by Brad Chisholm
Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 110-114
The story of the Workers' Film and Photo League has been called one of the great missing chapters of U.S. film history: "great" because the League was one of the first opposition-cinema movements in the nation; "missing" because its platoons of leftist filmmakers disbanded after barely five years of work, and few of their films survive. William Alexander and Russell Campbell's recent scholarship has initiated the recovery of this lost chapter.[open notes in new window] Their research concentrates on the League's films and filmmakers. In contrast, I am more interested in learning who actually saw these productions. I believe a nuts-and-bolts account of the League's exhibition and, to an extent, distribution practices, will reveal the link between the films and their intended audiences.
In the 1930's many of the U.S. left considered the news media as establishment tools which served only to minimize the depression's ravages, ignore the country's problems, and to thwart solutions. New Masses, The Daily Worker, and a host of arts-oriented periodicals led by Workers' Theatre attempted to correct the imbalance in the information given by the news. Similarly, the Workers' Film and Photo League sought to offer the public a clear alternative to the newsreels produced by Fox Movietone, the Hearst organization, and Pathé News. (A producer with two of these commercial outfits responded to left criticism by asserting that it was "none of the movie industry's business or responsibility to deal with the ugly facts."
The League became frustrated with Hollywood's control of film distribution and resented Hollywood's hold over theatre owners. Out of necessity it pioneered non-theatrical distribution; in particular, it resorted to road-showings. However, advertisements for League film programs in the left press suggest that in order to attract audiences, this oppositional cinema movement had to imitate a number of mainstream distribution and exhibition practices. Between 1931 and 1936 the League achieved some success with its exhibition tactics, but it never enjoyed the stability nor inspired the popularity that its members sought.
The Film and Photo League's parent organization was the Workers' International Relief, a proletariat assistance group founded by the Communist International in 1921. The W.I.R. used film programs to raise money for victims of economic oppression, fostered the growth of workers' cineclubs in Europe, and capitalized Mezhrabpom Studios in the Soviet Union. The W.I.R. found that documentary and fiction films were effective devices for drawing crowds and building solidarity among the world's workers. During the Twenties the W.I.R.'s William Kruse toured the United States with five documentaries he had either shot or compiled as a result of trips to Germany and the Soviet Union.
The organization made two films, PASSAIC TEXTILE STRIKE and GASTONIA, which documented labor actions in this country, and by the end of the decade had begun building a library of Soviet features for distribution here. In December, 1930, the W.I.R. established the Workers' Film and Photo League. Among its first members were Harry Alan Potamkin, Sam Brody, Leo Hurwitz, Leo Seltzer, and Tom Brandon. Based initially at the New York, West 28th Street offices of the W.I.R., the League took charge of maintaining the prints from the collection of Soviet films and producing photographs and films to document the depression. The W.I.R. provided film stock and some equipment, and it was understood that the initial audience for the films would be Communist Party locals and sympathetic workers' organizations around the country. The Washington, D.C. Hunger March, Bonus March, and May Day demonstrations of 1931 gave the League ample material with which to begin a series called WORKERS' NEWSREEL and eventually compile the feature film, HUNGER.
Within a year of the New York group's formation, other Film and Photo League chapters had been established in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In addition to sponsoring screenings of Soviet productions and occasional films of their own, these provincial branches contributed footage to WORKERS' NEWSREEL, held photo exhibits, organized symposia on the present state of mass media, and held dances and other fund-raising events. For example, in March, 1932, the new Los Angeles chapter invited the public to attend a gala which featured such celebrities as Margaret Bourke-White, Langston Hughes, and King Vidor. It was a kick-off event with a 35-cent admission charge and included speeches and dancing. Two years later the Los Angeles chapter sponsored a similar event at which it was announced that Slavko Vorkapich had offered to participate in League film production. There is no evidence that Vidor or Vorkapich ever actually participated in League production, although the Los Angeles chapter itself was responsible for at least three short documentaries between 1932 and 1934.
During the Film and Photo League's brief life, the New York chapter functioned as the W.I.R.'s center of national film activity. Many film programs, whether they consisted purely of Soviet productions or contained league films, were packaged and distributed, after the spring of 1931,
The life history of a typical New York Film and Photo League production went something like this: first, an executive committee would dispatch a film crew to some national trouble spot where they would have a fair chance of filming demonstrations. Once there, the film crew shot its footage, and if they had access to the necessary facilities nearby, they would screen the rushes on site for the benefit of the demonstrators. Leo Seltzer claims this was a tremendous morale booster. Next, the film would be sent back to New York where it would most likely be edited into an installment of WORKERS' NEWSREEL or the AMERICAN TODAY SERIES. Then the episode would become part of a traveling program headlined by a major Soviet feature. That program would either be road-showed across the country or booked by interested theatres, regional League chapters, or miscellaneous workers' clubs. Finally, when the events depicted in a given newsreel installment were no longer current, the footage would become part of a compilation feature film organized around a general theme. (HUNGER and PORTRAIT OF AMERICA are exemplary productions). To include League films in a package or program was the best way to ensure that audiences would see them.
Occasionally League members were able to persuade mainstream exhibitors to slip a League newsreel into whatever Hollywood program they might be running. One League installment ran for at least three days in mid-1934 at the Rialto in New York, but such instances were exceptional. Most exhibitors contracted with large newsreel companies and there were no real openings for installments from outsiders. Moreover, the Film and Photo League output was sporadic and could not be easily squeezed onto schedules which were the products of extended block-booking.
The Film and Photo League program established these programs as a vehicle with which to circumvent Hollywood's dominion. However, this program was modeled after the typical format of Hollywood theatrical distribution, which consisted of a live act, cartoon, newsreel, and feature film. The League's "live act" would be a speaker, someone such as Ed Royce from the Daily Worker, who traveled with the film 1905 for two months in 1933. League member Tom Brandon frequently gave a talk, "Hollywood Today," to introduce League screenings at exhibition sites within a one hundred mile radius of New York City in 1932. At other times lawyers from the International Labor Defender group spoke. In every instance the orator stumped for the cause to a crowd that had come to see movies.
Based on their titles, the speeches seemed tailored to popular interest. They did not sound politically narrow, exclusive, or intimidating. Judging from the ads, cartoons were big drawing cards. W.I.R. programs from 1930 occasionally used Chaplin shorts to kick off the film portion of the program, but with the advent of respectable 16mm sound equipment, the League's ads began to sport the phrase "includes latest Soviet sound cartoon" in type nearly as prominent as the feature's title. The specific titles of the cartoons do not appear. Next on the bill was the newsreel: the one or two reels of film actually produced by the League. Between 1931 and 1934 at least 16 episodes of WORKERS' NEWSREEL were made. Viewers of a League program would have seen episodes with such titles as TOM MOONEY DEMONSTRATION, ALBANY HUNGER MARCH, and RENT STRIKES. The League did not build each program around one of its newsreels, though.
The demand for programs was higher than League production could match. Regular exhibitors such as New York's Acme or Cameo Theatres changed their bills weekly, and sometimes semi-weekly. The League therefore borrowed from the W.I.R.'s reserve of Soviet newsreels. The October, 1932, run of a film entitled THE FORTY-FIRST at the 28th and Broadway Theatre, Manhattan, included a League production referred to as a "special." A year later that Soviet feature had toured the country and was back in New York at the Acme, along with "the latest Soviet and American newsreels." The program was again constructed around the Soviet feature.
TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, ROAD TO LIFE, and CHINA EXPRESS received the most exposure of any features on League circuits between 1931 and 1934. At least two prints of these films circulated in the country after 1933, as evidenced by several simultaneous playdates. The features represented the best of Soviet drama. Eisenstein and Pudovkin's names were often placed above the titles. Promotions often included descriptive phrases which emphasized the films' stature as well as entertainment value. Entertainment was, after all, what the program's model attempted to exploit.
The packaged Film and Photo League programs emanated from the New York offices. Tom Brandon made the New York chapter the center of distribution for the national League. Regional chapters would swap footage among themselves, but paid a flat rate of $1.50 per reel for New York chapter footage. Brandon could charge because the New York chapter had the greatest quantity and the most sought-after newsreel footage of any of the chapters. The regional chapters were dependent on the New York branch. This is at least partially due to the fact that the New York group planted the seeds that formed the regional Film and Photo Leagues. By sending a film program on tour, the League was able to stimulate interest in as well as demand for more programs.
The national tour of a program headlined by CANONS OR TRACTORS may have even bolstered party membership in sections of the Midwest. Shortly after reports of unexpectedly high turnouts for the film in Minnesota and northern Michigan, there came the announcement that a Minneapolis Photo League was forming. Later progress reports in the Daily Worker indicate that the new group had begun photo production and was trying to raise money for film equipment. There is no evidence that this chapter ever began film production, but in the summer of 1932 the Minneapolis chapter became the latest Film and Photo League exhibitor. Whenever it held membership drives or fundraising affairs, it was able to turn to the New York office for the latest available Soviet feature and workers' film program. Unlike the League, the commercial film industry was long past road-showing to build audiences. However, both enterprises had the same city as the hub of their activity.
League exhibition sites fall into three categories. Theatrical precursors of what we call "art houses" for a time provided the steadiest showcases; they tended to get first crack at each of the latest Soviet features as it became available. Second, some screening facilities alternated League programs with other, often unrelated, non-film programs. Some of these were playhouses; some were public auditoriums; others were ethnic workers' halls with a good deal of space to rent. The third group of exhibition sites were smaller labor temples and workers' clubs — meeting halls that could not accommodate large audiences and which tended to get Soviet features only after they had been screened at more spacious facilities in the same city.
Hollywood organized its exhibitors into a first-run, second-run, third-run hierarchy. The Film and Photo League was not in a position to do the same, but out of necessity it did establish its own hierarchy. It only had a limited number of prints that could circulate at a given time, and certain screening places were more comfortable and conducive to film viewing than others. If the League gave priority to the Art Cinema Theatre in Cleveland, the Punch and Judy Theatre in Chicago, or the Acme Theatre in New York, it was because those places had permanent projection equipment and could even accommodate 35mm sound films. Art houses drew regular, if not proletarian, audiences. These theatres catered to those interested in European films. While Soviet features such as ARSENAL and THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG were their mainstay between 1931 and 1934, they offered films of Murnau and Dreyer, too. The Acme Theatre's ads in the Daily Worker billed the place as "The Workers' Acme Theatre," whereas its ads in the establishment press simply called it "The Acme."
The group responsible for programming at the Acme and Cameo theatres in Manhattan was Symon Gould's Film Arts Guild, an organization more interested in alternative aesthetics than alternative politics. When League programs premiered at these theatres, it was usually without the benefit of a flesh-and-blood orator. Gould's group was so interested in League newsreels, though, that the Acme and Cameo would advance $25 to $50 to the League to ensure the availability of its next newsreel offering. Other art houses were less loyal to the League but took advantage of its collection of Soviet features and its connections with Mezhrabpom Studios. For instance, the Philkino Theatre in Philadelphia, despite any implied convictions in its name, had no qualms about running a Film and Photo League program one week and a film denounced by the League the next. It ran ROAD TO LIFE and the latest American newsreels on September 30, 1933, and by October 3 its bill changed to include THUNDER OVER MEXICO, the reworking of Eisenstein material which the League ideologues considered butchery.
The art theatre audience was not as politically focused as were audiences at the League's other exhibition sites. Among "sometimes" exhibitors was the Franklin Theatre in New York, which ran League programs between engagements of legitimate stage productions. The League seems to have had a number of these "sometimes showcases" across the country, ranging from New York's Stuyvesant Casino with its "ten large halls, ideal for banquets, weddings, bar mitzvahs, meetings, and conventions," to the People's Auditorium in Chicago, and the hall in Los Angeles which the local League chapter rented for its May Day galas. While art houses often premiered new Soviet features in the major cities, the League favored the second kind of site for road shows. These places attracted audiences less reticent about having political speakers precede an evenings's entertainment than art house patrons would have been. The places' very names (e.g., Liberty Hall, Czechoslovakian Workers House Incorporated) might shape audience expectations.
The third kind of showcases were used by road-show productions when larger facilities were unavailable. These smaller meeting halls were not continually booked for various programming. They did not attempt to accommodate conventions; rather they provided regular meeting places for Communist Party and labor locals, which could be adapted for screenings if necessary. The Ukranian Home and Lithuanian Hall in Chicago, and the Romanian Hall in nearby Gary may have been exemplary. I do not know how big they were, but whenever they offered film programs, the features were those which had already played at People's Auditorium.
Unlike Hollywood's first-run, second-run, third-run hierarchy, the League's informal divisions did not have a difference in admission prices. During the first half of the Thirties, exhibitors of League programs charged between 15-cents and 35-cents for admission. The Acme consistently charged
This probably happened because theatres like the Acme changed their bills as attendance warranted it. They wanted patrons to return once or twice each week and used a low price as enticement. The typical worker's hall may have gotten a big film program only once or twice a year, and the admission it charged often benefited some cause. In contrast to Hollywood exhibition practice, the relation between art house and meeting hall screenings was almost the inverse of that between picture palace and rural movie house.
I mentioned that League members denounced certain films. The League was often involved in demonstrations and picketed theatres which featured pro-Nazi films. Other members felt that overemphasizing protesting slighted the League's primary function. By the mid-Thirties this schism contributed to the New York group's demise. Leo Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner, and Irving Lerner broke away to form the production group, Nykino; Seltzer defected to the W.P.A.; and the still photographers struck out on their own as well. After 1934 Tom Brandon devoted all his attention to his newly formed Garrison Films distributing company. Garrison maintained advertisements in the leftist press but also promoted various Hollywood titles such as THE INVISIBLE MAN along with a collection of Polish comedies and Soviet dramas. After the W.LR. collapsed in 1935, the New York Film and Photo League cosponsored some productions with Nykino and other groups during the next two years. However, the League was effectively out of business by 1937.
Gilbert Seldes wrote that a documentary could consider itself a success if it could "force exhibitors to go outside their commercial contracts" in order to show it. The Film and Photo League could never really count on being able to do this. Instead, it established a complementary outlet for its product. During the first half of the Thirties, residents of this country's major cities could see perhaps a different Soviet feature each month. Residents of many smaller cities which contained a Communist Party local or a group of people interested in starting one could perhaps encounter a Soviet feature once or twice per year. In either case, the viewer stood a fair chance of seeing a League newsreel on the program.
The story of the Film and Photo League movement hinges on the rise and fall of the New York chapter. Certainly that branch served as a center, and existing research has solidified this reputation. What remains to be documented is the League activity that transpired outside of New York. When provincial chapters grew up, they aspired to do production, yet while the Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles branches did make a handful of films, that was not the case with the Boston, Minneapolis, Washington D.C., or Laredo, Texas groups. The most significant activity of the regional chapters lay in their role as components of a loosely-formed distribution network, and in their members' efforts to approach theatres, rent facilities, and create new sites for exhibition.
JUMP CUT has published important articles and discussions of The Film and Photo League movement of the 1930s. Most of these issues are still available from us. We printed Special Sections in JUMP CUT, no. 14 ($2.00! $230 abroad) and no. 19 (now out of print). We'll sell you all three Film and Photo League issues for $5.00 ($6.00 abroad).
1. The most comprehensive studies of the Film and Photo League can be found in William Alexander's Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931 to 1941 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); and Russell Campbell's Cinema Strikes BackL Radical Filmmaking in the United States: 1930-1942 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982).
2. Quoted in Fred Sweet, Eugene Roscow, and Allan Francovich, "Interview with Tom Brandon," Film Quarterly (Fall 1973) 26:13. This producer was Terry Ramsaye, author of A Million and One Nights.
3. Tom Brandon, "What's Doing in the Film and Photo League Branches," Daily Worker, Sept, 14, 1934, p.5; and other optimistic League progress reports (New Masses, July 1934 p. 16; Workers' Theatre, July, 1933, p. 9) appear especially idealistic in retrospect. The greatest disappointment may have been the League's inability to get its National Film Exchange off the ground (Campbell, p. 66).
4. Richard Taylor. The Politics of Soviet Cinema: 1917-1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 73-4; for the history of W.I.R. film involvement, see Vance Kepley, Jr., 'The Workers' International Relief and the Cinema of the Left: 1921 1935," Cinema Journal (Fall 1983) 23:7-23.
5. From an unpublished interview with William Kruse, by Russell Merritt and Vance Kepley, Jr., Jan. 18. 1975. All subsequent information on Kruse is from this source unless otherwise indicated.
6. Campbell, p. 35.
7. Alexander, p. 7. cf. Sam Brady's 'The Movie as Weapon Against the Working Class," Daily Worker, May 29, 1930, p. 4; Seymour Stern's film column in Left (Spring 1931) 1: 69; Sweet, Rostow, Francovich, p. 14.
8. Russell Campbell, "Interview with Sam Brody," JUMP CUT 14 (March 1977), pp. 28-30. Cf. Daily Worker, July 30, 1934, p. 5; May 24, 1934, p. 5; June 9, 1933, p. 2.
9. "Los Angeles Photo League Holds Affair," Daily Worker, March 15, 1932, p. 2, Slavko Vorkapich, Cinema Technician, Backs Film and Photo League Program," Daily Worker, July 25, 1934, p. 5.
10. This information is based on the League filmography in JUMP CUT 14 (March 1977). The titles attributed to L.A. are IMPERIAL VALLEY, TOM MOONEY, and CANNON FODDER. On July 25, 1934, the Daily Worker reported that the New York chapter was about to screen a program that included BLOODY MEMORIAL DAY IN LOS ANGELES. This may have been an alternate tide for one of the above-mentioned films.
11. Cambell, Cinema Strikes Back p. 39; Close-Up (Sept. 1932), p. 213.
12. Sweet, Rostow, Francovich, p. 21.
13. Russell Cambell, "An Interview with Leo Seltzer, "JUMP CUT 14 (March 1977) pp. 25-27.
14. Since so few of the films survive and because they were often known by different titles, it is difficult to make this claim with certainty. Alexander (p. 28) and Campbell (p. 79), for example, give slightly different accounts of the status of HUNGER. However, on the basis of the previously cited interviews with Brandon, Brady, Selzer, and David Plait's comments in JUMP CUT 16 (Nov. 1977), p. 37, there does seem to have been a trend toward longer films and giving old footage new life via editing.
15. Sweet, Rostow, and Francovich, p. 22; Daily Worker, June 13, 1934, p. 2.
16. Daily Worker, August 29, 1933, p. 2; Sept. 14, 1933, p. 2.
17. Sweet, Rostow, Francovich, p. 21.
18. Daily Worker, Oct. 21, 1932, p. 2; Oct. 12, 1933, p. 5.
19. Daily Worker, Oct. 3, 1932, p. 2; Oct. 6, 1932, p. 2; Oct. 10, 1932. p. 2.
20. Daily Worker, Oct. 21, 1932, p. 2; Oct. 21, 1933. p. 2. The original premier screening of THE FORTY-FIRST was delayed one week for "technical reasons" so in its place the 28th and Broadway booked seven newsreels from the Film and Photo League, some of which may have been Soviet productions. The tides; KILLING TO LIVE, REVOLT IN THE DESERT, FIGHT FOR THE BONUS, BLOODY THURSDAY, MARCH OF THE VETS, FUNERAL OF PRIVATE HOTCHKA, FUNERAL OF PRIVATE CARLSON.
21. Daily Worker, Jan. 15, 1931, p. 2 Feb. 2, 1931, p. 2; Dec. 17, 1933, p. 5.
22. Pudovkin's name is prominently displayed for all Daily Worker ads for 1905. Eisenstein's is similarly pronounced except in connection with some ads of TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, the re-edited, sound-tracked version of OCTOBER. The name of John Reed, author of the book Ten Days that Shook the World, appears in lieu of the director's (e.g., Daily Worker, Nov. 21, 1930, p. 2).
23. "A sensational Sovkino production," Daily Worker, Oct. 24, 1930, p. 2; "A human interest story of the gigantic Five-Year Plan," Daily Worker, March 9, 1932, p. 2.
24. Bert Hogenkamp, Workers' Newsreels in the 1920s and 1930s, Our History Series, No. 68 (London: Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d.), p. 32 Campbell's Seltzer interview, p. 26.
25. "Eager to See Soviet Films," Daily Worker. April 30, 1932, p. 2.
26. "Minnesota Photo League to Teach Making of Movies and Stills," Daily Worker, May 23, 1932, p. 2.
27. For example, the New Estonian Workers' Home which promoted itself with "Splendid, large, balls, dances, lectures, meetings," at 27-29 West 113th St. NYC, Daily Worker, Jan, 5, 1933, p. 2.
28. There were exceptions to this resulting from the huge appetite of the art houses. Places such as New York's Acme and St. Mark's Theatres, and the Film Art in Los Angeles regularly resorted to the "back by popular demand" tactic. Favorites such as ROAD TO LIFE often played the art houses alter having made appearances at workers' locals in the same city.
29. Sometime in 1932 it became apparent to the League that any hopes of building a successful distribution circuit depended on the ability of non-theatrical exhibitors to accommodate sound films. Alexander implies that problems relating to sound contributed to the League's collapse (pp. 42-43).
30. Daily Worker, October 15, 1932, p. 2; New York Times, October 14, 1932, p. 23.
31. New Masses, (Jan. 1929) p. 36. Symon Gould's Film Arts Guild eventually became the Film Guild Cinema.
32. Sweet, Rostow, Francovich, p. 22.
33. Campbell, Cinema Strikes Back, p. 48; Daily Worker, Sept. 30, 1933, p. 5; Oct. 3, 1933, p. 5.
34. On Tuesday, October 11, 1932, SNIPER opened at the Franklin with Film and Photo League short subjects. One week later Paul Muni opened there in a play with a run of not less than three weeks. Daily Worker, October 11, 1932, p. 2; Oct. 18, 1932, p. 2; Oct. 26, 1932, p. 2.
35. Stuyvesant Casino ad is from Daily Worker, Oct. 22, 1932, p. 2. People's Auditorium was frequently used for CP-backed programs between 1929 and 1935, some of which involved film, others involved dancing (Daily Worker, Sept. 28, 1933, p. 5); and judging from references in the Daily Worker on March 15, 1932, p. 2, and July 25, p. 5, the Los Angeles location was somewhere other than the chapter hall.
36. Liberty Hall was in Milwaukee and a showplace for the 1933 road show of 1905 (Daily Worker, Sept. 16, 1933); The Czechoslovakian Workers' Hall Incorporated advertised itself with "Meeting Rooms and Hall to Hire," 347 E. 72nd St., NYC, Daily Worker, Oct. 15, 1932, p. 2.
37. It is impossible to know for certain exactly how different facilities compared on the basis of the ads alone, but it is revealing that People's Auditorium boasted of at least 19 separate film programs between 1929 and 1935 while the Lithuanian Hall and the Ukranian Home are only mentioned with films on the handful of occasions that road shows passed through Chicago.
38. Daily Worker, Sept. 16, 1933, p. 4.
39. The common price for places such as the Finnish-Workers' House and the Workers' Center (a CP meeting hall), both in New York City, was 20-cents in advance, 25-cents at the door.
40. Campbell, Cinema Strikes Back, pp. 58-65
41. Daily Worker, Feb. 16, 1936, p. 5.
42. Campbell, p. 66.
43. Gilbert Seldes, 'THE RIVER" from Lewis Jacobs' The Documentary Tradition (New York: Hopkinson, Blake, 1971), pp. 123-25.
44. Alexander, p. 42.