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THE MAKING OF POWER FOR THE PARKINSONS
by Dr. Ephraim K. Smith

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Initially, in 2000, Dr. Smith envisioned a documentary focusing primarily on rural electrification and the Parkinson family. The Parkinsons, after all, had been the principal actors in a film that helped electrify the American farm. And, as noted above, their contribution to American history had not ended in 1940. Fortunately, Sally Brannan, Jim Parkinson, and John W. Parkinson allowed Smith to copy photographs in their possession. Some were family photographs; others were production stills taken on location by Peter Sekaer and Edwin Locke in 1939 and 1940. These photographs showed Ivens and his crew filming the Parkinsons. What great pictures and what a great story!

But the story was not just about the Parkinsons and rural electrification. There was also the story of how the film was made and who was involved in that production. This included Helen van Dongen and her assistant editor Lora Hays; Douglas Moore, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer who wrote the score for Power and the Land; and Moore’s good friend, Stephen Vincent Benet, the great American author and Pulitzer prize winning poet. Benet had been brought in to write the narration. By they time Benet and Moore had been brought in, Ivens and the U.S. Film Service/REA staff had completed a rough cut. Moore and Benet viewed this largely finished film before starting their work. The collaboration of Moore and Benet, under Ivens’ direction, imparted a distinctive American rural flavor to the final film.

It certainly has to be one of the most effective combinations of narration and music in an American documentary film of that period. Indeed, the REA advertised Power and the Land as the “companion film to The River and The Plow That Broke The Plains. Because this REA film is worthy of comparison to the work of Virgil Thompson and Pare Lorentz, Smith prepared essays for Moore and Benet (that can found on our web site). Thomas Carr Benet, Stephen’s son, was gracious enough to review these drafts. Tom also provided movie footage of his father and mother and photographs of the Moore and Benet families. Patricia McAndrew, who authored an essay on Stephen and Rosemary Benet (in David Garrett Izzo and Lincoln Konkle’s, eds., Stephen Vincent Benet, 2003) also forwarded Smith historical photographs. She also sent on a copy of her award-winning half-hour documentary The Stephen Vincent Benet Story: Out of American Earth, shown in 1998 by WLVT, the PBS station in Bethlehem, PA.

And what about Ivens and Lorentz? Joris Ivens was one of the most well-known documentary film makers of that time. He was the first Dutch filmmaker to win an international reputation, and he made over eighty films during his lifetime (1898-1989). In the 1930s, Ivens had established his reputation with a series of social conscience and anti-fascist films, including The Spanish Earth (narrated by Ernest Hemingway) and 400 Million. Ivens, as the director of Power and the Land, supervised the daily shooting, and, working with Helen van Dongen (assisted by Lora Hays), the final editing. And Ivens was working for Pare Lorentz, the head of the United States Film Service. Lorentz, having already won awards for The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains, was known as “FDR’s Filmmaker.” Indeed, Verne Newton, a Roosevelt era scholar and documentary filmmaker (a program on FDR and Harry Hopkins), has described Lorentz (in a statement found in Power for the Parkinsons) as the “George Washington” of American documentary film. Clearly, the story of the interaction between Ivens and Pare Lorentz had to be included in this new documentary on the making of Power and the Land.


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