to produce or direct the film, however, he chose to perform those tasks himself.


In Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film, Snyder describes the incredible struggles, complications, and machinations that Lorentz experienced in making his first film. It is perhaps not surprising that Hollywood did not welcome the government getting into the movie business and some of his crew threatened to strike over differences in political views. Nonetheless, equipped with the barest of script outlines, Lorentz and crew set off to film in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, western Kansas, and the Texas Panhandle.

They faced fierce dust storms and met unforgettable characters, the real victims of the drought that by then had lasted six years. Lorentz, quoted in a 1936 article “Dust Storm Film” in Literary Digest, described the people he encountered this way, “They still have an enormous pride. We stopped some and filmed them as they went by. When we talked to them we learned much of the cruel force that has blighted them.”

Lorentz Battles to Complete The Plow

Filming the story that had evolved into The Plow That Broke the Plains was one thing; finishing the film presented a new set of problems. Eleven possible composers were interviewed; all were interested in the project but not in working closely with the producer. Virgil Thomson was the exception. Thomson was an expert composer and had grown up on the prairie and knew how terrifying dust storms could be. Best of all, he was willing to work closely with Lorentz and, when it came to payment, asked Lorentz, “How much money do you have?” Lorentz said that he had very little left but what remained in the budget ($500) would all be paid to Thomson.


In a letter written in 1961 to Snyder, Thomson stated that Lorentz had “an extreme sensitivity to the expressive powers and dramatic uses of music.” Using folk melodies, plains tunes, hymns and dirt farmer songs as “source music,” Thomson created a memorable and evocative score. 


Alexander Smallens, a well-known conductor, conducted it with an orchestra of first-chair performers from the New York Philharmonic who worked overtime for no extra fee. Thomas Chalmers, a former baritone with the Metropolitan Opera Company, performed the narration as the poetry it was. The rhythm of Lorentz’s words combined with the music, helped to propel the film forward.


In his autobiography FDR’s Moviemaker, Lorentz said, “My intent almost a half-century ago was to have the pictures tell their story; to augment that story with music that would not only be an accompaniment but also would evoke emotions related to the lives of the people concerned, and finally to write the fewest possible words, solely for explanation and clarity, and to have them as much as possible in time with the music.”


The final production cost for The Plow That Broke the Plains was $19,260. The world premiere of the film was on the second floor of the White House in early March 1936. This was the first time that Lorentz had met the president and according to a Time magazine article, when it was finished, President Roosevelt was brimming with enthusiasm and had a long talk with Lorentz, praising him for his work. When it officially premiered two months later, The Plow That Broke the Plains received excellent press—including a rave review from the United Press that appeared on the front page of 21 newspapers.


However, it was far more difficult than Lorentz had anticipated to achieve national, widespread distribution. Some distributors, opposed to Roosevelt and his policies, categorized it as “propaganda.” According to an article in Business Week published at the time, others offered the excuse that the film was too long for a short feature and too short for a long feature.


Eight of the largest booking firms refused to distribute the film, so Lorentz found a different way. As recounted by Snyder, “Lorentz packed the film cans containing The Plow into suitcases and set out with a team of government press agents to circumvent the booking blockade. Upon arriving in a town, they would arrange a preview for the press. The national reputation Lorentz had developed as a writer and critic helped him. Managing editors and motion picture critics knew his work and were willing to help him, especially after seeing the film. Just before the screening, Lorentz would say to them, ‘If you like it, please say that this picture can’t be shown in your town.’”


The attraction of what was apparently “forbidden fruit” led to successful reviews and screenings, but even with positive reviews, the film was not in wide release. Lorentz decided that the key to success would be for a first-run theater in New York City to show the film. 

Finally, the management of the Rialto Theater on Times Square took a chance and skillfully presented the film as “the picture they dared us to show!” emphasizing Hollywood’s rejection of the film. The next day The New York Times reported that the audience gave it hearty applause and the blockade was broken. The film soon had wide circulation in major cities and smaller circuits across the country.

Next, The River

Lorentz, worn down by all these frustrations, was prepared to quit the world of government filmmaking. But, according to Snyder, when he expressed his disgust to Tugwell in June 1936, as he prepared to walk out he spotted a map of the Mississippi River. “There,” he said, “you people are missing the biggest story in the world—the Mississippi River.” Tugwell called him back and the next great filmmaking adventure began.


What Lorentz had learned from experience resulted in a film that is in many ways his best effort. The story and editing are dramatic and fluent, the music compelling and emotive. Lorentz used as his poetic link the names of the tributaries of the Mississippi, a sequence that builds powerfully in counterpoint to Thomson’s score.


When Lorentz thought he had completed the film, a gigantic flood in 1937 prompted him to return to filming to capture its frightening effects. Snyder points out that this unexpected event not only provided Lorentz with footage of a natural disaster but also gave the film focused attention when it was released, similar to how the 1936 dust storms helped promote The Plow That Broke the Plains.


Lorentz showed The River to President Roosevelt in September 1937, and the president was again enormously enthusiastic. Lorentz premiered the film in New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi, and then traveled from river city to river city along the Mississippi and its tributaries to promote it.

Word of mouth and enormously positive reviews led to national distribution and then to a successful premiere in Great Britain. The River was entered in the 1938 Venice Film Festival where it received first prize as best documentary, winning over Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the Berlin Olympics, Olympiad. It was the first American film to be honored in this category.

A Career in Documentary Film

As Snyder writes in Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film, “The success of The Plow That Broke the Plains made possible The River, which in turn led to the establishment of the United States Film Service.” The latter was established by FDR to continue the work of producing motion pictures in conjunction with other federal agencies and it was during this period that Lorentz created The Fight for Life.


The Fight for Life was released in 1940 and focused on infant and maternal mortality in the United States. Snyder, in his Lorentz biography, writes that after viewing the film with his colleagues, Dr. Walter M. Simpson, chief pathologist of the Miami Valley Hospital for Research sent his endorsement to Lorentz via telegram, saying, “Have heard only enthusiastic praise from every good obstetrician. Generally agreed that it will revolutionize obstetric practice, save thousands of lives and help correct social conditions that contribute to present high maternal and infant morbidity rates.”


The U.S. Film Service was discontinued after 1940 when Congress voted to cut off funding for the program, despite President Roosevelt’s requests otherwise. Before it ended, the Film Service also produced two other documentaries which Lorentz supervised, The City and The Land. Lorentz also created the radio drama Ecce Homo! about unemployment while working for the Film Service. He conducted work and research to make it into a film but the project could not be completed before the funding was cut.


Lorentz later served heroically during World War II, filming more than 2,500 hours of bombing raids to create 200 briefing films for pilots assigned to fly unfamiliar routes. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.


After the war he was commissioned by the War Department to create a film version of the Nuremberg Trials for which he spent years editing more than a million hours of harrowing footage of Nazi atrocities, propaganda footage and footage of the trials themselves. It was one of the first films to document the trials of Nazi leaders after the war. 


Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today was shown for two years to packed houses in American-occupied Germany and other European nations, but due to changing political tensions it was not shown in the U.S. until 1979, despite Lorentz’s vehement protests. In fact, he resigned from the project just before it was completed when he learned that the War Department was not planning to show it in the U.S. Later he offered to purchase the film and distribute in the U.S. himself but this request was denied.


Lorentz produced one final film, Rural Co-op, in 1947, about farmers in Rockingham County Virginia, before retiring from public life.


Records show that Lorentz had several other ideas for documentary films but was never able to obtain the necessary funding to make them. He remained politically active and in 1955 served as the Washington Post’s special correspondent to the First United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of the Atom.


In 1960 he authored, with environmentalist Rachel Carson, the Democratic National Committee’s pollution platform. He also continued to work as a film consultant on various projects and taught at universities and schools.

Lorentz passed away in 1992, at the age of 86, shortly before another tremendous flowering of interest in the durable medium of the documentary film. Pare and his first wife, Sally Lorentz, had two children, Pare Lorentz, Jr., and Matilda Lorentz Grey; that marriage ended in divorce. Lorentz married a second time in 1943 to Elizabeth Meyer, who had been a researcher on the film The Fight for Life, and was an employee of the U.S. Film Service.


Member, Inter-American Affairs Committee, representing radio and motion pictures for the U.S. Department of State (1938-39)
Chief of U.S. Film Service, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1938-40)
National Defense Editor, McCall’s magazine (1940-41)
Presidential appointment as major, U.S. Army Air Corps (May 1942)
Commanding officer, Overseas Technical Unit, ATC; advanced to rank of Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Air Force (1943-46)
Awarded Legion of Merit (September 1945)
Chief of films, Theater and Music, Civil Affairs Division, U.S. War Department; in charge of those subjects in occupied countries (1946-47)
President, treasurer, Pare Lorentz Associates, Inc., 166 E. 74th Street, New York, NY 10021 (1947-48)
Special correspondents to the Washington Post during the first United Nations Conference on peaceful uses of the atom, Geneva, Switzerland (1955)

Special Honors

Centennial of U.S. Department of Agriculture Reception and Award (1963)
Pare Lorentz Film Festival at the National Archives (1970)
Honorary Professor of Speech, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh (1971)
Honorary Doctor of Letters, West Virginia Wesleyan (1972)
Honorary Doctor of Humanities, West Virginia University (1978)
Honors Reception, National Audiovisual Center (1979)
“Sadie” Award for “outstanding contributions … field of education,” Birmingham International Educational Film Festival (1980)
Special salute for The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1981)
First Annual Career Achievement Award of the International Documentary Association, presented by David L. Wolper (1985)
The Washington Film Council First Annual Award Of Honor, in recognition of fifty years of creative contributions to the art of the film (1986)
Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History (1990)