PARE LORENTZ: FDR’S MOVIEMAKER
By Dr. Robert J. Snyder, Associate Professor
Department of Communication Technologies
University of Wisconsin-Platteville
The Fight for Life
President Roosevelt wanted
a film to help dramatize a health program that he was
going to propose to Congress. Surgeon General Thomas
Parran directed Lorentz to meet Dr. Paul de Kruif. De
Kruif offered Lorentz the film rights to any of his
books, including his current work The Fight for Life.
Lorentz was deeply moved by a section in that book about
the Chicago Maternity Hospital, established in the slums
of Chicago near the turn of the century. Lorentz knew
that the United States had a shockingly bad record for
infant and maternal mortality when compared to other
industrial countries. Lorentz felt that the beginning
of life would make an excellent feature-length film.
Lorentz began compiling research and sent
a research worker and location scout to Chicago. An unexpected
member of this advance team was John Steinbeck.
“The Fight for Life,” Lorentz would work for
the first time with professional actors, including Myron
McCormick and Will Greer. To make “The Fight for
Life” as authentic as possible, Lorentz sent the
actors to Chicago where they were to spend six weeks going
through the daily routine of the maternity center. For
the first time, Lorentz also used a detailed script. However,
most of those who appeared in the film were not professional
actors. Other scenes were shot on a Hollywood sound stage.
Lorentz was creating, in effect, a docudrama. The problem
of unemployment and poverty is central to the movie. However,
there is no real finger pointing as to who or what caused
these problems, nor is another government agency mentioned
as a solution. The solution to high maternity death rates
for children and their mothers is better care for pregnant
women, better training for doctors and better sanitation
during delivery, whether at home or in the hospital.
on location in Chicago posed several problems. Scenes
shot in the hospital delivery room required the sterilization
of the film equipment. The photographers had to learn
how to shoot actual people in real locations, people who
had never seen a movie camera before. Onlookers would
interrupt some outdoor shooting. The husband of a pregnant
woman demanded $50,000 because the exposure of his family’s
terrible poverty would damage his family. Lorentz’s
life and that of his crew were threatened by local unions.
However, the result has been described as some of the
most candid footage of human life ever caught by the camera.
with all of his other work, music was to have an important
role in Lorentz’s “The Fight for Life.”
Lorentz knew that he would require one of the longest
scores for a non-musical movie. Composer Louis Gruenberg
would fill the need. He had scored many motion pictures,
including “Stage Coach.” The two would work
for 22 weeks on the score. Gruenberg added much of the
suspense to key scenes in the film by creating a musical
soundtrack representing the human heart beat. There are
several three-minute segments in the film without dialogue,
where the music drives the scene. But Lorentz also had
to hire pianist Joe Sullivan for a crucial night scene
when Gruenberg just could come up with a score that Lorentz
felt was appropriate.
first screening of “The Fight for Life” was
for President Roosevelt at the White House on December
31, 1939. After viewing the film the president is reported
to have said it would do a lot of good. However, the president’s
mother said that while it was an interesting movie, it
shouldn’t be shown in mixed company.
The public premiere of “The Fight
for Life” was March 6, 1940 at the Belmont Theatre
in New York. Press reviews were once again excellent and
would help get “The Fight for Life” a contract
with Columbia Pictures for national distribution. Both
Look and Life magazines did feature
stories on the film and also named it their Movie of the
Week. There had not yet been a film that featured life
in American cities so realistically. Even today the Chicago
slums look like a bombed out city, the shots of people
digging through garbage looking for food are appalling
and children playing in mounds of rubble are heart wrenching.
The film was too realistic for the Chicago film censor
as “The Fight for Life” was banned from the
city where much of it was filmed. The film was endorsed
by the New York Medical Academy, medical schools, the
Surgeon General and many doctors.
after its New York premiere, a controversy over the film’s
accuracy was launched in the press. Some questioned the
statistics in the movie and countered with more positive
statistics for infant mortality. Others were concerned
that the film might scare women into not getting pregnant.
Perhaps because of the controversy, audiences continued
to attend “The Fight for Life” as it had a
two month run at the Belmont. Lorentz’s script for
“The Fight for Life” was selected for inclusion
in Twenty Best Film Plays. The National Board
of Review ranked it as the best documentary of the year.
Lorentz had once again succeeded in making a film of merit,
a non-commercial film that could play in commercial theaters.
Eventually, the combination of World War
II, Hollywood displeasure and Congressional politics led
to the demise of the United States Film Service in June,
Robert J. Snyder
Sources for this material include: Pare
Lorentz and the Documentary Film, by Robert L. Snyder,
Oklahoma University Press; FDR’s Moviemaker
Memoirs and Scripts, by Pare Lorentz, University
of Nevada Press; and the author’s heretofore unpublished
correspondence with Pare Lorentz.
Robert J. Snyder specializes in television
production and broadcast journalism. Snyder received his
PhD in Mass Communication at Ohio University and completed
his undergraduate work in Radio-TV-Film at the University
of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. A third-generation broadcaster, Snyder
had his first radio program at the age of six. Snyder’s
publications include articles on video news releases, the
Freedom of Information Act, the First Amendment and public
access cable television, children’s television, educational
web portals and visual literacy theory for television news.
Students under his direction have won numerous production
competitions. Snyder has worked as a consultant for several
entities and political candidates, including the Iowa Civil
Liberties Union and C-SPAN. His priorities other than work
include his Christian walk, family, and the Green Bay Packers,
although not always in the appropriate propotions.