The Bootleg Files: The River

BOOTLEG FILES 826: “The River” (1937 documentary produced by FDR’s Farm Security Administration).

LAST SEEN: On various Internet sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In collections of public domain documentaries.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

A 4K restored version would be wonderful.

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies brought forth the Resettlement Administration, a federal agency designed to assist the nation’s financially struggling rural communities. By this point in the Roosevelt presidency, there were a growing number of critics who argued the New Deal programs were using taxpayer funds to finance lofty socialist endeavors.

The Resettlement Administration’s leadership realized that it needed to communicate directly with the American public regarding its goals and the strategies it hoped to pursue to achieve positive results. This agency took the unprecedented step of embarking on a mass media outreach campaign that encompassed a Photography Project that documented the depth and scope of rural poverty and a Film Project to produce documentaries highlighting the agency’s work.

While the Photography Project created thousands of memorable photographs created by a battalion of gifted visual artists including Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Walker Evans, the Film Project’s output was limited to only two films, both directed by Pare Lorentz. The first, “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936), offered a vivid depiction of the Dust Bowl and the work of the Resettlement Administration plus other New Deal agencies including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Forest Service and the Soil Conversation Service.

“The Plow That Broke the Plains” created considerable controversy – Lorentz went far over his budget and needed to pay out-of-pocket to cover his overspending, while FDR’s detractors in Washington and Hollywood complained about the federal government producing propaganda films. But this production also received praise for its bold and artistic presentation of a harrowing issue, and FDR was impressed enough with Lorentz’s work to give him the go-ahead for another film related to the Resettlement Administration’s work to aid communities destroyed by Mississippi River flooding.

The resulting film, “The River,” brilliantly displayed the virtues and vices of Lorentz’s filmmaking. To its credit, Lorentz surrounded himself with four ace cinematographers – Oscar-winner Floyd Crosby, Willard Van Dyke and the brothers Stacy and Horace Woodard – and composer Virgil Thomson, who scored “The Plow That Broke the Plains.” The film also captured the tragedy of the January 1937 flooding along the Mississippi that reinforced the message of the need for a serious plan to save river-based communities from the worst of nature.

The film also effectively encapsulates the primary cause of the excessive flooding: a century’s worth of soil erosion, from the pre-Civil War exhaustion of cotton fields soil to excessive deforestation in the post-Civil War industrialization of urban centers along the river. The film is also daring in showing the poverty of the Southern tenant farmers living in near servitude during this era, along with the stark prediction that their children will be doomed to a life of disease and poverty unless change occurs.

But Lorentz also veered into the artsy when he was trying to be artistic. Consider this blank verse he composed as narration to describe the multiple tributaries feeding into Mississippi River:

From as far East as New York,
Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies
Down from Minnesota, twenty-five hundred miles,
The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf.

Carrying every drop of water, that flows down
two-thirds the continent.
Carrying every brook and rill, rivulet and creek,
Carrying all the rivers that run down two-thirds
the continent,
The Mississippi runs to the Gulf of Mexico.

This style of writing, narrated by the slightly hammy opera singer Thomas Hardie Chalmers, sets up “The River” as a work of aesthetic pretension rather than a documentary about a life-and-death matter. It also doesn’t help that “The River” stops cold for a brief segment where Robert E. Lee’s praise for the Confederate Army in his 1865 surrender statement rolls across the screen – perhaps this was shoehorned into the film to soften the brittle sensibilities of Dixiecrat viewers following earlier footage of hard-working Black laborers in the cotton fields and the fields.

Lorentz also waited for the final few minutes of the film to remind the viewers that the New Deal agencies are coming to the rescue to save the river-based communities by planting new forests, creating a village for tenant farmers to become mortgage debt-carrying homesteaders, and building hydroelectric dams. The film’s sign-off message is too obvious: Since the individual farmer and the private sector cannot fix things, the Wizard of Hyde Park and his bureaucrats can come to the rescue.

Roosevelt loved “The River” and Lorentz was eager to get the film seen by as many people as possible. He took it upon himself to self-distribute the film on a platform release, opening it in New Orleans in October 1937 before taking it to Washington, D.C., two months later and then to New York City two months after that, where Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times called it “one of the finest films ever made.”

Although some conservative critics repeated their propaganda snipes at Lorentz’s work and, amazingly, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace faulted the film for not showing corn crops in his native Iowa, “The River” was more popular with audiences than “The Plow That Broke the Plains.” Paramount Pictures shattered a precedent by offering to distribute “The River” for free to theaters – exhibitors only had to pay for the shipping costs of the prints – and, thus, Lorentz’s half-hour documentary enjoyed a nationwide theatrical release. In 1938, “The River” also won the documentary award at Mussolini’s inaugural Venice Film Festival, beating Leni Riefensthal’s “Olympia” for the prize.

As a film produced by the federal government, “The River” was not covered by copyright. As a result, there are endless dupes of the film floating around on public domain labels and online video sites. Many of these copies are not visually pristine and some are defaced with time codes. This might be one of the cleanest copies you can find online:

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with a new episode every Monday, and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.