Images and sounds in the service of FDR

Le Monde
Renaud Machart
March 2011

The reforms initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt from 1933 to 1938 as a result of the Great American Depression were accompanied by strong information campaigns. How to develop the vast inhospitable plain that crosses the country, from the Canadian border to Texas? How create colossal hydraulic constructions on the Mississippi? How convince workers to leave the destitute industrial cities and towns to reach the semi-urban communities built in the late 1930s?

Three documentaries were commissioned from 1936 to 1939 to illustrate the role of the New Deal in the redevelopment of the US. They have just been published for the first time on DVD, by the Naxos label.

The Plow That Broke the Plains (27 minutes, 1936) and The River (31 minutes, 1937) were written by Pare Lorentz. A film critic in Hollywood, he had never shot film but had devoted a book to the first year of the Roosevelt presidency. This led to a generous budget. He announced that he was concerned that the literary and musical dimension parallel the images (very inventive) . . .

Scandalous creation

Lorentz undertook to write voiceovers, whose emphasis and patriotic lyricism were inspired by the great American bard Walt Whitman.

The music for the two films was from commissioned Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). This Francophile composer and avant-gardist was the author, with Gertrude Stein, of Four Saints in Three Acts (1927-1933), the memory of which was still bright. The music of this opera was inspired by Erik Satie and French music from the 1920s, but also by the musical roots of the Missouri native Thomson. So the economy of his film scores opposes the flamboyant style of Hollywood composers Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. . . .

In 1939 there followed the film The City, a 43-minute documentary on urban planning, directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke under the supervision of Pare Lorentz. Aaron Copland was engaged to write the score. Like Thomson, he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger; his music is influenced by the rhythms of jazz, the frenzy of cities and machines. . . .

Copland follows the Thomson method he admired, and composed music for The City whose credo is defined by the composer André Previn “. Fewer notes” This approach would have limited influence in Hollywood, but David Raksin, the composer of the music of Laura (1944) and the great Bernard Herrmann, who composed for Alfred Hitchcock, would follow a related aesthetic.

The reissue of these documentaries is embellished with superb restorations of the films and newly recorded music tracks. Exciting interviews complete these DVDs, which remember the times of hope and social progress that were the Roosevelt years.