America’s contrasts 2

Hialeah, FL, late January–early February

The footage Ross shot during his 1938-1939 journey was never released, so we will never be able to know how it would have fitted the film he wanted to make of a trip that not only included America, but also East Asia. As the American footage was technically deficient, the film that was eventually released, Das neue Asien (1940), was only about the latter continent.

The Dies Committee’s findings, or rather preconveived notions, notwithstanding, there doesn’t seem to be much in Ross’s footage that could be called outright propaganda. Surely, the candidly shot scenes of jobless men in New York City wandering the streets, rummaging through trash cans or sleeping on public benches clearly give a sense of the effects of the Depression, then in its tenth year. (In fact, 1938 is the year when the American economy felt the full force of the stock market crash of August 1937. This recession was compounded by the President’s badly timed decision to return, after his unconventional New Deal measures, to the old gospel of a balanced budget by slashing government spending on public works while the economy was too weak to absorb these cutbacks; hence its epithet Roosevelt recession.)1. Ross’s extensive footage of the aftermath of the New England hurricane, of September 21, 1938, however, apart from being quite sensational, seems at best to have served to show how this disaster added to America’s problems (see: New England hurricane 1, New England hurricane 2, New England hurricane 3). But Ross also filmed the Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, one of the countless public works—completed in 1936—launched by the New Deal to stimulate consumption by combating the country’s huge unemployment rate (see: Boulder Dam). And many scenes, finally, rather resemble tourist impressions, such as those made at Colonial Williamsburg, VA, the Alamo in San Antonio, TX, or the Grand Canyon.

If propaganda there were, it would rather have been a matter of juxtaposing scenes. The Dies Committee, although mentioning this “vile” possibility in its report on Ross, made no attempt to stretch its imagination but restricted its comments to single shots of ‘obvious’ targets such as bridges or factories. Inspecting the 13 reels of American footage one cannot help but speculate whether Ross would have thought of combining the abovementioned scenes of jobless men in New York with, say, those of well-heeled spectators and their betting slips loitering at Florida’s Hialeah race track waiting for the results. Not only would such a montage have pointed up the contrasts in Depression-era American society, it also suggested some sort of narrative arc, from one of the alleged origins of the Depression, the Florida land boom of 1924-1926, to the army of the unemployed. But speculate is all we can do.

Nico de Klerk

Colin Ross. [Excerpt from] Amerika Reise - Florida. Miami, Hialeah; Colonial Williamsburg [archive title]
Germany. Tobis; 1938-1939

35mm | b&w | silent | 304.3m | 16 fps | 14’

Master:; 0:03:17,14–0:05:45,00

Clip: 0003-02-0115_Amerika_Reise_Florida_Miami_Landwirtschaft_X_OeFM_2016_H264-12Mbits-KFauto-CABAC_1440x1080_16fps_IsFormatOf_ProRes422HQ_3072x2160_24fps_00031714-00054500

Topic: Propaganda
Case: American journeys


1 Robert D. Leighninger, Jr. Long-range public investment: the forgotten legacy of the New DealColumbia: University of South Carolina Press; 2007; 23-24, 175-176. Robert S. McElvaine. The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. New York: Three Rivers Press; 1993 [1984]; 298-299.

Scroll to page top