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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 River
Despite favorable reviews for “The Plow” and its reasonable distribution, Lorentz was frustrated to the point of quitting. In June of 1936 he walked into Tugwell’s office to resign. As he turned to leave Tugwell’s office, he saw a map of the Mississippi River on the wall. The river valley, he said, would make an obvious subject. Tugwell asked Lorentz to sit down and offer an explanation. From that conversation, Lorentz received a call on July 4th that President Roosevelt had provided $50,000 funding for the project and that Lorentz’s salary would be bumped to $30.00 a day.

Lorentz began compiling research notes. His initial plan was to start at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and film while floating down the river to the Gulf of Mexico. Lorentz had a clerk from the Treasury Department assigned to him, making the finances much more efficient. In the summer of 1936 Lorentz traveled to the Mississippi and realized the impracticality of his plan. He decided, instead, to follow the river through its tributaries. There are few shots of the Mississippi in the final film. This time around, Lorentz had the advantage of learning from his prior experience. For example, rather than film what he came across, he had a production plan, scheduling shoots in Minnesota, New Orleans and other locations. Field production wrapped up in mid-January, 1937.

Lorentz also had a bit of luck. Serious flooding broke out along the Ohio River. Lorentz sent a crew to Memphis on January 21, where he would eventually join them. The crew worked their way up the river to Cairo, Illinois, sometimes working continuously for 36-hour. Lorentz even rented a floppy winged Waco with a single Lycoming engine to get aerial footage. Lorentz recalled that the cameraman, Willard Van Dyke, shot some fine footage, even though Van Dyke was so scared he leaned out of the plane, pressed the button and hoped for the best. Lorentz would again hire Virgil Thomson to compose the music for “The River.” Thomas Chalmers, a leading member of the Metropolitan Opera Company in the days of Caruso until an operation had damaged his singing voice, was the narrator.

Lorentz decided that one of the overall themes in the movie would be the close relationship between the land, water and the people. This combination had, over a few generations, created problems of national significance. As the film explained, we had built a new continent since the end of the Civil War, but at what a cost. The film would conclude by looking at the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority as one answer to this problem of the abuse of the natural environment.

The narration unexpectedly developed into poetic form. Lorentz had drafted two versions of a report on the flood for McCall’s magazine. One was a five-thousand word article that Lorentz felt was too statistical and too long for the magazine’s readers. The other report was more lyrical in style. McCall’s editor chose to publish the latter version and subsequently the magazine received 150,000 requests for copies. Lorentz knew this was the way to go. His script for “The River” would be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

“The River” debuted in New Orleans on October 29, 1937 to rave reviews. Lorentz worked out a distribution agreement with Paramount Pictures. The film was made available to theater owners without charge, except transportation expenses. “The River” may have been one of the first documentaries ever telecast when BBC Television aired it in March, 1938. One reviewer called it “one of the noblest films that America has ever produced.”

One sequence in particular is pure cinematic genius. It begins with a single drop of water, accompanied by the steady beat of a kettle drum. In perfect parallel structure, this single drop of water builds to a visual climax of catastrophic flooding, with a soundtrack that is a cacophony of music, sound effects and sense of urgency from the narrator.

“The River” would be the first American documentary to be awarded First Place at the Venice International Film Festival, beating out Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the Berlin Olympics, “Olympiad.” “The River” was added to the National Film Registry in 1990. (http://www.loc.gov/film/filmnfr.html)

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