How the Muddy Mississippi River Became a Cinematic and Poetic Masterwork

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Pare Lorentz

By Ken Zurski

In the summer of 1936, documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz got the go ahead from the U.S. Government to make a short film about a rather long and tendentious subject: the Mississippi River.

Of course, there was a purpose to it all. The $50,000 budget approved by President Franklin Roosevelt would highlight the environmental and economic concerns along the river, specifically the massive and catastrophic flooding caused by industries like farming and the timber trade that inadvertently sent large amounts of topsoil down the river into the Gulf of Mexico.  The film’s job was to throw more support towards the newly appointed Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a government agency created in 1933 to provide resources to the Tennessee Valley for among other things, flood control.

Two years earlier, Roosevelt had funded a mildly successful film project titled The Plow That Broke the Plains, also directed by Lorentz, which showed how uncontrolled farming led to the devastating and deadly effects of the Dust Bowl.

It’s fair to say that both Roosevelt and Lorentz had no intentions of making another documentary together. “The Plow” had gone over budget and the government balked, refusing to provide more money and forcing Lorentz to personally foot the bill just to complete the film. At some point however, attitude’s changed. Lorentz saw a map of the Mississippi River and thought it would make a good subject.  Roosevelt agreed and gave him a significantly higher budget than “The Plow.” Lorentz was also extended a $30-dollar a day salary.

Immediately Lorentz went to work, filming location after location on the ground and from the air in in a lightweight “floppy winged” plane. The crew worked their way up the river from the Gulf of Mexico to Cairo, Illinois, oftentimes working for days on end until principal filming wrapped up in early January 1937. In the end the visuals showed less of the Mississippi and more of the many tributaries that branch off it. This was as much a part of the river’s history as it was the problem, the film purported.

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Lorentz (standing) and crew on location

Reaction to a film being made about the Mississippi River was mixed. Although it’s the most important body of drainage water in the U.S., perhaps even the world, and certainly an influential part of the nation’s growth, to many, the river itself, was nothing particularly pleasing to look at. In fact, visually, it’s an eyesore. The water is drab and dirty looking and along it’s shoreline there is very little rock formations or scenery to enhance it. “If driving, you become aware of its presence miles before you reach it,” author Simon Winchester surmises. “The landscape falls away. There are swamps on either side, dense hedgerows and copses, miles of small lakes of curious shape.”

Indeed the Mississippi River, especially its midsection, is banked by mostly mud.  Even Mark Twain’s flourishes of the river’s attributes from the perspective of a steamboat pilot couldn’t push the attitudes toward its appearance into anything more than just a very long strip of dirt colored water and sludgy shores.

No question beauty is subjective. Hundreds of quaint cities dot the river’s shoreline and dense tree lines along the Mid to Upper sections provide a multi-colored vista in the Fall. In St Louis, a large man-made monument standing as tall as it is wide (630 feet), greet visitors at the river’s edge; a testament to the men who used the Mississippi’s offshoots to chart the west. When Lorentz made his movie, however, the idea of a symbol like the “Gateway Arch” was nearly 30 years away. But like the early explorers, Lorentz found significance in its vast network too. The tributaries and the people who live along them were the key to its resourcefulness.

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The visuals, however, were just part of the overall experience of the 30-minute film. The script, dramatically narrated by an opera singer and actor named Thomas Hardie Chalmers, was not only informational, but poetic too. There’s a good reason why. To promote the project, Lorentz had written two articles for McCall’s magazine. One was wordy and statistical, he thought, so he wrote another version that was more lyrically composed.

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.

McCall’s chose to publish the latter version and readers responded by writing request letters for copies. Lorentz used the more poetic prose in the film. The music, which incorporated part folk and gospel styles, was written by composer Virgil Thomson.

While the unflinching subject matter certainly raised awareness of the need for more locks and dams, the film is best remembered for it’s cinematic achievements. The film went on to win the “Best Documentary” at the 1938 Venice International Film Festival and the script was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry. The noted novelist and poet James Joyce, shortly before his death at age 60, called the film’s words, “the most beautiful prose that I have heard in ten years.”

Before all the artistic accolades rolled in, upon release in October of 1937, the film titled simply “The River” received positive reviews and general widespread acceptance. The first showing at the White House , however, proved less than ideal. While Roosevelt was generally pleased, the president’s Secretary of Agriculture at the time, Henry Wallace, a Midwesterner from Iowa, didn’t know what to think.

“There’s no corn in it,” he questioned.

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