People of the Cumberland (1937): An Attempt at Synthetic Documentary
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 6, Number 3, September 1976
- pp. 38-44
- Additional Information
PEOPLE OF THE CUMBERLAND (1937): AN ATTEMPT AT SYNTHETIC DOCUMENTARY By Patrick D. Hundley Mr. Hundley is a Graduate associate in the Department ofEnglish at Oklahoma State University Stillwater His basic research interests are southern literature and culture. At a recent viewing of the classic Frontier Film Company documentary, People of the Cumberland (1937), a historian present noted the great number of inaccuracies presented under the name of "documentary." For example, "the dam shown as an example of TVA is actually Hoover Dam" and "the idea of having a miner's union in Lafollette, Tennessee is absurd since there are no mines there." Indeed, he proclaimed that the film did not "document" but rather "distorted" the history of the 1930's and of the Cumberland Mountain region. Apparently, this type of criticism is not new; as early as 1938, Mark Van Doren analyzed People of the Cumberland in light of this type of criticism: For the makers of such films [as People of the Cumberland! do not bother with evidence as a historian understands evidence. The starving Tennessee woman who stands on her rickety porch with a starving baby in her arms is not proved to be a Tennessee woman, nor is it proved that the present organization of society is responsible for her condition.... The historian might believe both things as a human being, and 1 hope he would, as a historian he would have to point out that he had so far examined no documents, and that the accompaniment of the commentator was anything on earth but proof. The point is not a trifling one. It has everything to do with the question whether one must believe the documentary film as we have it, and 1 am afraid the answer is no. (1) People of the Cumberland thus can be viewed as historically inaccurate, but a problem rests in that some may fail to view People of the Cumberland within the "context" of the 1 930's and of the labor movement of this era. Van Doren noted that "the fact that I believe...needs to mean no more than I went in perfect sympathy with their aims. Had I gone in the opposite mind I need not have been convinced, for there was no systematic effort to convince me." (2) But Van Doren was able to accept this type of documentary by placing it within the context of the filmic and political situations of the time. Only by placing People of the Cumberland in its proper context can the historian of America and American culture fully appreciate the genius and significance ofthis, "the most popular labor film ever made." (3) The leftist film makers who formed Frontier Films saw a need to present the political situation of the 1930's in a more realistic spirit than the purely aesthetic approach offered in earlier documentaries , such as Lorentz's The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). It was this lack of thematic persuasion that Hurwitz and others rebelled against and proposed to offer in all Frontier films, including People of the Cumberland. The problem presented by the modern viewer is just the reversal of this situation. The historians now view People of the Cumberland only within its thematic context of the labor movement in the South. Indeed, Rollins notes that "most film scholars with social or historical concerns neglect to explore below this thematic level." (4) Thus the context of People of the Cumberland includes the cinematic elements, "the devices of film language which contribute to the distinctively filmic communication of the theme." (5) Therefore, to fully appreciate People of the Cumberland, the film must be viewed within the two-fold context-the theme of social struggle in the 38 1930's and the cinematic elements that constitute the "synthetic documentary" of the revolutionary film movement of the 1930's. Obviously, this thematic context focused on the needs of the audience. Frontier Films made a "conscious effort to force the Frontier position into the heads of an audience sated and satisfied with Hollywood film and an effort to sustain the conviction and increase the activation of those who already shared the position." This audience...