Classic Documentary Review: “The New Deal for Artists” (1976)

“The New Deal for Artists” was a mid-70s documentary for public television that gathered many of the folks who benefited from Franklin Roosevelt’s assorted New Deal work projects to talk about how that Great Depression “put people back to work” program benefited themselves, American art and America in general.

From New York theater types to Navaho painters, poets and writers sent out to interview Real America to the photographers who documented the Dust Bowl, the impoverished, segregated South and the plight of inner cities, the alphabet soup of acronyms that these assorted programs fell under changed the country, and in a breathtakingly short period of time.

Although Wieland Schulz-Keil’s film reflects the cultural biases of the ’30s, still evident in the ’70s — most of those interviewed are white and male, as indeed many of those benefiting from the programs were back in the Depression — it’s an earnest attempt at getting at the cultural changes such a program turned the tide on.

African Americans and white Americans took to the stage together for the first time in great numbers, Black theater was boosted and celebrated, women and Latin and Native artists were subsidized.

And all over America, post offices and other Federal buildings were adored with brawny, historic populist murals, “forgotten” America was remembered and chronicled and kids who’d never seen a play, often the children of parents who’d never seen live theater, were visited by trailered traveling shows like “Revolt of the Beavers,” a comical allegory about fascism and worker exploitation.

“I played a Gestapo type of beaver,” a chuckling actor John Randolph (“Heaven Can Wait,” “Prizzi’s Honor”) recalled of the agitprop dramedy about beavers going on strike against greedy capitalists.

Here’s Howard da Silva (“1776”) rattling off rhymes and singing a verse or two — from memory — from the controversial Federal Theater Project production of leftist composer Marc Blitzstein’s labor opera, “The Cradle Will Rock,” a show he performed in briefly almost 40 years before he was interviewed for “New Deal.”

Artists such as Andy Tsihnahjinnie recall how they were able to feed themselves, and create art that wasn’t just for the “Navaho trading posts,” art that came to reshape American painting and sculpture for generations.

Writer Meridel Le Sueur recounts the history of populism on the Northern Plains that surrounded her work on the Federal Writer’s Project, the stepdaughter of the former socialist mayor of Minot, N.D. recalling “Non Partisan League” politics of the region testing the idea that became Social Security years before FDR came into office.

And we see hundreds of photographs from the likes of Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein recounting the poverty, the economic and environmental destruction of the Dust Bowl, exposing the rest of America to how little-known corners of it were struggling to survive.

The work “gave the country an unprecedented artistic renaissance,” narrates Orson Welles, remembered for his Federal Theater Project work casting African Americans in the celebrated “voodoo” version of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” reset in Haiti and a Broadway sensation when it opened.

We also see the downfall of such projects, hounded and attacked by the racist Klan-defending Texan Martin Dies Jr., who started the infamous House Unamerican Activities Committee ostensibly to defend the country against fascism, but used it to silence those who spoke out against exploitation, fascism and racism too vigorously.

IMDb has this film clocking in at three hours, at one point, something that would have devoured an entire evening of PBS programming in the ’70s. If so, it’s been whittled down to 90 lean minutes for this new Corinth Films release.

An interesting history lesson, as the late author and radio host Studs Terkel enthuses in the film’s introduction, particularly timely as we hear the phrase “New Deal” bandied about again with America in another economic and social crisis wrought by the conservatives who always seem to drive it into inequity and depression in the name of fighting “socialism.”

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: Narrated by Orson Welles, with Meridel Le Sueur, Will Geer, Carlton Moss, Howard Da Silva, Harrison Begay, Nelson Algren, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, Andy Tsihnahjinnie, John Houseman, John Randolph and Studs Terkel

Credits: Directed by Wieland Schulz-Keil, script by Olaf Hansen and Wieland Schulz-Keil. A Corinth Films release.

Running time: 1:30

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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