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The Making of Power and the Land (1940)
Essay by Dr. Robert J. Snyder: Pare Lorentz (1940-1992)
Video Commentary on the Life of Pare Lorentz

By Dr. Robert J. Snyder, Associate Professor of Broadcasting
Department of Communication Technologies
University of Wisconsin-Platteville

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The Plow That Broke the Plains
Tugwell was so enthusiastic about Lorentz’s ideas that Tugwell wanted 18 movies made. Lorentz suggested they start by making one movie first before scheduling 18. Lorentz proposed a film on the Dust Bowl. He was then hired as a technical consultant at a salary of $18.06 per day with a per diem of $6. Thus, the man hired by the federal government to produce a movie on the Dust Bowl had never made a movie in his life. Yet, thanks to his writings as a film critic, Lorentz knew he wanted to make a film that emphasized pictures, music and words, in that order. He also wanted the film to be a film of merit, that is, it would have to hold its own on the screen next to the productions of Hollywood. Not just technically, the film also had to be dramatic, capable of holding an audience’s attention. But his lack of a production background would hurt him. For example, when Tugwell asked what budget Lorentz would need for this first film, he literally guessed $6,000. This first film, “The Plow That Broke the Plains” wound up costing nearly $20,000. Lorentz, with help from his wife, the actress Sally Bates, would wind up paying for the overage.

The cost overrun was due to Lorentz’s lack of production experience, as well as a lack of understanding as to how the bureaucracy in Washington worked. When he left Washington to begin filming, he only had a sketchy outline, not a script, of the project. He wanted to film some dust storms but beyond that had no specific plan for the rest of the footage. Lorentz made a smart move in hiring a professional camera crew, consisting of Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz, each of whom had produced documentary films of their own. However, due to a lack of a working script, let alone a plan, they didn’t understand what Lorentz wanted to accomplish. This, and their political differences, led to conflict among the crew. Lorentz paid farmers in cash to drive their tractors, but without prior approval from Washington. Lorentz hoped to use Hollywood stock film footage to fill in some gaps on the film. But the major studios were not interested in cooperating with the federal government’s movie making efforts, perhaps out of a fear of competition, a loathing of President Roosevelt, or both. A few sympathetic directors, none ever publicly acknowledged eventually helped Lorentz obtain some footage. Lorentz also had to hire someone to teach him how to cut and edit film.

While working on a rough cut of the movie, Lorentz interviewed 12 potential composers for the musical score. He settled on the last person he talked to, Virgil Thomson. Thomson, the composer of the opera “Four Saints in Three Acts,” while knowledgeable of in all aspects of American music, had never written a score for a film. Perhaps this lack of formal film production background was a plus, as the two became true collaborators. They would talk at length about what Lorentz wanted to do with integrating music into the story. Lorentz might strum a musical idea on a guitar. Thomson would play his evolving score on the piano during the playback of edited sequences.

Once Lorentz completed assembling “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” he next faced the daunting task of getting his film distributed. Hollywood studios had already refused to open doors when Lorentz came looking for stock footage. Lorentz first played “The Plow” for President Roosevelt in March, 1936. He then flew to Hollywood and held private screenings for those directors who had helped him obtain his stock footage. They reassured him that he had made a good film. “The Plow” had its public premiere on May 16, 1936, at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, under the sponsorship of the Museum of Modern Art. Five other European films were also shown, including an excerpt from Leni Reifenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” made for the German Nazi government. “The Plow” received excellent press coverage, including rave reviews for its educational value due to its depiction of the country’s wasted resources. While response to “The Plow” was greater than Lorentz had hoped, commercial distribution was not forthcoming. Some were labeling it New Deal propaganda. Lorentz’s biggest problem may have been that he added to a government film what Hollywood had for sell; compelling drama.

In order to get distribution for “The Plow,” Lorentz devised a plan that would be borrowed by others, including Mel Gibson for his “The Passion of the Christ.” Lorentz flew to various cities and arranged screenings for the local press. The press would often hype the film as “the one Hollywood didn’t want you to see.” This tactic worked as eventually “The Plow” received 3,000 bookings in mostly independent movie theaters.

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