These papers contain photographs, correspondence, business records, research
notes, and press clippings related to the career of Pare Lorentz, a documentary
filmmaker and journalist.
At a Glance
|Bib ID:||6911127 View CLIO record|
|Title:||Pare Lorentz Papers,
[Bulk Dates: 1932-1960].
|Physical description:||80 linear ft. (182 document boxes, 2 oversize boxes, 1 card
file and 1 roll).
|Language(s):|| Material is in English.
This collection is located on-site.
This collection has no restrictions.
More information »|
This collection is arranged in 11 series.
The Fight For Life,
The Plow That Broke The Plains,
Series V: Other Films, 1938-1969, undated
Series VI: Office Files, 1935-1979
Series VII: U.S. Army Air Forces, 1941-1947
Series VIII: Atomic Power and Nuclear War, 1945-1982, undated
Series X: General, 1914-1991, undated
Series XI: Digitized Negatives, 1930s.
Return to top
Scope and Content
These papers consist of photographs, correspondence, research notes, and press clippings
related to Pare Lorentz's career as a documentary filmmaker and journalist. Materials
related to each of his films are grouped together in separate series. The office files,
organized either alphabetically or chronologically according to Lorentz's own system,
include records from various New Deal agencies, such as the U.S. Film Service, or the
Resettlement Administration. There are materials related to Lorentz's time in the
military during World War II. After the war, he conducted extensive research on the
threat posed by nuclear weapons; those papers are here, as well. There is some
correspondence between Lorentz and John Steinbeck, the novelist.
was Lorentz’s first attempt at a
feature-length fiction film. It began as a radio play, first broadcast on the CBS
channel in 1938. The narrative centers around four unemployed workers from the
four corners of the United States who met at a filling station in Kansas. One by
one, each of the men delivers a monologue about conditions in his home state,
while regional music plays in the background. The radio play was supposed to be
the forerunner of a feature-length film. Lorentz and his staff conducted extensive
research for the production. They studied production practices at Ford’s River
Rouge factory, gathered information on jobless Americans and relief organizations.
Filming began in 1939, but was hampered by a lack of funds. By 1941, with much of
the industrial images captured, and the name changed to Name, Age and Occupation,
production began again. The picture was never completed, but much of the footage
proved useful to government propaganda efforts during World War II.
Subseries 1. Correspondence, Scripts, and Research, 1938-1942,
The correspondence concerns the process of fundraising and shooting, as well as
the details of Lorentz’s long struggle to complete the film. The scripts
include both drafts for the original radio play, as well as the full-length
treatment for the feature film.
Subseries 2. Shooting Notes and Selected Takes, 1939-1942,
The shooting notes in this subseries document the shot-by-shot progress of
Subseries 3. Still Photographs, circa 1938-1942,
Some of the still photographs depict the actors and filmmakers at work. But the
majority consists of 8x10-inch shots, mounted on cardboard, depicting scenes
from across the Midwest during the Great Depression. The images, most of which
were taken by Edwin Locke, focus on industrial production, cityscapes,
streetscapes, and landscapes. They were used as research for the film.
The Fight For Life,
Lorentz’s last major completed film,
The Fight For
is the story of the Chicago Maternity Clinic, a progressive but
under-funded healthcare facility that achieved heroic results for Chicago’s
working-class families. The movie features three professional actors, but the rest
of the people who appear are patients and nurses of the center.
Subseries 1. Distribution, Publicity, Research, 1921-1942,
This subseries contains notes and records related to the film’s screenings in
various cities. There are many press clippings, mainly movie reviews.
Subseries 2. Production, 1939-1940
These files contain extensive documentation of the production process. The
production script notes were removed from their original binders.
Subseries 3. Stills, undated
Some of the still photographs filed here were taken on set, others come from
the film itself, and a third group was used by Lorentz for research while he
was writing the screenplay.
The Plow That Broke The Plains,
The Plow That Broke The Plains
was Pare Lorentz’s
first effort as a director. A half-hour-long documentary with orchestral music and
a portentous narration, the film dramatizes the plight of American farmers and
extols the efforts of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The film was made under the
aegis of the Resettlement Administration – the name would soon change to the
better-known Farm Security Administration – an ambitious agency that hoped to
encourage farmers to move from dust bowl areas to ecologically stable land. The
film premiered in March 1936, in a special presentation before Roosevelt in the
Subseries 1. Publicity and Clippings, 1936-1941,
After initially struggling to generate enthusiasm for his film, Lorentz
eventually packed his picture into suitcases and traveled the nation, appealing
directly to reporters and theater owners. These reviews and feature stories,
clipped from newspapers and magazines, are the result of that effort.
Subseries 2. Production and Distribution, 1935-1942
These folders contain booking forms and records, notes on distribution.
Subseries 3. Stills, 1935,
The stills in this subseries include photos of the crew working on location.
In June 1936, Lorentz pitched the idea for his second film,
In his original conception, the documentary would follow a
single drop of water as it flowed from the source of the Mississippi to the Gulf
of Mexico. Along the way, the words and images would depict the social,
ecological, and economic life of the Mississippi Valley, which at the time was
home to more than half of the nation’s population. Later, he scrapped the original
idea of tracing the river’s length and instead based the action around the
tributaries flowing into the main stream. One of the main themes of the film is
humanity’s careless stewardship of the river, which had led to serious erosion and
flooding. The first screening was held in New Orleans in October 1937.
Subseries 1. Printed Materials and Publicity 1936-1940,
This subseries contains press reviews, distribution materials, shooting record
from production and screening.
Subseries 2. Subject Files, 1935-1943
These folders contain research materials used by Lorentz to write the
screenplay and choose locations.
Subseries 3. Still Photographs, 1935-1940,
Some of these are stills from the movie, while others were used for research.
Series V: Other Films, 1938-1969,
This series contains materials related to some of Lorentz’s other film
Stills and correspondence related to
(1939). Lorentz wrote the screenplay, but the picture was directed by Ralph
Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, both of whom had previously worked with Lorentz
as cinematographers. The film was commissioned by the American Institute of
Planners and first aired at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Like earlier
efforts, The City had a message. In this case, it was the perils of city life.
It stressed the purity of rural and village living and stressed the beneficial
effects of increased suburban housing.
Nuremberg Trials Film,
In 1946, the Allied Control Council agreed to produce a documentary film on the
Nuremberg Trials. Two million feet of captured German film were scattered
through the United States. Lorentz took responsibility for compiling the
footage into a coherent whole. He created a 75-minute film, entitled “Nuremberg
– Its Lesson Today.” Shown in commercial theaters in the U.S. Zone in Berlin,
to great acclaim, it was pulled from circulation when the Cold War changed the
focus of American foreign policy. Materials include correspondence, clippings,
and a “brief explanation” of the project.
Lorentz envisioned this as “a gentle comedy” about the relations between North
and South America. He hoped to work with Cantinflas, whom he described as “the
greatest star in Latin-America.” Materials include correspondence, clippings,
and distribution plans.
A screenplay Lorentz wrote on the behest of the National Foundation for
Infantile Paralysis. The files consist of correspondence and research, as well
as screenplay drafts.
Subseries 5. Other Films, 1930s-1963
Some materials related to other film projects, including
My Brother’s Keeper,
The Face of the Earth,
an environmental documentary.
Subseries 6. John Vachon Stills, 1930s-1940s
A large collection of still photographs taken by John Vachon, an acclaimed New
Deal era shooter. Most of the pictures depict the American Northwest.
Series VI: Office Files, 1935-1979,
This series contains Pare Lorentz’s office files, as well as files from
organizations and businesses with which he was associated, including RKO Pictures
and the Resettlement Administration. These records consist mainly of expense
reports and general correspondence. They are arranged alphabetically. The date
ranges may not always be exact. They are taken from labels on Lorentz’s file
drawers, rather than from the content of individual folders.
Subseries 1. RKO Files, 1941-1942,
After Congress ceased funding the U.S. Film Service, Lorentz signed a
two-picture deal with RKO. Here is correspondence and files related to that
Subseries 2. General Office Files, 1936-1941
These files contain some records from New Deal agencies, including the
Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, as well as
personal records from Lorentz’s business transactions.
Subseries 3. U.S. Film Service, 1935-1949
The files from the U.S. Film Service contain office records, as well as
correspondence with contributors to the government effort to document American
conditions during the Great Depression. U.S. Film Service files are located
here, but researchers should note that they are also scattered throughout this
Subseries 4. Personal Files, 1935-1947
. This subseries contains clippings, correspondence, and expense reports.
Subseries 5. General Files, 1930s-1948
Most of these records deal with the various federal agencies with which Lorentz
Subseries 6. Pare Lorentz Associates, 1935-1978
These folders contain expense accounts, ledgers, billing, and other records
relating to Lorentz’s personal production company.
Subseries 7. Subject Files, 1938-1979
Correspondence and research on assorted subjects, including an inquiry into the
state of the Latin American film industry, as well as correspondence with
Hubert Humphrey, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Eugene McCarthy.
Series VII: U.S. Army Air Forces, 1941-1947
During World War II, Lorentz directed the Overseas Technical Unit, which was
detailed to gather footage to help American pilots spot landmarks and airstrips
around the world. This series has maps, correspondence, journals, and photographs.
It also contains scripts from several of the briefing films that were produced as
guides for different routes. Large format Air Corps photos depict Africa, Iran,
Arabia, India, Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Iceland, Labrador, England, and Scotland.
Others are in France or unidentified.
Series VIII: Atomic Power and Nuclear War, 1945-1982
This series contains files related to films and other work concerned with the
issues of nuclear weaponry and atomic warfare.
The Fight For Survival,
Research, drafts, and correspondence for an article Lorentz wrote for McCall’s
in 1957 are contained in these folders.
No Place To Hide,
Lorentz pictured this as a film about the dangers of the Hydrogen Bomb. “This
is a motion picture,” he explained, “that presents in dramatic form everything
of importance concerning the atomic bomb and atomic energy that can be told the
general public. It is not a scare movie, nor is it a propaganda film.” After
years spent trying to find funding, he had to abandon the project. The files
contain correspondence, research, and screenplay drafts.
Subseries 3. Nuclear Energy Research, 1946-1982,
These papers contain correspondence, congressional reports, publications,
conference notes, and government studies of nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and
Lorentz had a long-running collaboration with the editors at
having contributed film reviews to the
magazine since the mid-1930s. In 1937, his lyrical essay about the flooding of the
Mississippi – a piece of writing that eventually became the narration for
– initially appeared there as a lead
editorial. In the spring of 1941, he helped edit a series of special issues
dedicated to questions of national defense. As usual, he was in stride with the
needs of the administration in Washington, D.C., which was transitioning from
domestic reforms to international preparedness.
Subseries 1. General Files, 1941
This subseries contains expense accounts, reader responses, reprint requests,
Subseries 2. Magazine Articles, 1941
. Drafts and clippings of articles in
mostly related to homefront issues in the lead up to the war, are held in these
Subseries 3. Research, 1935-1941
This subseries contains sources and background information for magazine
Subseries 4. Articles by Pare Lorentz, 1936-1941
This subseries contains copy material from Lorentz’s own journalistic
Issues and Bound
Volumes of the magazine, flagged occasionally to mark Lorentz’s articles, are
contained in this subseries.
Series X: General, 1914-1994,
This series contains other materials, including personal correspondence, files,
and records spanning Lorentz’s entire career.
Subseries 1. Correspondence, 1914-1990,
. There is some correspondence here between Lorentz and Jogn Steinbeck, as well
as material related to Lorentz’s chapter on his relationship with Steinbeck for
his autobiography, FDR’s Moviemaker. Letters between Lorentz and Elizabeth
Meyer, his second wife, appear here. The Frederic Delano folders contain
correspondence between Delano – uncle to the President – and his acquaintances,
not with Lorentz himself.
Subseries 2. KDKA Suit, 1942-1983
In 1977, Radio Station KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast an interview with a man who
claimed to have been an undercover FBI-agent during the New Deal. This agent,
who referred to himself as “Dominic,” named Lorentz as a Communist. Lorentz
sued the station. During the trial it was revealed that “Dominic” was in fact
Joseph Mazzei, a man with a “criminal record” and a history of perjury, whom
the U.S. Supreme Court had already diagnosed with a “pathological condition.”
Westinghouse, KDKA’s parent company sent Lorentz a check for $25,000 and a
written apology, acknowledging “the distinguished list of your lifetime
accomplishments which clearly demonstrates your outstanding record as an
American citizen.” Contains trial transcripts, court records, and
Subseries 3. Conferences--Ceremonies--Presentations, 1944-1994
This subseries contains papers and correspondence related to various public
events, including “The Conference that Never Was Held.” A planned international
summit to discuss global issues that was cancelled after President Roosevelt
died. Fifty years later it finally occurred as the Rio conference.
Subseries 4. Writings about Pare Lorentz, 1965-1979
Includes several dissertations and masters theses on Lorentz, including the
various works by Robert Snyder. Also located here is an oral history interview
from the 1970s, and Lest We Forget a genealogical pamphlet written by Lorentz’s
“aunt” Bess. Some letters are from fifth graders who wrote Lorentz to tell them
how much they enjoyed a classroom viewing of
The Days of F.D.R.,
. This subseries contains notes and accounting records related to a proposed
project to trace Franklin Roosevelt’s daily movements over the course of his
Subseries 6. General, 1941-1974
These records include a screenplay for the film,
Series XI: Digitized Negatives, 1930s, undated.
This series contains digitized images of negatives from the 1930s. Many are frames
from Lorentz’ movies, including the famous “Day Walk/Night Walk” sequences from
Fight For Life.
Others are still photos taken on
set. Some were originally stills taken by photographers from the Farm Security
Administration, the Resettlement Administration, and the U.S. Film Service.
Return to top
Using the Collection
This collection is located on-site.
This collection has no restrictions.
Restrictions on Use
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish material
from the collection must be requested from the Curator of Manuscripts/University
Archivist, Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). The RBML approves permission to
publish that which it physically owns; the responsibility to secure copyright permission
rests with the patron.
Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Pare Lorentz Papers; Box and Folder;
Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library. I
Return to top
About the Finding Aid / Processing Information
Columbia University Libraries. Rare Book and
Manuscript Library; machine readable finding aid created by Columbia University
Libraries Digital Library Program Division
Papers processed 2009 by Thai Jones (Columbia, 2011).
Finding aid written by Thai Jones March, 2009
Machine readable finding aid generated from MARC-AMC source via XSLT conversion
September 23, 2009
Finding aid written in English.
xml document instance created by Carrie Hintz
Return to top
The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.
All links open new windows.
|Nat'l / Int'l Archives:|
|Nat'l / Int'l Archives:|
|Atomic bomb--Physiological effect.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Atomic bomb--Social aspects.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Atomic bomb--United States--History--20th century.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Depressions--1929--United States--Pictorial works.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Documentary films--United States--History and criticism.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Documentaty photography--United States--History--20th
|Great Plains--Economic conditions.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Great Plains--Social conditions.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Mississippi River Valley.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Steinbeck, John, 1902-1968.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Thomson, Virgil, 1896-1989.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|United States--Rural conditions.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|United States.--Army Air Forces.--Air Transport Command.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|United States.--Farm Security Administration--History.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Vachon, John, 1914-1975.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|Water resources development--Mississippi River Valley.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|World War, 1939-1945--Aerial operations, American.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
|World War, 1939-1945--Transportation.||Portal||CLIO||ArchiveGRID|
Return to top
History / Biographical Note
During the 1930s, Pare Lorentz accomplished a rare feat in American cultural history;
funded entirely by the government, he directed propagandistic documentaries that became
critical and popular hits. In fact, this achievement may have been unique, since no one
– including Lorentz himself – was ever able to duplicate it again.
“A fine picture,” he once said, “is really a symphony – a carefully orchestrated piece
of work which plays on the eye and the ear to get an emotional reaction.” His films
featured gritty footage, prose-poetic narration, and a dramatic score. He had no use for
studio accoutrements. “The best light in the world is the sun,” he said. Nor did he care
for stars. In his opinion, movies were “made by cutting and direction, and the actor
isn’t important at all.” A documentarian’s documentarian, he influenced generations of
auteurs. “His work is part of the heritage of all filmmakers,” Ken Burns, the acclaimed
director, has said. “Lorentz showed us that documentaries need not be based solely on
current events, or be filmed journalism. They could be of the heart.”
But Lorentz never made cinema for cinema’s sake alone. His films were political – even
radical – and must be understood within the context of their production. His
documentaries unmistakably belong to the creative milieu that inspired the photographs
of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, as well as the writings of James Agee and John
Steinbeck. The Great Depression provided these artists with both a message and a medium;
the suffering of the 1930s offered subject-matter rich in pathos and courage, while
federal agencies financed and promoted their projects.
Perhaps more than even these well-known figures, however, Lorentz’s career synced with
the New Deal. His films were regularly screened in the White House, and Franklin D.
Roosevelt once said of him: “He’s my shooter. He photographs America to show what it’s
like to our people.” Lorentz embraced this role, entitling his autobiography,
But, the opposite was even more emphatically
true: Roosevelt was Lorentz’s president. In 1936, when the administration was pushing a
farm resettlement policy, Lorentz produced his first picture,
Plow That Broke the Plain,
a study of soil erosion. Two years later, when the
Democrats needed support for the vast dam projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority,
Lorentz obliged them by directing
depicted the Mississippi’s chronic flooding. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lorentz
was again eager to serve his chief. Attaining an officer’s rank in the U.S. Army Air
Forces, he made pilot-training films and edited footage of the Nuremberg Trials.
As long as Roosevelt remained in power, Lorentz was assured of official accolades and a
worthy cause. In later years, though, he could never recapture the synergy of that
period. His career as a moviemaker spanned five decades and more, yet his third – and
final – film to achieve wide distribution,
The Fight for
was released in 1940. In part, this was a result of his temperament;
Lorentz was a man who envisioned grand projects and then carried them halfway through.
But, his politics were an even more fundamental hindrance to success. By the 1950s, his
egalitarian populism may not have lost its audience, but it had certainly lost any
chance for distribution. He wanted to make films about German war crimes and the
development of the Hydrogen Bomb, but the Cold War demanded silence on these topics.
Thus, a career that began with such promise ended in a series of frustrations.
Leonard MacTaggart Lorentz was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia, in 1905. “Pare,” the
traditional family name, had already been taken by his father, a cousin, and an uncle.
One more, his mother thought, would be one too many. But, after Lorentz came to New York
City in 1925 to make a career as a journalist, he assumed his father’s name and used it
for his byline. Working freelance, he began reviewing movies for several magazines,
Lorentz also contributed essays and fiction to
Immediately recognized as an important critic, he was 25 years old when
he published his first book,
Censored: The Private Life of the
He received his advance money – six hundred dollars – on the day of
the stock-market crash.
During the early years of the Depression, when nearly one-quarter of the American
workforce was unemployed, Lorentz blithely got himself hired and fired from a succession
of magazine positions. In each case, dismissal came after he refused to soften his
beliefs just to keep a paycheck. He further alienated some employers with his enthusiasm
for the New Deal. His second book,
The Roosevelt Year:
was a pictorial record of the President’s first twelve months in office. A
laudatory profile of Henry Wallace, the progressive Secretary of Agriculture, cost him
yet another job – this time he was fired by William Randolph Hearst. But, the piece also
helped bring him to the attention of policy-makers in the Resettlement Administration,
an agriculture relief bureau that promoted its efforts through the work of such
photographers as Evans and Lange. “Our job,” one agency artist recalled, “was to educate
the city dweller to the needs of the rural population.” A film could spread the message
even more effectively, and Lorentz was given the assignment.
Choosing the Dust Bowl as his subject, he traveled from Montana to Texas, filming the
unprecedented erosion that was destroying billions of tons of fertile land. With a
$6,000 budget, he was forced to shoot real people on location, as opposed to using
actors in a studio lot. Money concerns proscribed the use of sound-film; he instead
employed voice-over narration and a classical score. These became the hallmarks of the
Lorentz style, but their origins rested as much with necessity as with preference.
The Plow That Broke the Plains
– which was half an
hour long and had cost less than $20,000 to produce – premiered in the spring of 1936;
“it tells the story of the Plains,” explained Lorentz, “and it tells it with some
emotional value – an emotion that springs out of the soil itself.”
With Plow completed, Lorentz had gone from film critic to filmmaker. Next, he directed a
he documented the devastating
seasonal inundations in the Mississippi valley. During January 1937, after months of
shooting, the crew was crating up its equipment when news arrived of an approaching
flood. Lorentz flew to the set and remained at the disaster site for weeks, capturing
the most remarkable footage of his career. The movie – which cost $49,500 to make –
premiered in New Orleans to an enthusiastic reception. “It could have been filmed as
baldly as a subcommittee’s report, with charts and graphs and the concomitant speeches
of Congressmen,” the
reviewer noted. Instead, it
“has an epic quality ... To call it a great documentary does it an injustice. It is a
great motion picture.” Throughout 1938,
before audiences in the United States and Europe, screening in commercial theaters –
often as part of a twin-bill with Walt Disney’s
Snow White and
the Seven Dwarves.
The film was awarded the prize for Best Documentary at the
Venice Film Festival, defeating Leni Riefenstahl’s
despite the close ties between Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany.
In August 1938, Lorentz was named director of the latest New Deal agency, the United
States Film Service, which operated under the National Emergency Council, and drew funds
from the Works Progress Administration. Intended “to coordinate the activities of the
several departments and agencies which relate to the production or distribution of
motion picture films,” the Service potentially could have economized Washington’s
propagandistic and educational efforts. But, the agency faced a hostile Congress, which
refused to fund it. The partisan, even radical, messages of
further dampened enthusiasm.
Nevertheless, Lorentz pushed ahead with his new projects, struggling to balance his
artistic and official responsibilities. “I’m getting along on four hours sleep,” he told
a reporter. “I don’t know anybody in the business who hasn’t got stomach trouble.”
So far, Lorentz had completed short documentaries on soil erosion and flooding. For his
next project, he chose a feature-length fiction film about the all-too-human subject of
unemployment. Again, this issue was timely for the administration, since President
Roosevelt was preparing to launch a new campaign against joblessness. To dramatize a
national crisis affecting millions,
focus on the odyssey of one single character, an out-of-work man referred to only as
Worker #7790. The nameless protagonist was merely a prism through which to focus on the
nation’s vast productive capacities; characteristically, America’s “gigantic industrial
equipment and the magnificent amount of arable land” were to be the actual stars. In
1939, Lorentz and his crew set to work. Photographers scattered to find suitable
locations. Researchers scanned employment and relief statistics. Film crews gathered
footage of mass-production at Ford’s River Rouge facility, and captured shots showing
the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. But, despite these efforts, funding problems
grew insuperable and the project was abandoned. Later, in 1941, Lorentz attempted to
revive the picture, with the new title,
Name, Age and
as an RKO production, but again work had to stop. The film was never
When Roosevelt prepared to launch a series of health-care initiatives in 1939, he called
on Lorentz and ordered him to turn his attention toward medicine. The director decided
to start at the beginning, with childbirth.
The Fight For
focused on the Chicago Maternity Center, an under-funded clinic that cared
for poor mothers, and yet produced a better record than many local hospitals. For the
first time in his career, Lorentz used professional actors – but only for a few key
roles. Most of his dramatis personae were, as always, the American people. “Mothers in
the waiting rooms of the Maternity Center,” a reviewer wrote, “undernourished children
playing dangerously in the streets – the people of the tenements themselves, are the
real actors of this film.” It premiered in the spring of 1940 to excellent reviews, and
followed its predecessors in a wide commercial release.
That same year, however, Congress voted to stop financing the United States Film
Service. Lorentz was too busy to pause over the demise of his bureau. The New Deal
decade was over, anyway. The 1940s had arrived, and Roosevelt’s attention was turning
away from domestic reform to focus on the international situation. The war decade had
begun, and Lorentz – as always – would be there for his Commander-in-Chief.
In 1943, he received the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and the assignment to lead a
specialized flying force, the Overseas Technical Unit, which was tasked to produce
briefing films informing pilots of key landmarks along important routes. To compile the
footage for this would require an enormous amount of effort, as well as thousands of
hours of flight time. Lorentz was given one aircraft, and a skeleton crew. The plane was
an obsolete B-24D, nicknamed “Peeping Tom;” the bombardier’s post was refashioned for a
Mitchel movie camera, and a dark room was installed in the fuselage. During the next
three years, “Peeping Tom” logged 425,000 miles, and made 93 crossings of the world’s
oceans. She traversed the infamous “Hump” – the route over the Himalayas to Kunming,
China – six times, and operated in temperatures ranging from 46 below to 137 above, in
Alaska and the Persian Gulf, respectively. Twenty thousand military airmen – in the
North Atlantic sector alone – watched the films, which proved their value in the most
crucial moments. “When a pilot is fatigued from eight hours of flying, has one hour’s
gas left, is caught in a rainstorm, and doesn’t know where the airport is located,”
Lorentz explained, the briefing reels “keep him alert to terrain and altitude.”
Returning to civilian life, Lorentz quickly discovered that – with President Roosevelt
dead – his access to high political circles was severely curtailed. It took longer for
him to realize, if in fact he ever did, that the most productive years of his career
were over. He had a New Deal sensibility, and always would, but now he lived in a Cold
War world. Previously, his work had abetted the Administration’s political aims. Now, a
series of controversies presaged a future in which his voice would be one of opposition
First, he spliced together millions of feet of historical footage depicting the Nazi
regime – from the earliest putsches to the Trial of the Major War Criminals at Nuremberg
– into a feature-length documentary called
Nuremberg – Its Lesson
Released in West Berlin in 1948, it received the usual applause.
But, two years later the government removed its support. The national interest no longer
benefited “from frank and vigorous opposition to the Nazis.” Germany was now an ally,
after all. “As our focus necessarily shifted from Hitlerism to Stalinism,” a former
official told the
all energy had to be devoted to
For his next Cold War faux pas, Lorentz planned a propaganda film –
No Place To Hide
– that would depict the dangers of the
Hydrogen bomb. The central character was to be a young doctor who had witnessed the
atomic tests at Bikini Atoll. “Through his adventures,” wrote Lorentz, “movie audiences
will understand for the first time, the fundamental truths, and the majestic
implications, of the atomic age – the age in which we are living.” As in the old days,
the director immersed himself in the topic, researching the science and politics of
nuclear power. Critics wondered if Lorentz would be able to create a compelling film
from the details of “this unpleasant subject.” Would “the average movie theater” be
interested in screening it? In the event, this question was never answered. By 1952,
after four years trying to find funding, Lorentz conceded that the project was so
unpopular that he hadn’t been able to “raise two dollars and a half.”
As the decades passed,
remained politically controversial, even as their
quality as films gained ever more acclaim. In 1977, Radio Station KDKA, in Pittsburgh,
broadcast an interview with a man claiming to have been an FBI agent in the 1930s.
On-air, he named Lorentz as a Communist; and not just any Communist: he “was one of the
biggest communists in Hollywood.” Lorentz sued for damages, eventually receiving a check
for $25,000 and a written apology, acknowledging “the distinguished list of [his]
lifetime accomplishments which clearly demonstrates [his] outstanding record as an
American citizen.” A minor incident, perhaps, but it reflected a larger historical
trend: the man whom a President considered the most patriotic of filmmakers was, a few
decades later, decried as a disloyal traitor.
In his later years, Lorentz grew increasingly dissatisfied with the nation’s progress.
He was also critical of the medium he had helped pioneer, complaining about “the
familiar disease of ‘talking heads.’” Other directors, in his view, had confused
unsightliness for naturalism. “A lot of guys go out with their cameras,” he said, “they
take a series of ugly pictures, they slap vocal captions on them against a background of
harsh music and call them films of reality.” Lorentz himself continued to envision
radical projects, factual films that would explain unpleasant truths to skeptical
audiences. “If I were making documentaries now,” he said when he was in his 80s, “I’d
like to see how bad the sludge in New York harbor is, see where the radiation is coming
Pare Lorentz died in March 1992; he was 86 years old.
Return to top