So, researching John Steinbeck for a play. I looked into Sally Bates Lorenz. She had been one of four character witnesses when Steinbeck applied for a New York State pistol license in 1941. Sally listed herself on the application as a housewife and homeowner, though she was also a New York actress. Perhaps being a witness for Steinbeck could be hazardous to a career in those days – J. Edgar Hoover was keeping an eye on the author, after all. Still, Sally had the courage to sign the document along with Burgess Meredith and two others – artist Henry Varnum Poor and veterinarian Morris Siegel.
I found that Lorenz had been married to a man named Pare Lorentz, and yes, the last names are spelled differently. I’d never heard of Pare Lorentz, and when I researched him, I was stunned I hadn’t. A little embarrassed actually, since I had written two documentary film scripts and Pare Lorentz had been a groundbreaking documentary filmmaker. His most famous film, done for the government’s Resettlement Administration in 1937, has a kind of `groundbreaking’ in its title: ``The Plow That Broke the Plains.’’
It’s an amazing film, a little creaky here and there, but powerful and moving. The last five or ten minutes could have been lifted from the novel or film ``The Grapes of Wrath,’’ though they were both still several years away.
I’m continually amazed about the artists of all kinds who made strong artistic statements during the Great Depression, whether singer–songwriters – Woody Guthrie, for instance – photographers – Dorothea Lange and Harvey Bristol, among them – painters – Maynard Dixon and so many of the watercolorists of the California school of the time – and of course the writers, Steinbeck foremost among them.
And I wonder if any of us, writers, painters, filmmakers, photographers, poets, are anywhere in the vicinity for this similar time in American history to what those people did. Unlikely. And society will probably pay the price, especially if justice is left solely to the politicians and the corporations. Artists used to be a force in setting the agenda, and generally guiding the politicians and people, sometimes even the corporations, in a humane direction. It’s hard to see this happening in current America.
As to Pare Lorentz and John Steinbeck, I wondered if Steinbeck had been influenced by Lorentz. I discovered they did know each other and had corresponded, probably why Steinbeck got to know and be a friend of Sally Bates Lorenz. So it seems unlikely Steinbeck would not have taken something away from Pare Lorentz and his film. I contacted an important documentary filmmaker for his opinion.
``If you've never seen the ``The Plow That Broke the Plains,’’ you should. It was a huge influence on me,’’ he said. ``I saw it maybe ten times when at UCLA - beautifully photographed in black and white, 35 millimeter and told in a lyrical rather than narrative style, unique for its day, even for today because it was shot before location sound recording was possible, it is entirely visual and lets the images convey the meaning. Lorentz was a pioneer of documentary film as art, probably THE pioneer.’’
He continued that if the documentary – which while it doesn’t include location sound does have narration by Thomas Chalmers and a haunting score by Virgil Thomson – hadn’t influence Steinbeck’s novel, it certainly did influence the John Ford directed film version with its Nunnally Johnson screenplay.
The final scenes of ``The Plow That Broke the Plains’’ – including a charming and moving image of a barefooted girl lugging what appears to be a bucket of water in front of a house collapsing behind mounds of dust – would seem to bear that out.
Another instance of the times perhaps repeating themselves: the 1938 elections gave the Republicans control of the House, and federal funding for films such as those made by Pare Lorentz was discontinued.
Fortunately, Steinbeck and other artists would follow with their own powerful visions, echoing in many ways the message of ``The Plow That Broke the Plains.’’ The film is attached.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...