(b. 11 December 1905 in Clarksburg, West Virginia; d. 4 March 1992 in Armonk, New York), documentary filmmaker best known for films produced under the sponsorship of U.S. government agencies during the 1930s.
Baptized Leonard MacTaggart Lorentz, he was one of two children born to Pare Hanson Lorentz, a printer, and Alma MacTaggart Ruttencutter, a professional singer. From Clarksburg, the family moved to Buckhannon, West Virginia, where his father opened a printing shop in 1909. Lorentz graduated from Buckhannon High School in 1922 and enrolled at Wesleyan College. A year later he transferred to the University of West Virginia, where he edited the West Virginia Moonshine, the student humor magazine, and was elected president of the Southern Association of College Editors. Lorentz left the university before graduating and in 1925 accepted a job in New York City as editor of the trade journal Edison Mazda Lamp Sales Builder. A year later he left Edison to become the movie critic for Judge magazine and assumed his father’s given name, Pare.
Concerned about the control of content exerted in Hollywood by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, founded by Will Hays and popularly known as the Hays Office, and by film censors in several states, Lorentz joined attorney Morris L. Ernst in writing Censored: The Private Life of the Movies (1930). From 1931 to 1932 Lorentz was a movie critic for the New York Evening journal and wrote for several other publications including Vanity Fair, Town and Country, and McCall’s. In August 1931 he married the actress Sarah Richardson Bates, who went by the stage name Sally Bates. The couple had two children.
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, Lorentz tried to find funding to make a short film about the effects of the Great Depression. Unsuccessful, he instead collected news photographs, wrote captions and text, and published The Roosevelt Year: A Photographic Record (1934).
In 1934 Lorentz was offered a job writing a syndicated column, “The Washington Side Show,” for King Features, which was owned by William Randolph Hearst. This took him to Washington, D.C., where he discussed his ideas for photographing the changes proposed under the New Deal, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, with acquaintances in the Department of Agriculture. One of these was Rexford Guy Tugwell, who headed the Resettlement Administration. After Lorentz was fired by Hearst for writing a column that was supportive of Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, Tugwell hired him as a technical consultant to produce a series of films.
The first of these was The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936). Lorentz traveled with a crew filming images of the dust bowl conditions created by drought and questionable farming practices in the Great Plains. He hired the eminent composer and critic Virgil Thomson to write the score and then edited the film and wrote a narration. Lorentz intended to produce a film that not only informed people but was also compelling enough to be shown in commercial theaters. In spite of opposition from Hollywood, Lorentz managed to book the film into the Rialto Theatre in New York City. Favorable popular and critical response led to wider distribution throughout the country.
Lorentz’s next film, The River (1937), which looked at life in the Mississippi River valley, followed the river’s source in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Lorentz and his crew captured dramatic flood footage that demonstrated the need for soil conservation and flood control. Again, Virgil Thomson wrote the score. To gain acceptance for the film, Lorentz showed it in the river valley communities from New Orleans to St. Louis and beyond. Then, after a successful opening in New York City, Paramount Pictures agreed to distribute it. In 1938 The River was named best documentary film at the International Film Festival in Venice. The poetic narration, accompanied by stills from the film, was published as The River (1938).
With the support of President Roosevelt, in August 1938 the United States Film Service was created to coordinate distribution and exhibition of films produced by government agencies. Lorentz was appointed head of this organization. He had been developing ideas for a film about unemployment but encountered funding difficulties. When CBS offered him the opportunity to produce a radio program for the Columbia Workshop, a radio anthology program, Lorentz adapted those ideas for the radio script Ecce Homo. A film version was never completed.
Meanwhile, Lorentz began work on a film for the Public Health Service based on Paul de Kruif’s 1938 book The Fight for Life, detailing the problems of childbirth and the unemployed. Wanting the film to be as accurate as possible, Lorentz sent the actors who would play key roles to train at the Chicago Maternity Center. Most of the film was shot there, with clinic workers and Chicago tenement dwellers appearing throughout the film. The Fight for Life (1940), Lorentz’s first feature-length film, premiered to good reviews. National distribution rights were awarded to Columbia Pictures. The film won the National Board of Review Award for best documentary film.
Lorentz supervised two other Film Service productions, Power and the Land (1940), directed by Joris Ivers, and The Land (1941), directed by Robert J. Flaherty.
By 1940 opposition to government-sponsored films was growing. Some in Hollywood resented what they saw as competition. Some members of Congress questioned the use of government funds for film production. For many, growing concern about international tensions overshadowed domestic concerns. After a series of congressional hearings, funds for the Film Service were eliminated in 1940.
Lorentz returned to McCall’s as national defense editor and worked briefly on short films at RKO studios. In May 1942 he accepted a commission in the U.S. Air Corps and spent the war years producing briefing films for pilots and documenting the work of the Air Transport Command. After the war Lorentz served as chief of films, theater, and music in occupied countries for the Civil Affairs Division of the War Department, and was responsible for the War Department’s film The Nuremberg Trials (1946).
Back in New York City, he formed Pare Lorentz Associates and served as president and treasurer from 1947 to 1978, consulting on film projects and lecturing at colleges and universities. In 1949 he married Elizabeth Meyer.
Lorentz received several honorary degrees and awards, including the International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award (1985) and the Washington Film Council Award of Honor (1986). He died from cancer at age eighty-six in Armonk.
Retrospective festival screenings of Pare Lorentz’s films demonstrate his contribution to the development of the documentary film genre. While produced to inform the public of specific government programs during the New Deal era, these documentaries present a clear point of view regarding social, economic, and environmental concerns. Their persuasive power, however, comes from the dramatic impact of the visual images and the subtle integration of poetic narration, music, and sound.
The Pare Lorentz Collection of books, papers, and films is at the Polk Library, University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. His personal papers are at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York. Lorentz’s autobiography is FDR’s Moviemaker: Memoirs and Scripts (1992). Lorentz on Film (1975) contains biographical notes and a selection of his movie reviews. Robert L. Snyder’s biography, Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film (1968), places Lorentz’s films within a historical context. Erik Barnouw discusses these films in Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (1983). An obituary is in the New York Times (5 Mar. 1992).
Lucy A. Liggett