Camera Rolls: 102:08-11
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Leo Seltzer , conducted by Blackside, Inc. in 1990, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
OK, roll, mark it.
Oh, it's so quiet. [coughs] Can we start out with your describing to me the difference in the philosophy between the Film and Photo League and commercial newsreels?
Well there's a great deal of difference between the, what the Film and Photo League was doing and the commercial newsreels. I think it's just a coincidence that we both use the same material [coughs] raw film, cameras and so on, but I think the kinds of films and productions that we did and the use we made of them afterwards was quite different than the commercial newsreels. First of all we were more interested in recording what was actually happening in terms of demonstrations, evictions, Hoovervilles, hunger march and so on. And a lot of these occasions were covered by the commercial newsreels. Sometimes people saw them in theaters, sometimes they didn't, and if they did see them in theaters they always saw them with a distorted point of view. And seldom, if ever, they'd get the honest thing. And also, the theatrical distribution was rather limited, even across the country. Our films got around to almost every place. They were different in content in that they showed actually what was happening during the Depression, and they also, in distribution, the Film and Photo League was involved in showing these films as well as making the films. And very often—
Can you start back there in distribution, OK?
And the Film and Photo League was just as concerned about distribution as it was in production. And very often we showed these films to people who wouldn't normally go to theaters. And many times people would, we would, we would show a picket line for instance to the people who appeared on the picket line. And you have to remember that in the 1930s, when the thing appeared on the screen it must be important. It's not like today where it's rather commonplace to appear on a movie screen. But if these pickets saw themselves or their fellow workers on the picket line on the movie screen, then they felt it was important, it was the right thing to do, and certainly it had some affect on their morale. And also on different occasions I took these films—Film and Photo League films—to the, showed them to the Pennsylvania miners way up in Pennsylvania. And these miners had been blacklisted and living in tents for two years, and they had no idea that there was a nation-wide depression. They figured that their condition of unemployment was just in the mining industry or just in their town. And these pictures gave them a broader point of view, and they realized that the whole nation, if not the whole world was suffering. And on another occasion I took these films out to the Midwest and showed them to the farmers, and had a special projector rigged up so I could turn it by hand and it had a special bulb that worked off of a car battery. And I could show these films in one room schoolhouses that weren't equipped with electricity because they weren't used at night. And I showed them to farmers, and the farmers would look at these films and for the first time they'd get an idea that the people in the cities were suffering from the depression also. The general rule was, or the general information was that people in the city had all the money and the farmers had all the food. And that was the general sort of information that was spread around, and these films tended to correct that information. And apart from that we showed these films at strike headquarters, at churches, at language groups—
—and various other places that people would not normally go to see films.
OK, we ran out. That was good.
Leo, what was the philosophy of the Film and Photo League, why were they doing what they were doing?
Well as far as I, as I know, I think that two kinds of, you talk about a single philosophy, there probably was more than one single philosophy. I say that maybe two kinds of people who belonged to the guild. People like myself who were what you call socially aware, socially conscious. And with me it was an innate characteristic. My parents had always been concerned about what was happening in the world, and I grew up that way. And the other kind of person I think was a person who felt his membership or her membership in the guild was a stepping stone to somewhere else, even to Hollywood. And I think four members of the guild finally got to Hollywood too as producers, or writers, or directors.
Excuse me, what I meant was, what was their, what did they want to accomplish with these films?
Consciously, at that time, as I told you before [coughs] it was, it was the only thing to be done, it was the right thing to be done. I think in retrospect the films were very valuable in terms of bringing to either the miners, or the farmers, or the people in the city, the real information of what was happening. What was happening both throughout the country and what was happening in their industry and what was happening to them because sometimes they don't have enough perspective even or objectivity to see what's happening to them. If their particular shop goes on strike and they're on the picket line, it's very hard to look beyond that and say well what's going to happen tomorrow or the day after, or why did this happen to someone. So it, I think the films gave people a general idea of what was really happening during the time, and I think that was more important. It was especially important because the official point of view coming out of Washington was that there was no depression. And I think after the depression had been on for some time and you couldn't—you had to acknowledge the fact that it was there, Hoover came out with this statement saying it was only psychological, that people have money and they just aren't spending it, and it'll be over in a couple of months. And no one really had the idea—when you relied on the regular media like the newspapers or the newsreels or the radio, which were the only media that were available to the people, you couldn't get any news. And I think these films, I know, for the fact that these films were the only films that showed what was really happening throughout the country, and to various industries, and to various people.
Now you said that part of the goal was to—they're militant, to make people more militant. Could you talk about that?
Yeah, as I say, the Film and Photo League was not only in making these films, but was also interested in showing these films because no matter how good a film is, if it isn't shown, then it gets nowhere, you see, you might as well save your money and save your energy. So I think these films were calculated not only to bring information to people, but to instigate action on the basis of this information. I think these Pennsylvania miners for instance, they were content to live in their tents, and they know that they belonged to some kind of a union, they figured there was some fighting done for them, but I think after they saw these films and realized that this depression was embracing the whole country not just their own town, I think their attitude towards themselves was somewhat different. And even, even take the hunger march of 1932, and the reason it was shown was twofold, the reason it was done was twofold. One was to make a record of that particular march, and second to show people back home what was accomplished, because actually something like 2,000 delegates participated in the march. And these delegates were elected by various unemployed councils throughout the country. So they had no way of showing them what they accomplished or what they did or what their experience was in Washington except through these films. And that particular film, showing the results of that film, is being shown today, even though it was done about sixty years ago. It's being shown on the West 20th Street by a church that has a soup line as it concerned with the homeless in that particular neighborhood. And it's showing them how the unemployed in 1936 successfully handled that problem, and how they could do likewise by having delegates going through the politicians.
Now, one senses—
Hold on a second.
That's better than slapping a slate in front of Nase [sic].
One senses this growing pressure during 1930, '31, '32, the marches look like they're getting bigger, more vociferous. Was there growing pressure at that time?
Well there were more unemployed in 1932 than there were in 1931, and actually
people after a year became more restless and more concerned about what the future had in store for them,
** whether they were going back to work or going to starve to death. There was—unemployment, I think at its height, 1934—I think there was something like eighteen million unemployed in New York, in the United States.
I know we have to stay within, within our period. But I was thinking that what you were saying was good, that there's, could you use the stock market crash as the benchmark point?
Not really, not really. I think the stock market crash was more of a symptom of the Depression rather than the cause of it. And a lot of people, including a lot of the history books, say it all started with the stock market crash and it didn't really. The stock market crash was a symptom of the Depression. The Depression had been building up for years before that, and actually, two years before the stock market crash there were plenty of unemployed in this country. Of course we didn't know anything about them because none of the media carried any information about them. And of course the Film and Photo League hadn't really gotten into production and distribution at that time.
That's great, thanks. Can we cut for one second?
Can you respond to what I just talked about, that there was growing pressure?
Between 1931 and '32 you saw quite a difference in the amount of activity and the number of people involved, and I think it's just the fact that more industries were closing down and there were more unemployed in 1932 than there were in 1931. And also there was more activity, more organizational activity to try to correct some of the symptoms of the unemployment. And as time went along there was an increase in these activities. And
more and more people had no other recourse except to demonstrate and to go on these hunger marches against the threat of starvation. It had nothing to do with their political beliefs, it had only to do with the fact that they were starving,
** unemployed. I think if the republican or democratic party had given them the opportunity to march or demonstrate against the Depression, they would have come out also and done the same. I think about eighty or ninety percent of the people who participated in these demonstrations and hunger marches were not politically motivated, even though as a matter of record the Communist party was instrumental in organizing many of these demonstrations. But you get a lot of people who had just no alternative. They weren't going to sit home and just starve to death, they want to go out and try to do something about it. And a lot of the programs that they came out with at the time like the Social Security program or unemployment insurance, and these films, you look close and you see banners calling for those programs to be put in effect. From Washington, Washington sit still of course, and they responded to all these and they pointed to those proposals and said, "Those are only Bolshevik plots to bankrupt the American government." Now they're the law of the land, I think every one of us benefits or participates in the Social Security program.
Now could you go over that one more time? There was this fear by people like Hoover, and Pershing, and MacArthur that the Bolsheviks were doing this.
Who were these hunger marchers?
Most of the people who participated in demonstrations and in hunger marches were simply unemployed, and they had no alternative either to shout against unemployment or starve to death. But it seemed as though anybody who came out with any opposition to the official point of view was labeled as a Communist. Whether you came out for unemployment insurance or you came out for bonus, it didn't matter. If it was contrary to the official point of view, you were called a Communist. And the official point of view—according to the official point of view—there was no Depression, or it was psychological, or if you elect Hoover the second time you'll have two chickens in every pot. And it was a very unreal kind of situation. It was very real in one case with the people starving, but very real in terms of the attitude from Washington or other politicians. It was almost a paranoid activity. Any opposition to their particular point of view was labeled Communist, and that's quite unfair. Today of course a different word has been used, liberal, instead of Communist. Now that we've gotten sort of halfway good relations with the Soviet Union the word Communist doesn't carry the same implications that it did in the old days.
OK, that was great.
I wanted to go on to—
Film rolls fly by.
Leo, could you tell me about the footage of the Ford Massacre in Detroit?
On the Detroit massacre, it's very—
Excuse me, sorry, the lens got open, it's stuck down here. My mistake. Could you start that again?
On the Detroit massacre at the Ford plant, a lot of people look at that footage and, if you look at it technically you say, "Gee, it's shaky, not in focus," but you have to understand that it was not shot by a cameraman, it was shot by one of the participants with a camera. And while he was dodging bullets and tear gas he was photographing this thing, because I think three of the fellows were shot in the back, subsequently. And then there was this demonstration in sympathy with the marchers here in New York, on 57th Street in front of the—it used to be a Ford, General Motors building, Ford building there. And I photographed that. And these people called for an end to this kind of violence, and certainly according to the U.S. Constitution, a person has a right to petition the government for any redress of grievances, and that's what these people were doing. I think the violence was instigated by the opposition, by the police, in most cases.
Could we go over that one more time? Could you just start at that point where you say that, "I filmed the demonstration at the Ford building," because you stumbled a couple of times and I'd like it to come out really smooth.
The demonstration in Detroit, first of all, turned into a massacre, and fortunately it was photographed by a worker with a camera while he was dodging bullets and tear gas. And I photographed a demonstration—a sympathy demonstration—here in New York, on 57th Street in front of the Ford building. At that time it was a Ford building, it doesn't exist anymore. And, people denounced the violence and the shooting—there were three people who were killed during that Detroit massacre—and actually the marches, whether it was a hunger march or a demonstration or a Detroit demonstration or any city, was in accordance with the Constitution, which allows Americans to petition the government for redress of grievances. And most of the time, you almost see, almost all the time the violence was instigated by the opposition, either the police or whoever was appointed to oppose the marchers, the deputies or sheriffs or so on. And I've seen many situations, and in many films that exist that show that situation where a peaceable demonstration or march or petition certainly turns violent because the workers are beaten up or shot at.
Now people like Hoover and Hamilton Fish said that there was this Red Menace. Was there?
As far as Hoover and Hamilton Fish, and later on Joe McCarthy, you might say that the two points of view from their particular action, one was a question of paranoia. They felt that anything that was in opposition to the official point of view was Communist, it was labeled as Communist. And many people didn't care, they said I'm starving to death it doesn't matter what party [laughs] is bringing about or helping me starve or doing something about it. You see I just want to go out and do whatever I can about it. So people were labeled as Communist and a lot movements were labeled as Communist simply because they were in opposition to the official point of view. Also, during the Depression, in the 1930s Russia had just come through the revolution and was sort of building up its industries, and building up its standard of living, and improving the standard of living for thousands of Russians during that time. And here in this country we were just having the opposite. So a lot of people even without any political motivation looked to the Soviet Union as being the ideal worker's paradise [coughs] at that time. At that just sort of made them even more Communistic, or to be called Communists by the opposition, simply because they were in favor of what was happening in the Soviet Union. And-
That's fine, that's great. Can we cut for a second?
Or you might say and executive [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
Before we get into that answer though, that response, why did the Film and Photo League decide to cover the Bonus Marchers?
We didn't—I guess the decision to cover the Bonus March simply because it was a sort of a movement for rights that were guaranteed by Congress. And the rights were guaranteed, first of all, Congress had passed the bonus even though it was supposed to have been payable in 1945, but in the interim, the Depression occurred, and many of these unemployed were ex-service men and they needed that couple of hundred dollars right away, rather than hoping there would be alive in 1945 to make use of it. So they, they asked Congress to alter the law so that they could get their bonus right away. And we passed, we, we photographed it—It wasn't considered too important because I was the only one that covered it. Whereas, unlike the hunger marches there were about seven of us covered the thing, I was the only one that went to Washington and covered the Bonus March. No one, we didn't think it was important. And it wasn't important because it was sort of had a small beginning. It was 200 veterans from the state of Washington decided to come to Washington D.C. and sit on the doorsteps of senators until they took some action about this bonus being paid.
Excuse me, I just want to interrupt. Can we cut for a second?
So, Leo, who were these Bonus Marchers?
Well they were veterans of World War I, and they weren't politically motivated, they were just motivated to get some relief from the conditions of the Depression. They were promised a bonus to be paid in 1945, but in the interim the Depression occurred and they needed their money. Many of the unemployed were former veterans. And again, it was in opposition to the official point of view, and when they got to Washington I understand that MacArthur, who was Chief of Staff at the time, called 'em sort of "the largest collection of bomb-carrying Bolsheviks that he had ever seen." And these people came from the western states and Midwestern states and had very little, if any, political motivation. Their motivation was real in terms of food for the stomach, and roof over their heads, and clothes for the kids. And they had the same problems that, I guess, that a person who was a Communist had, in terms of their treatment by the official, from the official Washington point of view. Another thing that may be of interest, there were a number of Negroes involved in this Bonus March. There were white and Negro people, and as I say, there was no civil rights activity during that time. There was an overlying issue of the bonus, and there were some Negro soldiers in the army. And Washington was a real southern town in those days, and even though the newspapers published pictures of the Bonus Marchers, they used to air brush the black faces with white paint so they looked like white people. So you get the feeling that there were no Negroes, no black people involved in this demonstration at all. They're all Communists according to the newspapers.
OK, cut for a second.
So, you developed for yourself a way of shooting that was different than newsreel way of shooting. What was this way?
My method of shooting was not consciously different than commercial newsreel companies and their coverage. There were no patterns that we could follow or learn from as to how to approach a certain subject. The only thing that I can see is that I was an unemployed worker, and I was a participant. I happened to have a camera and knew how to work the camera. So a lot of the things that I shot were shot from the point of view of a person who participated in the activity rather than, like the commercial newsreel cameramen had their cameras mounted on a truck or building or on a tree, and they had a telephoto lens, and everything was from the same objective point of view. And my footage would sort of give you the feeling that you were part of the demonstration, which I actually was. And very often I would come back after [coughs] having shot one of these things with black and blue on my—marks—on my hands and body and half of them were created by the placards that strikers carried with the sticks, and half of them were billy clubs carried by the police. So I was right in there, I was getting beaten by both sides usually.
Thank you, that's great. That's great, thanks.
And I was.
Camera roll eleven, mark.
OK sir, tell me about walking through the camp.
I had seen, been to the Bonus March, to Washington just a week before they were evicted, and saw the marches through the streets and also visited the various camps. And there's sense of organization there and there's also a sense of—you might call it—provincialism. The men sort of represented the many states in the country, and you could see signs, they were very proud of the state they came from. And yet they were able to get together and there's a great sense of organization within the camp itself. And they seemed to carry on their activities there very democratically. They had meetings, they had a committee elected, they had no political motivation that I know of, the Communist party tried to get involved in their activities without any success. You might call them 100% Americans, as you would find out in the Midwest or far West, most of them, where most of them came from. And some of them brought their wives and their children simply because they had no homes to leave them in, and the Depression had just deprived them of everything. And there was one occasion—they built shacks with all kinds of wood or metal that they found around the streets or in garbage dumps—and one occasion I remember one of the fellows had built a shack out of the bottom, with the box that a piano had been shipped in, and he had a sign of it, he called it "The Academy of Music." I guess he didn't have, that was more important for him than the place he came from. But in other places you saw the Sioux City, Iowa or Colorado or places that they came from identified. So it indicated a certain sense of pride of their particular location even though it might have been a one company town and the company ceased to exist, and they were completely devoid of any sustenance or any place to work in that town.
Thank you, cut please.
Leo, what was your only concern?
Well during the '30s, even though I was unemployed—I never saw any money—see Film and Photo League was in the same headquarters as the Worker's International Relief, which was sort of like a worker's Red Cross which collected food and clothing for the workers, and every time I was hungry or needed some, if the weather turned cold I went down to the cellar and found something. And, what was I going to talk about?
Well, you said a great thing, you said your only concern-
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. [coughs] And this is the way I lived, simply from hand to mouth. And I remember the one time—I told you there were two different kind of people roughly who belonged to the Film and Photo League: those who sort of had an either conscious or unconscious social awareness and those who felt that their membership in the league sort of gave them an extra sort of a stepping stone to somewhere else. And I remember one time, one woman, she was the daughter of a fairly wealthy man, invited a few of us "unfortunates" to lunch. And she invited us over to West Side, and we were all ready to walk across the park and she said, "No, we'll take a cab." I remember her paying the cab man twenty-five cents and I said, "Jesus, a quarter, I could live for a week on that." And in spite of all that, those so-called hardships or so-called ways of life, my only concern in those days was how long was this wonderful and exciting relevant activity going to last? And I guess I was the only one with that sort of point of view, and most the other people felt, well what happens next or where do they go from here or what's the direction to fame or fortune? And to me those weren't goals. My only goal was to keep doing what I have been doing. Fortunately in most of the films I've done in the past sixty years, I like to look back at them and consider them socially useful films with a certain amount of social consciousness.
Well that they are, Sir. Could you cut?