“Every Creek and Rivulet”


Still from 'Power and the Land'

The New Deal Onscreen

During his first term in office Franklin Roosevelt brought sweeping economic reforms established in response to the Great Depression, programs collectively known as the New Deal, which brought many potentially radical ideas into the policies governing the United States in an effort to create employment and improve the lives of millions of Americans. While there were many films made between 1933 and America’s entry into World War II that promoted New Deal initiatives, they took different forms and were produced under various auspices. The films created by government offices were largely documentary in character, but there was also propagandist fiction made at the time, notably Our Daily Bread. Hollywood pictures like The Grapes of Wrath and the later Wild River are set during the Great Depression and the New Deal figures prominently into their respective storylines.

Our Daily Bread

U.S.A. / 1934 / English

Directed by King Vidor

With Karen Morley, Tom Keene, Barbara Pepper

Still from 'Our Daily Bread'

Our Daily Bread (1934)

Our Daily Bread begins with an economically destitute young couple, John and Mary Sims, who move out of the city to start their own farm. Unable to make it on their own, they begin to invite people in similar situations, who have taken to the open road, to stay with them and help manage the farm. Rather quickly, and to the Sims’ surprise, a thriving community grows on their property, made up of people with varying levels of skill and know-how. Together they foster the growth of the farm, and stick together through devastating droughts and the banks’ meddling.

At a time when the government was encouraging workers throughout the country to band together in rural colonies, director Vidor’s Our Daily Bread promotes a move toward self-sufficiency, showing people rejecting the vulnerability and insecurity of being at the mercy of a capitalist free market. This is a new type of American dream, one informed by labor unions and collective farming, a step away from the pursuit of individual opportunity that dominated much of the national consciousness up until the 20th Century. In the film, the people work as one unit but pay deference to John, their bumbling but charismatic messiah, their loss of footing occurring when they rely too heavily on his direction and become disillusioned with his abilities.

Still from 'Our Daily Bread'

Our Daily Bread (1934)

Vidor’s ‘back to the land’ promotion of collectivism places the salvation of the working poor very much in the rural, agricultural arena, in places where a group of workers with common goals can exist in an economically and socially sustainable unit. Starting as a makeshift urban development, the people in the film begin a full-fledged agricultural existence once their crops succeed. But they retain the complex society of a city, with goods and services offered by each person according to skill. Throughout the development of the farm we see them go through all of the pains of this return, as it were, to this simpler lifestyle. Initially attracted in and energized by the prospect of collective living, they soon learn the grueling and potentially implosive difficulties that arise, and in overcoming those, learn the value of total cooperation. This is shown most poignantly when Louie, a stoic and mysterious character, does something that sacrifices himself for the good of every one else on the farm. And then the evils of individual pleasure-seeking almost destroy the cooperative when an incongruously glamorous woman shows up and tries to lure John away from his duties to the others.

The film was suppressed during California’s gubernatorial race of 1934. Conservatives opposing Upton Sinclair, who was running for governor, feared that Our Daily Bread would generate too much liberal sentiment and unfairly sway the voters, and kept it from being released until the election was over. Vidor’s film is an example of one that does not address New Deal policy directly but nonetheless conveys its general attitudes, showing a utopian imagining of how people can empower themselves by taking matters into their own hands and working together.

The Plow that Broke the Plains

U.S.A. / 1936 / English

Directed by Pare Lorentz

The River

U.S.A. / 1938 / English

Directed by Pare Lorentz

Still from 'The Plow that Broke the Plains'

The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936)

A documentary by Pare Lorentz and one of the films directly funded with New Deal money, The Plow that Broke the Plains summarizes the slow destruction of the American West, impressing with historical reenactments of wagon trains and showing the plight of the farmers attempting to live off of the ungenerous High Plains soil. Technological progress is seen as a double-edged proposition. A fleet of combines emerging through the dusty air of the wide open land is depicted with the ceremony and excitement of a battle sequence or a sporting event. The image is intercut with footage of the tanks menacing Europe during the same period.

Once again the government comes to the peoples’ rescue, subsidizing their work as wheat prices skyrocket. But progress in taming the land is brought to a grinding halt by the financial crash of 1929, shown here with the drolly inept visual metaphor of a jazz age drummer signaling the demolition of an overworked stock ticker. Drought follows calamity and brings yet more calamity; the lord’s playground becomes a dying ground, a junkyard. The film provides a stark, clichéd but definitive warning against the excesses of the 1920’s, as credit falls through the floor and almost overnight creates a society of nomads, known well from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

A federal corporation begun in 1933 during the first round of New Deal Legislation and still in existence, the Tennessee Valley Authority was meant to rehabilitate the region of its name and bring it into the modern age. It was not without controversy however, and Roosevelt pushed the T.V.A. Act through congress amid much agitation and fear. Page Smith writes, in The Redeeming Time:

No single piece of New Deal legislation aroused more fear and anger in the breasts of those Americans who believed that Roosevelt was, in all but name, an agent of the Kremlin, a Bolshevik in the disguise of a gentleman farmer. No single act of Congress, with the possible exception of the Civilian Conservation Corps, more clearly symbolized the radically innovative character of the new administration or was acclaimed a greater success by the general public.

Those who already feared that a rise of big government would result from the liberal reforms of the New Deal opposed the T.V.A., which to them seemed to allow the feds a level of influence and strength previously held by private companies. Being corporate in character but really a service to the people, the T.V.A. bought up many of the companies that had previously had primacy in the region, using their resources to aid some of the people worst effected by the Depression.

Still from 'The River'

The River (1936)

In a later film trumpeting the storied history of the Mississippi River, Lorentz treats the cultivation of the region, and the ensuing economic boom for the South, with as much rapid and ironic urgency as the farmers’ (mid-)westward expansion in The Plow that Broke the Plains. The area is called “a land twice impoverished” – first by the loss of slavery, and then by the soil’s bitter recoil from being overworked in the nation’s frenzy for cotton. Once again technology has only so much use in it before the land and the people are pushed into a world of starvation and desperate drudgery. The film goes on to detail how the environment became thoroughly tapped, the causes of it – deforestation and topsoil loss – and the deplorable situation of farmer tenancy that emerged from an inequitable social system. In the end the film calls for a harnessing of the great river to bring about electrification of the countryside, facilitate downriver trade, and rehabilitate agriculture. At the forefront of these efforts was the T.V.A.

What actually emerges from these two films by Lorentz comes close to being an environmental message, a nascent call for sustainability. Nothing can continue to be done the way that it previously has been done. The films at once pay lip service to the American pioneering spirit and call for it to be shifted drastically while still being retained. Through exaggerated imagery, Lorentz reveals a knack for turning the U.S. landscape into a post-apocalyptic tragedy. The wholesale plundering of the continent’s natural resources being far from an extinct practice, the sentiment expressed in the films stressing conservation and planning is quite unique for its time.

Still from 'The River'

The River (1936)

The works themselves do not call for a nationwide sense of contrition for our unchecked growth but rather, they act as effective propaganda by laying the groundwork for widespread acceptance of the government’s policies. The Plow that Broke the Plains itself makes no mention of the New Deal but expresses its sentiments through muscular storytelling, and a wealth of documentary and staged imagery. The River works in a similar fashion but goes a step further in mapping out official solutions. Film was one tool of many in the challenge of winning over popular opinion to the “radical” causes of the day.

The Grapes of Wrath

U.S.A. / 1940 / English

Directed by John Ford

With Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson

Many read John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), despite its setting in an almost mythic wild west of yore, as addressing contemporary issues that American people faced during the Great Depression. While The Grapes of Wrath, an adaptation of Steinbeck’s bestselling novel, marks a departure from the preceding film, it is not altogether different in mood. It looks at social problems in a modern setting but the feeling and the attitudes that it conducts to the viewer are quite mythic in their contrived grandeur. And it is, ultimately, regardless of its pandering and histrionic-laden characterization, a quietly and profoundly moving film. This has more to do with Steinbeck’s story than Ford’s direction, for its revelatory look at the plight of the dispossessed in the country, and how politics and nature seemed to simultaneously rise up against them.

Still from 'The Grapes of Wrath'

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

A good but somewhat curious story it is, and not the Bible-style epic that people make it out to be, for it leaves off before the Joad family find their total salvation. Tom, the hero, rather than valiantly defining himself as such, disappears into the ether, having been a specter all along, the shadow of a downtrodden working man whose hopes, nonetheless, embody the liberty and happiness so sought-after in collective struggle of the 20th Century.

The family is first made a victim of government policy, and then relieved by it. On their dust bowl journey, following the setting sun, they encounter the compassion and comradery of individuals. Ford, who is now considered quite less conservative than he was during his lifetime, his war pictures now seen as largely anti-war, no doubt reveled in the story’s unsubtle call for a more cooperative society. There is appreciation for New Deal policy buried throughout the film, albeit aspects of Roosevelt’s reforms that provided work and achieved the government’s aims through collective effort.

The near feudalism that dominated the nation’s agriculture in the days of sharecropping (and to which the Joad family undoubtedly had little exposure prior to being forced off their land), seen in grim monotony throughout the landscape, is cut through by the appearance of a government-sponsored, rural work colony. They hunker down there in a joyous and egalitarian cooperative – gainful and fair employment follows. Their homeland of Oklahoma now dried up and condemned to the past, they reach the promised land of California that they have sought, having first experienced the complex and often brutal reality of such a quest.

Still from 'The Grapes of Wrath'

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

One of the essential joys of the film is that it is a road movie in the days before the national highway system, akin in this way to the more socially incisive and less self-congratulatory Sullivan’s Travels (1941). We get to see in it an aspect of 1930’s life that is hard to find in other films of the era. Besides Frank Capra, Ford was one of the only major filmmakers to address contemporary social issues. And he visualizes Steinbeck’s story with a level of detail putting it in line with the early, stagy documentaries of the day, which at that point in time were gradually giving way to competent and sensitive realist fiction.

The New Frontier

U.S.A. / 1934 / English

Directed by H.B. McClure

A rural community not unlike the one that the Joads find is detailed rather flatly in the Federal Emergency Relief Agency-sponsored documentary The New Frontier. The Woodlake community of East Texas is a self-sufficient entity, providing its own lumber and food, each member contributing their labor to the common cause. Recovering white-collar workers, those without a directly beneficial skill, now work at growing crops. The one narrative thread in the film follows an unemployed salaryman from Houston giving up on the city and the indignity of welfare to seek a better life for his family in the community.

Still from 'The New Frontier'

The New Frontier (1934)

Here 20th Century technology is a villain, having put rural people out of work and forcing them off of their land. Old-fashioned methods and natural intuition are favored, indeed considered beautiful in the admiration for native Texan architecture. The film appeals to the can-do sensibility of Americans while championing the ways of days gone by, of a time of cooperative village life. The bland contentment of the Woodlake citizens reflects the desire for a tried and true system given a modern context, a place in which people exchange their work directly for protection and services, and become, like the characters in Our Daily Bread, free from the manipulation and exploitation of capitalist superstructures.

The People of the Cumberland

U.S.A. / 1937 / English

Directed by Robert Stebbins & Eugene Hill

Wild River

U.S.A. / 1960 / English

Directed by Elia Kazan

With Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet

The People of the Cumberland, made by the Frontier Films collective, depicts the titular region along the Allegheny as harsh and nearly untenable, having been denuded by both an unforgiving climate and successive waves of human occupation, and held onto by a hardy few. Initially it bears some resemblance to Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (1933), sympathetically lining up malnourished children and indigent families. It is “a forgotten land,” with “lonely and forgotten people.”

Still from 'The People of the Cumberland'

The People of the Cumberland (1937)

The Highland Folk School is founded to help the citizens of the Cumberland plateau, giving them new hope by imparting modern ideas and cooperative thinking. Their consciousness is elevated and they form labor unions. The mills of the Tennessee Valley become swept up in a nationwide cry of “get wise, organize!” The film’s robust editing reflects the pace of progress shown onscreen, as the people break through adversity – a reenactment of the assassination of a labor organizer is proceeded by joy and celebration as the workers overcome the capitalist thugs, the government helping every step of the way.

Mainly a union-promoting film, The People of the Cumberland does not make express reference to any recent government policies. However it does adequately capture the left-wing zeitgeist of the time, encouraging cooperation with Roosevelt’s government to bring the people and the land into the next phase of development. Here Frontier Films focuses on this region because of its initial backwardness and difficulties; if progress can happen here, it can happen anywhere. It suggests that The New Deal was not only saving lives, and bringing people into comfort and ease, but also restructuring a decrepit social system that was economically exploitative, having run the rural working class ragged. Little mention is there of the great depression having been partly brought about by the government or of the further misery to many risked by New Deal legislators in order to aid the majority. The government is shown as being on the side of the people, not the associations of manufacturers.

The underlying message found throughout many of these films is undeniably Soviet in character, albeit grafted onto a capitalist and distinctly American setting. Basically, the good-natured and pioneering people who had been working the land for generations could finally not sustain on their own, and American political nous and technological prowess had reached the point where the government had to step in and help them along for the survival of the nation. As in The River, the earth that people till has failed them, so new methods are needed. The conceit is that people and government will become one co-existing and co-working force.

Still from 'The People of the Cumberland'

The People of the Cumberland (1937)

Many filmmakers were compelled by the political climate to abjure communism on the surface, while at the same time they borrowed from the Soviets aesthetically and, in a less blatant way, ideologically. The socialist-leaning but mainstream left, under constant suspicion, would distance itself from its Russian counterpart. Elia Kazan, a member of Frontier Films who worked as an assistant on The People of the Cumberland, would later become infamous for his House Un-American Activities Comittee testimony. Still, with the possible exceptions of The Grapes of Wrath and The New Frontier the New Deal films are nearly as unquestioningly pro-technology and pro-state as any Soviet realist works of that time (epitomized in the farmer’s quest to acquire a tractor in Dovzhenko’s Earth [1930]).

For his enjoyable late-career film Wild River Kazan returned to the region where The People of the Cumberland was shot. Montgomery Clift plays a T.V.A. bureaucrat sent to a rural town to negotiate an elderly landowner off of her soon-to-be flooded island. In the juicy role of the stubborn matriarch of the property is 44-year-old Jo Van Fleet (who practically made a career of playing characters twice her age), with Lee Remick (who had made her film debut in Kazan’s 1957 liberal fever-dream A Face in the Crowd) as the woman’s haunted, beleaguered granddaughter who falls for Clift’s character almost as soon as he first stumbles onto the shore of their marshy river stronghold.

Still from 'Wild River'

Wild River (1960)

In Wild River it is not the regular Americans, the black and working class white populations, who oppose the mass uprooting that the government is demanding (those groups have little property and still less reason to refuse the incentives with which they are being enticed) but, of course, the people who own the land, here represented by the old woman named Ella. She holds onto an outdated way of life even when the other landlords and their tenant farmers have rolled over and accepted the cash.

Ella, who had seen slavery in her lifetime, still has her black employees and her extensive, sycophantic family there to back her up – for a time. It is obvious from the start that she will not win the battle. What does remain to be seen, is what the T.V.A. agent will have to go through to pry her off civilly – the agency has had enough opposition and could do with less bad press. There is an amusingly touching scene in which he shows up at her doorstep drunk, all of the official niceties misplaced, and tells her what is actually on his mind. It is a rare and transparent moment in his standard, liberal circumspection. The trouble is that he doesn’t seem to learn anything from the whole experience, the film failing to examine his relationship to the townspeople, not least of which his young, previously married sweetheart.

Still from 'Wild River'

Wild River (1960)

Kazan is returning to and rethinking the politics that were championed in The People of the Cumberland. Here things are not so cut and dry, history-altering policies have varying implications for the people. Kazan finds good dramatic fodder in the complications and entanglements that arise when harsh and impersonal government initiatives are brought to ground level, disenfranchising individuals in the process or at least failing to sway those who were already against them. The character at the center of the story, Ela, stands by her beliefs even when they run contrary to the greater good, and disbelieves the government, almost on ideological grounds, when they tell her so.

In the end Wild River plainly, soberly looks at the New Deal not as a uniformly positive and revolutionary turning point but as another machination of an unstoppable political force. Produced much later down the line, it largely goes against the rather myopic conception of what progress is, espoused by propaganda films made during the actual period, which make scant reference to the battle between culture and nation that was perpetually flaring up. The title of the film refers to the river prior to being tampered-with, free and unforgiving, and by extension, to the way of life of the people who lived by it. Powerful, both of them, but not enough to hinder the sweeping and unyielding current of an equally unsentimental government.

Power and the Land

U.S.A. / 1940 / English

Directed by Joris Ivens

Still from 'Power and the Land'

Power and the Land (1940)

A Joris Ivens documentary called Power and the Land details the struggles of a farming family who milk cows and raise corn, living without the luxury of electricity. Despite their hardships the Parkinsons of Ohio are dogged and upbeat while doing the task of “raising food for the nation.” As the country relies on families like the Parkinsons, it is seen as integral that they get electricity, not just to change their lives for the better, but to revolutionize the quality of their output. The film unfolds as slowly and laboriously as a day on the farm, the effect quite charming. The pace picks up as the narrator recites a poem, to soaring strings in the soundtrack, calling for an empowerment of the rural workers. While, being far from the industrialized parts of the country, they cannot rely on the power companies for help, they find the solution in the New Deal initiative to bring electricity to the countryside: the Rural Electrification Act of 1935. And the people are empowered, forming an electric cooperative.

The film associates the introduction of electricity with all of the ensuing accoutrements of civilization. Once they get electricity the family’s home is suddenly decked out with modern gadgets, their lives happier and simplified, as if these things could somehow be acquired all at once. It looks like an incipient version of (although seemingly epochs removed from) the rush for technology and material wealth of the ballooning American middle class of the 1950’s, which itself looks quaint today. Radios, stoves, and washing machines brighten their formerly dour farmhouse. Running water brings new meaning to sanitation. The folk image of the ‘liberty tree’ is here supplanted by the pole supporting a power line.

Depictions of hardship in Ivens’ film are infused with lyrical imagery, bringing to mind bucolic poetry or Dovzhenko. His montage, while not as simple and iconic as that of Lorentz, is nonetheless just as powerful, avoiding gross or manipulative exaggeration while still tugging at the heartstrings. It raises the viewer’s sympathy for farmers everywhere by showing the beauty of the farm and the joy that comes with modern comforts. And the film shows this not just as an advancement of lifestyle, but a new connection between the farmers and the progress of the rest of the country. “It’s a friendly sound when the motor whirrs,” the narrator pipes up, measuring brotherhood with kilowatts. An energizing proposition.

Under the Works Progress Administration, which created programs to bring more employment to the nation, the arts flourished, with many painters, actors, and photographers working with government subsidy. A new wave of American documentary started in this time, on par with what Ivens had been doing in Europe, exemplified by the Frontier Films collective.

Still from 'Power and the Land'

Power and the Land (1940)

While several programs of the New Deal were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the large-scale change instituted by Roosevelt’s government had an important, if not everlasting impact. It arguably increased the influence of the government over people’s destiny. The National Recovery Administration, which was meant to impose order on the chaotic economic system that had failed, left a lot of big businesses and their assets intact. The drastic reform suggested by many New Deal films did not occur in all sectors of the country. Partially employment-minded agencies like the T.V.A. were meant to promote democratization of the land, in theory, through greater regulation. For every hydroelectric project that was begun there would be committees of regular citizens to vote on various points. The New Deal’s influence worked to alleviate a lot of the misery and powerlessness brought on by the Depression and the preexisting system that used landless sharecroppers as its engine.

And while the utopianism perhaps overstated in the social issue and propaganda films to come out of the era may have died out, its presence on celluloid speaks of a major push for cooperation between the workers of America. These films appeal to their sense of solidarity and good will, at once promoting faith in the government and a greater degree of economic self-sufficiency.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: