History Piece

The Making of Power and the Land (1939-1940)


APRIL 14, 2005

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Joris Ivens’ film POWER AND THE LAND was edited by his colleague Helen Van Dongen assisted by Lora Hays -- a young apprentice editor. Today, at 94 she continues to edit, teach and produce.

Lora Hays has been a leading film editor in the United States for over half a century. But, while editing has been the major focus of her career, she also produces short films. In addition she is an inspiring teacher of film editing at New York University. Although Hays has edited features and narratives, her first love is editing social issue documentaries. She has worked for television networks, independents, the US Government and produced her own films.

In April 2005 I met with Lora Hays in New York to discuss her first major editing assignment – working as an assistant to Helen Van Dongen on the early American classic documentary POWER AND THE LAND (1940) directed by Joris Ivens.

How did you get this assignment?
I had been around film for some time working in New York with Jean Lenauer and Julian Roffman who at that time were making a series DATELINE which played theatrically. I helped with the cutting. Through them I met Pare Lorentz who in turn introduced me to Joris Ivens.

What was it like working on this project?
Helen Van Dongen had edited other films for Ivens and basically I was her gohfer. She was unusually difficult to work with. It was hard work. At night I massaged her back. But I learned a tremendous amount from her. We did the editing in Washington, DC in three months in the summer of 1939, a very hot summer. Ivens came periodically to check on the editing. Sometimes Helen went down the hall to another editing room to work with Robert and Frances Flaherty as she was supervising the cutting of their film THE LAND, also being produced for the US Department of Agriculture. Neither Douglas Moore, the composer, nor Stephen Vincent Benet, the writer played any role in the editing. From the outtakes, Ivens made several short films such as BIP GOES TO TOWN and WORST OF FARM DISASTERS. I edited these alone at the Deluxe Lab in New York while Ivens was in California telephoning me his instructions.

What was reaction to the finished film?
POWER AND THE LAND opened in 1940 in St. Clairsville, Ohio. The townspeople loved it and loved seeing themselves on the screen.The US Department of Agriculture was very pleased with the film. They were particularly happy that it played on Broadway (although it was in a former porn house). [The critical approval which the film received brought it to RKO’s attention. They shipped 100 prints to nearly 5,000 theaters which meant that it played to thousands of farmers who came away with a new realization of what electricity could mean to them.]

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