Thursday, February 27, 2014

Heart of Spain + Photo League Shorts

Jacques Lemare, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Herbert Kline

HEART OF SPAIN                 B                
USA  (30 mi)  1937  d:  Herbert Kline     co-director:  Charles Korvin (Geza Karpathi)

Herbert Kline was a native of Davenport, Iowa who grew up in a middle class household before running away from home at the age of 14, bumming his way around the United States as a youth before becoming an important figure in the early history of American documentary film in the 1930’s, where the Great Depression raised his social awareness, becoming editor of a leftist magazine called New Theater in Chicago, becoming the first to publish and help stage the plays of Clifford Odets.  Later, he joined the Photo League, an organization of politically progressive documentarians in New York who were among the first to shoot American documentary films, which were not recognized at the Academy Awards until 1942.  Initially affiliated with the Workers International Relief, a Berlin based organization affiliated with the Communist Party that shot a silent film The Passaic Textile Strike (1926) to generate sympathy and raise funds for striking workers from the 1926 Passaic Textile Strike, involving more than 15,000 textile mill workers in New Jersey, becoming the first Communist-led work stoppage in the United States, one that lasted over a year, where the film document remains one of the early American labor films to have been preserved largely intact and is in the Library of Congress film collection. 

According to the Anthology Film Archives, the Film and Photo League was launched in New York in 1930 by a dedicated group of leftist and left-liberal photographers, filmmakers and critics, many avowed Marxists and party members, also others who considered themselves idealists using documentary film as a radical instrument of social change.  Branches opened in other cities as the Depression lengthened, with participants documenting the breadlines and Hoovervilles (a popular name for shanty towns built by the homeless during the Great Depression), hunger, and unemployment marches, restless protests and disputes.  Their films were shown directly to workers’ groups, in union halls or strike headquarters and even outdoors at night.  Workers often knew little of similar struggles occurring around the country or abroad, nor of the widespread results of economic crisis and class conflicts.  The Film and Photo League films thus became solidifying agents in political education, aiming to inform, to build morale and to agitate. Their efforts during the early years of the Depression helped to define social documentary film and photography as a genre, focusing on the gritty realities of urban life, taking a closer look at ordinary people, where inequity and discrimination were tangible in their work, though on December 5, 1947 the U.S. Attorney General blacklisted the Photo League for its anti-American subversive element.  By 1951 the Photo League could no longer sustain itself, and it officially closed its doors, a casualty of the Red Scare. 

Among the surviving Film and Photo League films that have recently been preserved and restored by Photo League filmmaker Leo Seltzer:

Workers Newsreel Unemployment Special 1931 (1931,16mm, 7 min.) 
The National Hunger March 1931 (1931, 16mm, 11 min.) 
Detroit Workers News Special 1932: Ford Massacre (1932, 16mm, 7 min.) 
Hunger: The National Hunger March to Washington 1932 (1932, 16mm, 18 min.) 
America Today and the World in Review (1932-34, 16mm, 11 min.) 
Bonus March 1932 (1932, 16mm, 12 min.)

Much of these early films are sharp contrasts to the more conservative oriented commercial newsreels that played in local movie houses, as they ignored the controversial subjects that these leftist films tapped into, showing footage of people marching in protest to the economic conditions of the Depression, reminding viewers that President Herbert Hoover ran his campaign promising an economic downturn that would not last for more than 6 months.  In that era, unemployment meant eviction with people becoming homeless, as one-fourth of the nation was unemployed with no unemployment insurance, no Social Security, no help for the poor, where legions of people lost their homes and were living on the streets, lined up by the hundreds in soup lines across the nation’s cities.  These films capture people lined up around city blocks for food, including the first mass demonstration with protesters marching in Union Square in New York on March 6, 1930 demanding unemployment insurance, jobs, food, and clothing, while another documents thousands of people marching from various places across the country to Washington.  One of the most gripping is the newsreel coverage of the city of Detroit, arguably the nation’s hardest hit city during the Depression, where 10,000 children stood in bread lines while 80% of the auto industry was shut down and lay idle.  At the time Henry Ford was the richest man in the world, while he was also a vicious anti-Semite, an admirer of Hitler, and an ardent foe of unions.  Built in the 1920’s, the River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan was the largest industrial complex in the world.  Workers in the Detroit area decided to organize a Ford Hunger March on March 7, 1932 to focus attention on Henry Ford and his huge River Rouge complex, but when they reached the city border of Detroit and Dearborn, the protesters were met by police ordering the marchers to turn back.  When they refused, police fired tear gas and can be see using billy clubs in the only known footage of the armed, unprovoked attack by Dearborn police and Ford “hired security guards” who opened fire on unemployed auto workers at the gates of the River Rouge plant, killing four men, one of whom was black (Curtis Williams) and not allowed to be buried with the others in a nearby cemetery within sight of the smokestacks of the River Rouge complex, so his ashes were scattered over the plant from an airplane.    

The Bonus March is considered one of President Calvin Coolidge’s greatest blunders, as he proclaimed America was a nation of businessmen and relied upon the advice of business entrepreneurs like Henry Ford who advised him that if the government started paying unemployment insurance, loafers would quit their jobs to collect the checks and the level of unemployment would rise, while Silas Strawn, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, echoed those comments and warned that benefit payments would undermine the industriousness and work ethic of America.  When 10,000 WWI veterans marched on Washington in the spring of 1932, many or them homeless and out of work, this was an embarrassment to Hoover, but he was unreceptive to their demands that the $500 Bonus checks stipulated from a 1924 law to be paid out in 1945 be released immediately due to economic hardships.  On June 15th, the House passed the bill to pay the Bonus stipends immediately, but despite the presence of tens of thousands of veterans on the White House lawn, the Senate defeated the bill by a vote of 62 to 18.  The veterans refused to leave, however, despite the fact Congress adjourned for the summer, and remained firmly planted in a ramshackle camp of huts and tents throughout the summer, where Hoover was convinced this was not a grassroots movement of impoverished veterans, but a mass of communist agitators, ordering General Douglas MacArthur, along with Patton and Eisenhower, to lead Army cavalry and infantry units, using armored tanks and tractors, to clear out the 20,000 veterans along with another 25,000 people who had gathered, setting fire to the shacks and demolishing anything remaining in their tracks, turning the camp into a raging inferno.  This July 28th attack on veterans, leaving 4 dead and over a thousand injured, is captured on film, showing people frightened and barely able to hang on, losing what little they had left.  Hoover became a political pariah for decades afterwards even within his own party, where it would be another 30 years before a Republican would sit in the White House.  In 1936, Congress overrode President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s veto and paid the veterans their Bonus checks early.   

Charles Korvin (born Geza Karpathi) was born in Piestany, Austria-Hungary, attended the Sorbonne in Paris where he remained for ten years as a still and motion picture photographer, emigrating to the United States in 1940 where he worked as an actor and photographer, but a decade later Korvin was blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities and did not work in Hollywood for the next ten years.  It’s important to consider the influence of the Spanish Civil War on the 1930’s American left, as even the Communist party retreated from their attack against capitalism and joined forces with the Popular front movement of liberals, socialists, pacifists, and progressives in a coalition against fascism.  One of the films that captured the public’s imagination was the Joris Ivens documentary THE SPANISH EARTH (1937), a documentary about the Spanish Civil War financed by a handful of American intellectuals that included John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Dashiell Hammett. One clever devise used by Ivens was to intercut the familiar New York landscape while showing the dire situation in a war ravaged Madrid, as the left was convinced it was necessary to show a connection between the plight of the Spanish people and American’s struggle to overcome the Great Depression.  That same year the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Montreal physician Dr. Norman Bethune approached both Kline and Korvin in making HEART OF SPAIN, a film designed to raise money for needed medical services, where Kline originally intended to enlist in the loyalist struggle against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, but agreed instead to work on this project, living with the mobile medical clinic and filming it in operation, where Bethune, along with his American colleague Dr. Edward Barsky, served on the front lines saving wounded soldiers through blood transfusions, where blood was preserved through refrigeration and sodium citrate.  The film offers rare archival war footage, including the bombed out ruins on the streets of Madrid, taking us to the graves of unknown Canadian soldiers, featuring a mother from Madrid, Hero Escobedo, and her actions donating blood and speaking with wounded soldiers.  Edited by Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz from Frontier Films, an outgrowth of the Photo League, also responsible for Native Land (1942), they added newsreels and other source material, where most of the film is comprised of short shots in a somewhat non-linear, fragmented style, allowing the scenes to speak for themselves.  While there is a narration by John O'Shaughnessy, the film’s aesthetic acts more as a time capsule, an unconventional study of the struggle against fascism. 

It’s surprising how there was a current of anti-fascism running through the American left during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, from popular novelists John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, to American film directors King Vidor or John Ford, both of whom expressed anti-fascist sympathies.  Any study of the American left in the 30’s, however, should also include how American communists and other leftists were sold out by Stalin himself in the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 (aka the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact), a historic non-aggressive pact made with the Nazi’s that undermined their decade-long efforts in combating the international wave of fascism, where even the Communist Party of Russia caved in, which is one of the contributing factors to the rise of post war, anti-communist  fervor of McCarthyism in the late 40’s and early 50’s.  While the Russians eventually came under attack and joined the Allies in a united front against Hitler during WWII, Stalin already undermined the hopes and ideals of the Russian revolution, as reflected by the John Reed Clubs in America which included black American author Richard Wright, and instead built a totalitarian police state, the remnants of which still exist in Russia today under Putin.   

No comments:

Post a Comment