Dialogue on
Film and Photo League

by David Platt and Russell Campbell

from Jump Cut, no. 16, 1977, p. 37
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2005

The reward for historical research is that its publication frequently brings out more history. In response to Russell Campbell's section on the Film and Photo League (Jump Cut #14) comes the following letter from David Platt, who served as the National Secretary of the FPL and editor of its publication, Film Front. He was also the founder, editor and publisher (with Lewis Jacobs) of Experimental Cinema and served as the Daily Worker film critic between 1933-1957. He is now a member of the editorial board of Jewish Currents, a New York monthly. Following David Platt's letter is a reply by Russell Campbell. To get the original material on the Film and Photo League in Jump Cut #14, send $1.00 ($1.25 abroad) to Jump Cut, P.O. Box 865, Berkeley, CA, 94701.  — Eds.

— David Platt

I thought the Film and Photo League section of Jump Cut was impressive and valuable, although I felt Russell Campbell's introduction made too mush of Muenzenberg's early role, and I think he oversimplified and overrated the connection he suggested existed between the League and Moscow. It was really nothing like that by the time I joined the organization. It is true that the CPUSA played an important role, but the League of which I was a part was rooted in the conditions existing in the country in the early 1930s. It wasn't necessary for anyone on the outside to press buttons to tell us our task was to cover the breadlines, flophouses, picket lines, hunger marches, etc. People interested in films and photos as weapons in the social struggle came over to the League as I did, partly out of admiration for the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovjenko, and Vertov, but mostly in response to the failure of the older independent documentarians, as well as the commercial film industry, seriously to concern themselves with what was going on in the streets, factories and farms in the years following the stock market crash.

Leo Seltzer, in Campbell's absorbing interview with him, comes fairly close to my own recollection of those times when he states:

"Ours was a total involvement in what was happening in the world on a very practical and realistic level. We filmed the everyday social scene, the economic struggle, and we put it together to represent a realistic, not dramatized point of view, and then we carried those heavyweight 'portable' projectors and films back to the union halls and the picket lines and showed them to an audience that was the living subject of the film."

And he adds:

"The parent organization of the F&PL was the Workers International Relief. Its main purpose was to supply food, clothing and housing to strikers, in order to enable them to stay out and hopefully eventually get what they were striking for. They were quite active in the South, and in Pennsylvania in the mine fields. And under the WIR there were also cultural groups. It was felt that the theatre and film and other media could both entertain and inform. That's what really gave birth to the F&PL …"

I liked the Seltzer interview but was turned off by his occasional nasty "cracks" about the work of other League members. We were all in the same leaky boat in a driving sea without a compass, rowing as best we knew how toward goals one hoped one could live by. And we were all, at one time or another, equally guilty of all sorts of ridiculous behavior, but who gives a damn about this 40 years later? The important thing is that we all kept our heads above water and survived.

One more thing: Campbell writes that an era of U.S. radical filmmaking came to an end when the Film and Photo League closed its doors. It didn't really. What about the leftwing groups that grew out of the League: Nykino, Frontier Films, New Film Alliance, Associated Film Audiences — doesn't he regard these as part of the independent radical filmmaking of the 1930s? In all my discussions of the League, I always stress that it was the battleground and training ground for many future practitioners of film and photo art: screenwriters, directors, photographers, film critics, film magazines, film societies, film distributors — on both coasts. This movement lasted well into the 1940s.

The bibliography and filmography that Campbell (and Buzz Alexander) researched so carefully are indeed very, very important. But shouldn't the bibliography include some references to the League's notable campaigns against reactionary films like the Nazi S.A. MANN — BRAND, and Hollywood's CALL TO ARMS and RED SALUTE and against city, state and federal censorship laws and especially against the censorship of the Catholic Legion of Decency? Our pioneering made things easier for the present generation of film workers. I find an underestimation of this important League activity throughout the Jump Cut issue.

Finally, it was good to see how well Sam Brody's film writings hold up with age, but I was disappointed that in his interview with Tony Safford, Brody left the reader with the impression that in the 1930s and 40s, Hollywood was one gray reactionary mass. Then, in truth, as a result of the mass protests and picketing of theatres led by the Film and Photo League, which at times involved hundreds of thousands, there was a sharp decline in the mid-1930s in Hollywood anti-labor, pro-war and aggressively racist themes, as well as a corresponding increase in significant Hollywood social films under the impact of the New Deal, the anti-fascist struggles, the CIO organizing drives. Nevertheless, I fully share Brody's view that today,

"we need a new left film organization that would be tailored to the needs of our own times with a 'rage' not merely for film for its own sake, but to put this powerful medium at the service of progress and change."

At the same time one should not fall victim to the view that it is futile to try to combat the corruption of the commercial industry, as that would leave an important front in the battle of ideas wide open for the enemy's propaganda. We thrashed this out in the 1930s and concluded that it was necessary to wage a fight on both fronts. Our judgment was sustained by the results.

— Russell Campbell

Thanks to David Platt for drawing attention to FPL activities, particularly the anti-censorship campaigns, with which he was closely involved and which I neglected in my article. I wished to concentrate on the League's film production work, but I should at least have indicated the extent of its other concerns.

My conclusion, "an era in American radical cinema was at an end," is, I see, open to misinterpretation. I didn't, of course, wish to negate the work of Nykino, Frontier Films, et al., but there is a sense in which, in organization and aesthetic, they represent a break with the League, and hence mark a new era.

On the "Berlin-Moscow" connection: I scarcely mention Moscow, and I didn't state, nor did I wish to imply, that someone outside the country was "pressing buttons." Muenzenberg's organization was highly decentralized and relied a great deal on local initiative, which is perhaps why it was so successful. The important things, I think, are first, that the FPL's work was paralleled in several other countries, and second, that it enjoyed Communist "sponsorship — the term I used in my first paragraph — i.e. that the FPL got some organizational and occasional financial assistance from the WIR and the CPUSA (which at that time explicitly described itself as a "Section of the Communist International"). Naturally the FPL concentrated on supporting Communist campaigns. FPL members, I am sure, needed no prodding from abroad to dramatize the issues of unemployment, racist oppression, etc.. Organizationally, it's probable that the CP maintained effective control of the League through placing Party functionaries in key executive positions and through its "fraction" among the League members.

Nevertheless, I may have overstated the Communist involvement. My stress on it was, I felt, necessary to compensate for its conspicuous absence in previous accounts of the FPL, e.g. the Brandon interview in Film Quarterly and Bill Nichols' piece in Screen.