Looking back

by Peter Bates

from Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 107-110
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1988, 2006

Cinema Strikes Back: Radical Filmmaking in the United States 1930-1942, by Russell Campbell, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1982. $44.95

Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931 to 1942, by William Alexander, Princeton University Press, 1981. $12.50

Filmfront, a reprint edition annotated by Anthony Slide, introduction by David Platt, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1986. $16.50

New Theatre and Film, selections edited with commentary by Herbert Cline. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, CA, 1985. $13.95

1934 marked more than the passing of Jack Benny's 39th year — it was a pivotal year in the history of film politics. In the fifth year of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt, prodded by the Catholic Legion of Decency, instituted the Production Code Administration Office, requiring all members of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to run their films by the board to get certification. Coincidentally, the Production Code endorsed films like NO GREATER GLORY and [THE] FIRST WORLD WAR, "two of the most inflammatory war-propaganda films of the year (David Platt, Filmfront, Vol. One, Number 2)." 1934 was also a year of barbed contrasts, a time when Eisenstein's QUE VIVA MEXICO was sliced up and then shelved by producer Sol Lesser, while Mussolini's MAN OF COURAGE saw release in New York City.


In 1934, New Theatre magazine (later appended to New Theatre and Film) began offering readers fairly sophisticated political analyses of the arts, generally unencumbered by a hard "party line." The three-year old Worker's Film and Photo League (WFPL) held successful boycotts against militarist feature films that "aided the Roosevelt administration's recruiting drive (Campbell, page 49)." The League picketed over 20 theaters showing Columbia's NO GREATER GLORY and, in the case of the pro-Nazi film S.A. MANN BRAND, actually closed the film down. In the same year, the New York branch of the WFPL produced WORKERS ON THE WATERFRONT, a fifteen minute short that portrayed the conditions of longshoremen, as well as suggesting strike action to overcome them — quintessential agitprop. A critic reviewing WORKERS ON THE WATERFRONT in Filmfront, the League's short-lived organ, said,

"In a documentary film the skeptics have no opportunity to cry 'propaganda' because the factual evidence is laid before them. It cannot be denied."

By 1934, the New York-based League had regional branches in Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They filmed demonstrations, documented Tom Mooney's trial and the Hillsboro case, and in general, undertook short (under 30 minutes) films to expose harsh living conditions in cities and farm valleys.

Only nine films survive. Many more were planned that never got off the ground. By late 1934, widespread dissatisfaction in the League began to corrode the organization. Production slowed down and new theories arose about "dramatized documentary" and satire. One of the League's last productions, SHERRIFFED, was accused by a New Masses critic of having "almost every conceivable error of cinematography." By year's end, the League was a mere shadow of itself on the screen; some say it virtually dissolved shortly afterwards — or evolved. In September a splinter group led by Leo Hurwitz and Ralph Steiner formed Nykino, a fulltime production unit designed to produce a new style of film. By early 1935, Filmfront ceased publication after only five issues.

At its peak, the "first worker's film group in America (Experimental Cinema)" involved over 100 active members, not only producing documentary shorts, but spearheading boycott drives nationwide, holding classes in film production, campaigning against censorship of Soviet films, and writing articles for the left-wing press, like New Theater and Film and Filmfront. What were its theories of film production? Were they original, or just reflective of the Worker's International Relief (the Comintern's cultural wing) and the theories of Eisenstein and Vertov? How pervasive were their films? What effect did they have on the audiences who saw (and participated in) them? What were the League's shortcomings, its mistakes? And finally, do its experiences from the 30s speak to documentary filmmakers today?


Some of these questions can be answered immediately, for the League was certainly not secretive about its singular intents. The new reprint edition of Filmfront's five issues provides a close-up of its activities, blasts Hollywood dangerous and silly films, issues calls to action, and even doles out self-criticism. First printed on mimeographed sheets, then photo offset for the last issue, Filmfront reached League members roughly every two weeks over a three month period. In the introduction, editor and FPL National Secretary David Platt speaks nostalgically about the influence of Pudovkin and Ermler on League members and the fights against "meretricious films" like THE MERRY FRINKS and BLACK FURY. Unfortunately, he doesn't tell us how articles were selected, how many copies were printed, how they were distributed, what editorial imbroglios occurred, nor, most importantly, did he give his view of why the League dissipated.

Despite the introduction's shortcomings, Filmfront does give a satisfying slice of the daily process behind 30s radical film and photographic activities. Makers of SHERRIFFED get roundly criticized for producing a sloppy film in which "the facts are not presented dramatically enough." The writer then gives filmmaker Nancy Naumburg a chance to defend herself." "The camera was old and temperamental, jamming in the middle of important scenes, etc." A FPL affiliate, the Nature Friends Photo Group, describes their charming short — beginning with crowded street scenes and ending with a weekend at the NF camp in Midvale, NJ, and challenges the New York FPL to a photography contest. Cameraman Leo Seltzer edits a column called "Technically Speaking" in which he not only gives tips on steadying tripods, but suggests how long to pan placards while filming demonstrations.

The film reviews sprinkled throughout each issue are spunky, amusing, often spotty in quality. With critiques sometimes only a phrase long, columns like "The Movie Fan's Guide," "Hollywoodiana," and "Hollywood Spotlight" gave readers the lowdown on what to see or avoid (more often the latter). On FLIRTATION WALK: "Raise your son to be a soldier, lady. With music 'n romance." On MAN OF COURAGE: "About Muscle-ini. Now being reviewed by picket lines wherever shown." On THREE SONGS ABOUT LENIN: "A great film about a great man by a great director." (Interestingly, a 1974 review about THE WAY WE WERE in the Daily World — "Not the way we remember it! " — shows how little CP snippet film criticism has changed.)

Who actually read Filmfront? These offhanded critiques of films like THE PRESIDENT VANISHES and DEVIL DOGS OF WAR, shortened for lack of space, suggests the audience included more than film aficionados and documentarians — perhaps CP and YCL members or party "simps" interested in taking in a weekend film, but with little time to read a lengthy analysis. Longer reviews did appear, often revealing damning facts about stars like Eddie Cantor, who supported censorship and visited Mussolini, "which left him pining for a similar form of fascism in his own country." Films are accused of "juggling reality" and giving distorted portraits of the working class. Reflecting pre-Popular Front ideology, the reviews sported unsophisticated theories on "progressive aspects of the film" or dealt — like Christopher Caudwell did — with the class implications of romantic love. Filmfront's reviews gave its readers a solid, gut Marxist approach, with no ambivalence, film criticism for the front lines that missed no opportunity to slash at movies acting as Rooseveltian "war propaganda." Other movies were blasted for being escapist, anti-Semitic, pro-imperialist, harmless, sweet or gutless. The only ones that escaped calumny were Soviet productions like CHAPAYEV and some of the League's own documentaries.

If Filmfront's writing was simplistic and slapdash, it is probably because its members — many of whom had fulltime jobs — had little time for theoretical work. Alexander mentions that David Platt abandoned a book — Cinema and the New Naturalism — because "the book succumbed to the Depression and to his commitment to socialism." Others spent time at League meetings planning new features or mounting boycott or letter-writing campaigns or simply hashing out mounting disputes over priorities. Campbell quotes Sidney Meyers, who claimed there were so many mass meetings and demonstrations to attend, he seldom had any time to shoot film or teach at the Harry Alan Potamkin Film school.


But if a League writer like Lewis Jacobs wanted to expound more deeply about a film, there was always New Theatre and Film, a fairly polished arts magazine, much like New Masses, but including more reviews of performance art than original creative work. A March 1936 review of Chaplin's MODERN TIMES takes him to task for confusion of content and form. Reading "Little Charlie, What Now?" strips away the quaint aura of this classic, because it dresses down Chaplin for not using sound more often, and for having his Little Tramp learn nothing from his misadventures. It's easy to forget the last two Tramp films were produced in the Thirties, and not earlier; perhaps the technology and tenor of the times had matured and Chaplin hadn't.

It's unclear what New Theatre and Film's exact relation with the League was. Alexander says that at various times it "served as the League's official voice." A column called "The Movie Front" was filled with news about their activities. However, he mentions that Filmfront was "a breakaway from the more artistically oriented New Theatre." Leo Hurwitz, who together with Ralph Steiner split from the League to form Nykino, served as its editor. A pivotal article published in September 1935, "A New Approach to Filmmaking" by Hurwitz and Steiner, shows which direction two of the League's key documentarians were headed. They had taken a course by Lee Strasburg at the Theatre Collective school and learned how to work on viewer interest by constructing dramatic situations:

"We did not realize that the staging — the invention of activity and circumstances to recreate the scene in space and time — was a necessary step before a shooting script could be made."

In their books' opening chapters, both Alexander and Campbell trace the League's activities and detail organizational and work methods. Campbell follows the productions by year and region, giving plots and descriptions of films like STRIKE AGAINST STARVATION and BONUS MARCH. He quotes loquacious Leo Seltzer, the peripatetic cameraman who filmed many of the early documentaries:

"I got there just as the bonus marchers were being run out of Washington by MacArthur and the regular army, the cavalry and the tanks, and I filmed the whole area smouldering and burning, as I walked through it."

There was often considerable danger involved in obtaining dramatic footage. Sometimes they had to film surreptitiously, often they got into uncomfortable scrapes. Both Campbell and Alexander relate this episode: During a demonstration for the Scotsboro Boys, Seltzer, in the middle of filming a marcher whacking a cop with a placard stick, got thrown into a paddy wagon. Committed cameraman to the end, he continued filming through the door. Alexander, with his flair for anecdotes, tells how Seltzer once "improvised his screen in a vacant lot between the houses of the sheriff and deputy sheriff so that he could show the miners a film of their own picketing…"

Campbell tends to quote more from contemporary (and 19th century) theoretical sources than Alexander, detailing the ideological underpinnings of the League's theoreticians — like Samuel Brody, who, in opposition to Hurwitz, maintained that the starkness and unpretensiousness of the newsreel account are more dramatic than staged incidents of class warfare. In Campbell's introductory chapter, he traces the history of social realism, quotes Vertov's Kino-Eye theories, then zeroes in on the theory of montage, "social realism's compromise with the twentieth century."

After a two-page discussion of the times, Alexander plunges right into the League's development, offering fairly competent capsule biographies of members that tell how they thought and what united them. He too talks of the associative montage in films like AMERICA TODAY:

"Taking two unrelated library newsreel shots and cutting them into three separate shots, Seltzer juxtaposed Roosevelt signing a document, a fleet going through war maneuvers, and Roosevelt looking up from the document with a self-satisfied smile."

He mentions the audience for these films only briefly, implying that the films, although convincing and dramatic, largely preached to the converted. The simplistic format of these films leads us to feel this is true.


But is it? He mentions in passing that CANNON OR TRACTORS drew an "arguable" total of 14,000 people, but doesn't ask his interviewees about working class audience reaction. Did the filmmakers ever ask people what they thought of the films? Did they take polls, or, more importantly, visit with interested viewers, put them on Fun front mailing lists? Did people's politics change markedly by viewing these films? The League offered "speakers for all aspects of the movie for your organization." Are there no records of what these "organizations" thought of the League, or even who they were? Campbell obliquely answers this question using a reverse barometer: censorship. If the Newark police denied 1,500 people entrance to the film, then yes, they did affect people in ways that displeased the riot-shy authorities.

As to why the League dwindled, both Campbell and Alexander supply similar reasons for its demise. For some, it was a matter of spreading themselves too thinly over a kaleidoscope of activism. Film production, or more precisely, raising money for film production, always seem to get pushed into the rearguard of priorities. Alexander mentions that after a sudden flurry of activity, often nothing happened for months. He also blames "the hard-line period of Communist Party activity in America," a time when members were expected to uncritically support decisions from above. For a while, most did submit to party discipline without question. Lewis Jacobs would hand over his footage to the League "with no explanation of what was to become of it." But obedience to the principles of democratic centralism was probably not as great a factor in League dissolution as was its resistance to artistic growth of the documentary medium.

In his "Breakaway: Nykino" chapter, Campbell states that Hurwitz and Steiner's Nykino group became the second stage of development — that a specialized, full-time "Shock Troupe" formed to produce dramatic documentaries that "assume the revolutionary approach, instead of convincing the spectator of their correctness" (Hurwitz). He quotes the Nykino filmmakers in great detail, pointing out the bitterness and rejection that occurred between them and League members.

As the radical labor movement entered its People's Front phase, Nykino's first production, PIE IN THE SKY, a satire that mocked religious belief in paradise, scared off leftwing critics wishing not to offend, such as the following: "The fierceness and baldness with which it ridicules the Church would prove antagonistic to an average working class audience." To their credit, both Alexander and Campbell take the CP to task for its unnatural phobia toward satire, a mistrust propped by the belief that the literal-minded working class will probably miss the point.

There were national and global reasons why a group like The Film and Photo League couldn't have continued along their path of left-wing newsreel production, reasons beyond technical and artistic development. Nationally, the Federal Government was snatching some of the best documentarians, most notably photographers like Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Internationally, socialist realism was changing and agitprop was becoming passé, no longer considered effective in moving "center forces" in the class struggle.

In Europe, left-wing cultural production was changing. Brecht was writing allegories and plays about distant historical events rather than the lehrstucke of THE MEASURES TAKEN and KUHLE WAMPE. After filming his Popular Front documentary LA VIE EST A NOUS, filmmaker Jean Renoir composed his Marxist version of the French Revolution, LA MARSEILLAISE; Buñel's social documentary period evolved from LAND WITHOUT BREAD to produce the unrelenting LOS OLVIDADOS. Even Eisenstein later joined the socio-historical trend with ALEXANDER NEVSKY and IVAN THE TERRIBLE. The U.S. radical intelligentsia may not have seen these works, but they were probably acquainted with them.


Campbell could have spent less time analyzing PIE IN THE SKY and more in digging deeper into the political trends influencing the international direction of documentaries. If he had done more contextual analysis like that in his first chapter, when he brilliantly analyzed the historical setting for montage's development, his richly detailed research may not have gotten tangled in the trees of exposition.

In his later chapters, Campbell continually points out that after the League, documentary filmmakers produced stunning and emotive work, as in PEOPLE OF THE CUMBERLAND. But ambitious sixty-minute productions involved compromises with the film's backers, the liberal wing of the anti-Fascist movement — often to the detriment of the film. HEART OF SPAIN, for example, never mentions socialism or even the Soviet Union's aid to the Loyalist forces in Spain.

It may be facile to imply that the Film and Photo League spawned Nykino, which later metamorphosed into Frontier Films, headed by a dedicated and talented core of artisans like Joris Ivens, Pare Lorentz, and Willard Van Dyke. It is possible to trace a ten-year line of development from WORKERS ON THE WATERFRONT to NATIVE LAND, pointing out thematic similarities along the way. And although commitment to social change continued and artistic standards improved, the workings of a mass arts organization with its own productions, publications, boycotts, anti-censorship and letter-writing campaigns may have passed forever when the League disbanded.


From Jump Cut no. 34


Joris Ivens, David Platt, and Leo Seltzer all wrote in to say that they found Peter Bates' review in JUMP CUT, No. 33 of several recent books, which include discussions of the Film and Photo League, inaccurate and misleading. All of them were glad to see continued discussion of their work, but felt they needed to defend their personal memory of involvement in a moment which, in recent years, left critics, such as Russell Campbell and Willian Alexander, have subjected to scholarly evaluation.

We have synthesized here a list of their differences with Bates' review. We certainly regret any errors of fact, but must emphasize that we stand by the important scholarship that Campbell and Alexander have done, as well as Peter Bates account of it.

1. S.A. MANN BRAND was a German film the F&PL demonstrated against it as part of their antifascist work.

2. Bates refers to WORKERS ON THE WATERFRONT as "quintessential agitprop." Seltzer finds this a negative stereotype.

3. By "Hillsboro" Bates must mean the Scottsboro case.

4. Stating that only nine of the F&PL films have survived, Bates then says that many films "were planned that never got off the ground." Stating it this way diminishes the F&PL's accomplishment. According to Seltzer: "I know that at least 60 films were produced by the F&PL between 1931 and 1934, including two newreel series titled AMERICA TODAY and THE WORLD IN ACTION." It is also important to mention that many of these films were stored in vaults in Fort Lee, NJ, and were destroyed in fire.

5. Bates says that the F&PL was destroyed by dissention. They claim what dissention there was indicated the organization's democratic character and that larger forces, such as social, economic, and political changes in the U.S. and the capitalist world, changed the conditions for radical filmmaking. More specifically, Seltzer says that it ended "because it and its parent organization, the Workers International Relief, had served their purpose."

6. Seltzer objects to calling the Worker's International Relief "the Comintern's cultural wing."

7. They draw a sharp distinction between the Photo League and the F&PL and claim that Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn were never involved in the latter.

8. Joris Ivens wrote in to say that Frontier Films was not headed by Pare Lorentz, Willard Van Dyke and himself. He says Pare Lorentz had nothing to do with Frontier Films and that Willard Van Dyke was only loosely connected. He was listed on the staff, but had little direct involvement. Ivens felt that mentioning him only as a supporter diminishes the tremendous impact his films had on radical filmmaking in the U.S. in the 1930s.

We appreciate the responses of Ivens, Platt and Seltzer and their continued willingness to share their important experiences in the service of radical filmmaking in the last 50 years.