A Better United States, c. 1937
In the mid-1930s the United States government hired Pathé News to publicize the New Deal’s considerable accomplishments. Frustrated with anti-New Deal propaganda and obstructionist Republicans in Congress (sound familiar?), Harry Hopkins, the chief administrator of the Works Progress Administration, made it a priority to use film to explain FDR’s credo. To defeat Depression, to find a way to better times, and to restore confidence and hope, the federal government employed millions of men and women, including to make movies. A new federal agency, the U.S. Film Service, was created to coordinate experimental documentary films. But to reach mass audiences Hopkins invited commercial producers—“Hollywood” in popular parlance—to make newsreels to show movie-goers how workers, formerly on relief, were building a better United States.
Pathé completed the first newsreel for the government, the renowned Hands, in 1934 (screenshot no. 1). This is credited to the WPA even though it was finished before FDR authorized the program with Executive Order No. 7034. In 1935, with an eye on the upcoming 1936 presidential election, Hopkins invited forty-one firms to bid on the contract for thirty, 600-foot, that is 5-minute, films. Pathé won, with a reasonable bid, $4,280 a reel, and a promise to include one WPA story each month in its general national newsreel. It was a challenge for the company to keep to the grueling production schedule. And then there was backlash. The Republican National Committee, deeply opposed to the New Deal, charged that these short films would be nothing but “propaganda … paid out of relief funds.” Pathé’s general manager, Jack S. Connolly, countered. He insisted that the company had not “sold its birthright,” and that the huge array of activities of the WPA would generate enough “straight news for unprejudiced releases.”
You can judge for yourself by watching these newsreels on the Living New Deal (screenshot no. 2). This marvelous public humanities website, brought to life by Gray Brechin several years ago, contains very useful information and links to an already capacious, ever-growing archive (Dick Walker has been a guiding light too). Look for the tab called “Resources,” select “Films & Videos on the New Deal,” click “search New Deal films,” enter “Federal Works Agency” under Creator, and apply the filter. A treasure trove, links to forty-seven films, will open before your eyes, beginning with Hands. I’m especially taken with Pathé’s newsreels from 1937. The agency produced ten newsreels for the WPA in that year, most eight to twelve minutes long, reflecting an evolution of the project since first conceived. Titles include A Better West Virginia, A Better Chicago, and A Better New Jersey. Some are longer, such as We Work Again, a film about African Americans (15:52 min.), and Work Pays America (37:29 min.), a survey of WPA accomplishments.
I began by watching A Better New York City (8:30 min.), in some ways an anomaly in the “A Better” series. The newsreel opens with a bright sky; billowing clouds part to reveal Manhattan island (and the strut of an airplane wing), the music swells, the skyline glimmers in the sunshine, and the narrator states that this is, “a great city, the financial, commercial capital of the entire world.” This opening segment is different from the two-minute sequence that is otherwise used in the “A Better” series. Instead of looking at a “closed” sign, breadlines, beggars, and a hungry man digging in a garbage pail for food, the unfolding panorama features Central Park (restored and improved in 1936 with WPA funds) and the Triboro Bridge (built with federal money; 1929-36). Streets, sidewalks, and buildings come into view as the narrator starts to explain the program that “removed residents from relief rolls” and made New York a better city.
Why the special opener? Well, New York was unique. No city matched New York in dollars received from the WPA, and in the scope of ensuing construction—so much so that some referred to it as the forty-ninth state. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and city parks commissioner Robert Moses were very effective lobbyists, and New York City, the president’s home town, was a key node in the global economy. By 1932, the depression hit the city hard, tax receipts declined sharply, and bankers were very worried about imminent collapse. In previous crises bankers had intervened to prop up finances: this time the federal government picked up the tab. You can get some sense of the extent of New York’s New Deal from this map and guide. New York had impressive projects to show off in 1937, having put federal money to use in ways and on projects that would resonate with any American.
Like every newsreel in the “A Better” series, the New York film highlights work and workers: blue and white collar, unskilled and skilled, men and women, whites and people of color. Manual labor, executed by men of all ages, with weathered faces, strong hands, and brawny bodies, is valorized. In A Better New York City, they use hammers, pick axes, shovels, and wheelbarrows to build airports, bulkheads, and highways and repair streets, sewers, and public buildings. The provision of public swimming pools and bathhouses is singled out—the eleven magnificent structures that Fortune called the “conspicuous example of the social dividend” promised by the New Deal.
A Better New York City heralds, in particular, the pool and bathhouse at Colonial Park, now Jackie Robinson Park, and the African American workers who were building this place in Harlem in 1937 (screenshot no. 3). Two years after a race riot shook Harlem (1935), the WPA employed skilled and unskilled black workers on the pools program to create a grand new space of public informality. Yet for all the good that was done here, the New Deal tolerated racial segregation, and the newsreel disseminates a message of racial difference that is consistent across the “A Better” series and in We Work Again (which includes rare footage of children swimming in the Harlem pool).
Another consistent message across the newsreels in the “A Better” is how the New Deal benefited children. When depicting needy children, Pathé showed that New Deal programs erased every signifier of poverty. Children are clean, heathy, and amply fed, they are happy and well dressed, and they don’t work. They play—in supervised sites like play streets, parks, playgrounds, day camps, nursery schools, and, of course, pools. They are nurtured. A Better New York City is no exception. It shows, thanks to the WPA, that youngsters enjoyed day care centers, remedial education classrooms, a toy library, and a school lunch program (screenshot no. 4).
The WPA operated twenty daycare centers in New York City for the children of needy or working mothers. As in Nursery School (1936, 6:35 min.), views of cots, medical care, lunch tables, and play with blocks in A Better New York City give substance to the narrator’s praise. He explains, as the film closes, why the federal government invested in children. “In the knowledge that we are providing healthy bodies in sound minds for our future citizens . . . we find assurance that we are building a firm foundation for a bright future. Long after depression is forgotten these permanent improvements are part of a better New York.”
The claim, that the federal government needs to invest in children because they constitute the future of the United States, isn’t what we hear these days from Washington. And yet, as we look back, especially to find a way forward, we need to assess the imperfections of the New Deal along with its successes. Some flaws are in plain view in A Better New York City. African Americans were the hardest hit of all Americans by the Depression. They constituted one-tenth of the U.S. population, one-sixth of the unemployed, and one-quarter on relief, and yet they are underrepresented in the newsreel about New York City just as they were underserved by New Deal programs. African American men are shown only in Colonial Park and on Governor’s Island; black children are depicted only in remedial education programs; only one black woman teaches at a nursery school (screenshot no. 5). On the play streets, developed in conjunction with Crime Prevention Department of the Police Department, trained instructors supervise gender differentiated games and keep children away from the dangers of unsupervised play (screenshot no. 6). All of the children are white.
We need to do the New Deal better the next time around. Fans of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal take heed! I propose we start like this: let’s treat every child in the United States as an asset of equal value. In the meantime, the forty-seven WPA films, produced by the Federal Works Agency, are available at the touch of a button. They (and many others that you can access through the Living New Deal website) remind us of the transformative power of the state to improve our wellbeing—and the power of moving images to craft political narratives.
A note from the author: This post is based on a short presentation at “A New Deal for New York City: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” Center for Architecture, New York, N.Y., May 7, 2019. The symposium, organized by New Deal New York, opened with a screening of A Better New York City. My thanks to Gray Brechin, Dave Davidson, and Jerry Carlson for pointing me to useful sources.
 Robert L. Snyder, Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 11-12.
 “WPA: Pathe Wins Film Contract as New Deal ‘Goes Hollywood’,” News-Week, August 15, 1936, 18.
“WPA,” News-Week, 18.
 Keith Revell, Building Gotham: Civic Culture and Public Policy in New York City, 1898-1939 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 178.
 “Robert (or-I’ll-Resign) Moses,” Fortune 17, no. 6 (June 1938): 71–79.