The New York Times
NEVER in American history, many argue, have political parties and administrations been more brazen about image manipulation and message control than they are now. But recent examples—the “Mission Accomplished” carrier landing, the new Democratic leadership team’s victory lap packaged as a listening tour—seem hapless in comparison with “The Plow That Broke the Plains” and “The River,” two government-financed documentaries from the 1930s that were shameless propaganda efforts.
These historic, engrossing and artistically rich films, directed by Pare Lorentz with original scores by Virgil Thomson, can be seen in a new DVD release from Naxos. Together they tell a grim saga of unchecked development in the Great Plains and the Mississippi River network. New Deal programs are presented as noble ventures aimed at aiding refugee families devastated by floods, droughts and dust storms, and offering the only means to reclaim America’s natural resources and right the environmental damage.
“The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936) and “The River” (1937) will make die-hard liberals long for the time when the government really knew how to produce propaganda on behalf of worthy causes. For a brief while, to propagate its domestic programs, the Roosevelt administration went into the movie business.
Thomson’s scores were crucial elements of both films. Sound technology was still relatively new. Lugging recording equipment into the field to capture human voices and the sounds of natural disasters would have been almost impossible. So the documentaries were conceived as silent films, with grandly poetic voice-over narrations and near-continuous musical scores.
The scores were originally performed by a pickup orchestra of players from the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Alexander Smallens. The narrator was Thomas Chalmers, a Met baritone with a mellifluously oratorical speaking voice.
But the sound quality on the original prints is thin and crackly. So for this DVD, produced by the critic and concert impresario Joseph Horowitz, Naxos recruited the conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez to record the scores freshly with the Post-Classical Ensemble. The performances are lively and stylish. Floyd King makes an aptly oratorical narrator. Extra features include interviews that shed light on the improbable geneses of these films.
At the time Mr Lorentz, who died in 1992, was a noted young film critic and an avowed supporter of the New Deal. Though he had never directed a film, he had collected raw material for one, including photographs of dust storms—caused, in part, by the overplowing of the Plains—bread lines and migrant workers. He found a sympathetic government official in Rexford Guy Tugwell, the director of the Resettlement Administration, a division of the Department of Agriculture. Mr Tugwell backed “The Plow” and allotted Mr Lorentz a budget of $6,000. Mr Lorentz wound up spending more than $19,000.
Thomson, who died in 1989, loved to tell how he had been selected to work on “The Plow.” Mr Lorentz had previously talked with Roy Harris and Aaron Copland but hadn’t hit it off with either. He approached Thomson on the recommendation of a mutual friend, the director John Houseman.
When Mr Lorentz described the project, Thomson immediately asked, “How much money have you got?” Mr Lorentz said he could offer a composer no more than $500. Thomson, as he related in his 1966 autobiography, told Mr Lorentz: “I can’t take from any man more than he’s got, though if you did have more I would ask for it.” Thomson added: “My answer delighted him. ‘All those high-flyers,’ he said, ‘talk about nothing but aesthetics. You talk about money; you’re a professional.’ ”
Thomson was affected by the richly textured images of wheat fields, dust storms, arid lands, struggling settlers and impoverished migrant workers that Mr Lorentz’s top-flight, left-leaning cameramen had taken. In truth, some crucial scenes of struggling farmers had been filmed with actors. Thomson and Mr Lorentz agreed that the landscape should be rendered through the music of its people.
In an interview recorded in 1979 by the Yale Oral History Project and excerpted as a feature here, Thomson explains his approach to “The Plow.” The best way to elicit the intended emotional response from an audience, he says, is through “source music,” not abstract “emotion music, which is corny to start with.”
Thomson pored over collections of cowboy songs and settler folklore. Working under pressure, he produced 25 minutes of music in less than a week. The score uses familiar tunes, like “Laredo” and “Git Along, Little Dogies,” sometimes straightforwardly, sometimes as themes for contrapuntal development. The soundtrack is a patchwork of dances, hymns, neo-medieval counterpoint and, to evoke the Great Plains, choralelike passages with wide-spaced harmonies (a style that would soon influence Copland, then still in his thorny modernist phase).
Sometimes Thomson uses music to provoke a playful reaction. During a 1918 war sequence, for example, when the narrator explains that farmers were being pressed to turn grazing lands into wheat fields, we see a phalanx of tractors coming over a hill, like a battalion of tanks on a battlefield. Thomson accompanies this scene with a rousing orchestral rendition of “Mademoiselle From Armentières,” the marching song of American troops during World War I.
For the final segment Thomson makes a counterintuitive choice. In the spirit of an evangelical peroration “The Plow” ends with the narrator calling for action on behalf of desperate displaced farmers, some 50,000 a month, who ask only for “a chance to start over,” a chance “for their children to eat, to have medical care, to have homes again.” It concludes, “The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.”
Thomson accompanies the segment with, of all things, a tango. Yet somehow it works. The dance is rousing and confident. If the music seems incongruous, perhaps Thomson was subliminally signaling audiences that of course they were being manipulated, but toward a good end.
In any event, the major Hollywood studios, fearing controversy, at first refused to screen “The Plow” in theaters. But the film’s notoriety created a public demand, and it played as a 30-minute short along with feature films in theaters across America, mostly to cheering audiences and glowing reviews. “What the government has been saying about dust storms in the newspaper was said here in 30 minutes of unforgettable pictures,” the critic for The Nation wrote. Exactly so.
The DVD includes a fascinating interview with the filmmaker George Stoney. Born in 1916, Mr Stoney was a first-hand witness to the phenomenon of “The Plow” and “The River.” Both films, he explains, are like sermons. Man is placed by God in Eden; but man sins, so we recognize our flaws, repent and achieve salvation. How? Why, through the Tennessee Valley Authority and other Roosevelt programs.
The texts have a poetic character that recalls biblical passages invoking names and places. In “The River” the narrator, describing the destruction of primeval forests, intones, “Black spruce and Norway pine, Douglas fir and red cedar; scarlet oak and shagbark hickory: we built a hundred cities and a thousand towns, but at what cost?”
Yet as Mr Stoney comments, if these documentaries exhibit New Deal fervor, they also reveal New Deal hubris. The answer to flood control and sensible development was that a mighty river had to be “locked, dammed, regulated and controlled,” he says. We now know better. Hurricane Katrina was a tragic lesson in the limits of our ability to manage nature.
Mr Stoney also points out that to win support for his domestic programs, Prersident Franklin D. Roosevelt had to make a silent pact with Southern Democrats and mostly look the other way about race issues and segregation. “The Plow” acknowledges as much in a few fleeting scenes. At one point, describing the settlement of the Great Plains, the narrator says, “And they brought their blacks, their plows and their cotton.”
During a segment that touches on the Civil War, the film shows the final paragraphs of the text for the farewell speech of Robert E. Lee, the defeated Confederate general. Mr Stoney says that during screenings, audiences in the South would stand up as these sacred words scrolled by, accompanied by Thomson’s reflective music.
On the success of “The Plow” and “The River,” Roosevelt was so impressed with the communicative potential of documentaries that he financed the United States Film Service. But Congress, rightly viewing the program as a propaganda machine, scuttled its budget.
Corporate America had no such reticence. A decade later Thomson composed a score for Robert J. Flaherty’s film “Louisiana Story.” Officially the film is a drama with actors and a script telling the story of a Cajun boy in the Bayou who rafts through alligator-infested marshes and inky rivers and speaks French at home with his parents. The boy watches with awestruck wariness as industry arrives in the form of oil rigs and massive derricks.
But the film, produced by Standard Oil of New Jersey, becomes a reassuring tale of how industry and nature can live in harmony. Though “Louisiana Story” is a cinematically stunning and artistically distinguished work (it’s available on a Home Vision DVD), it is also a piece of absolute propaganda.
An orchestral suite from Thomson’s score for “Louisiana Story” earned him the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1949, still the only film music to be so honored. The paradox about Thomson’s involvement in propagandistic films is that he always claimed to have no interest in political ideology. As Mr Lorentz figured out, Thomson was a professional. A professional for hire of course.