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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 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.

On “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.

Shooting 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.

As 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.

The 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.

Soon 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, 1940.

Robert J. Snyder
Copyright 2005

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.

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