Social documentary in the era of the popular front : The Plow That Broke the Plains, alternative filmmaking, and the struggle for independent distribution in the United States, 1935-37




Altenberg, Benjamin Creed

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In the time before World War II in the United States, a generation was radicalized by the Great Depression and inspired to challenge cultural conventions across many forms of media. In the area of film, a peculiar instance of alternative production and distribution sprouted out of the United States government in the form of a 2-reel documentary entitled The Plow That Broke the Plains, originally released in 1936. Funded by a relief agency, directed by a man with no experience, and shot by radical leftist artists out of New York City, the film was an unusual challenge to the status quo of the prevailing classical Hollywood model. It was so jarring, in fact, that Hollywood studios denounced the effort publicly and prevented the mainstream theatres that they controlled from showing the picture. The following efforts to distribute the film in spite of this mainstream opposition allowed the film to be seen by an alternative set of audiences across multiple kinds of exhibition spaces, including educational assemblies and striking labor unions. Using a plethora of primary and secondary historical sources, as well as a framework developed by Chris Atton for studying alternative media, this thesis analyzes the production and distribution processes of the film to help elucidate how a work functioning outside of the dominant commercial industry could attain national recognition and reach audiences across urban, suburban, and rural areas of the country at a time when other such alternative cinematic endeavors never accessed many viewers outside of a bourgeois elite cultural sphere.



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