Herbert Hoover, American Relief Administration, Brussels, Belgian ca. 1919

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Herbert Hoover, American Relief Administration, Brussels, Belgian ca. 1919
Herbert Hoover, American Relief Administration, Brussels, Belgian ca. 1919

Among the innovative methods to publicize the work of the Commission for Relief in Belgium [CRB] and the American Relief Administration [ARA] were two documentary film efforts, both which are lost to history.  George Barr Baker served with Herbert Hoover in both the CRB and the ARA.  A former magazine editor, Baker often was the idea man to promote the work of both organizations.  In 1919, he conceived of creating a documentary of the ARA’s work overcoming world hunger entitled Starvation.  Dramatically promoted to show food relief efforts in nineteen European countries in the aftermath of World War I, the handbill proclaimed:  “Photographed by eight daring camera-men frequently facing death.  It is the only record the world will ever have of the hunger and salvation of a Continent; of the greatest disaster in the history of Civilization.”  George H. Nash suggests that Hoover hoped the release might advance his presidential ambitions in 1920, therefore allowing his name to be used in the promotion of the film.  The premiere on January 9, 1920 in New York City shocked many in the audience by scenes of Bolsheviks being shot or hung by German troops.  Scenes of populations being fed by ARA efforts gave the impression that hunger needs were being met rather than showing an ongoing challenge. 

It is a bit surprising that three years later, Hoover initiated an effort to collect film footage to document the work of the CRB.  Hiring a young research assistant, Mrs. Rosalie Ashton, to search European film companies and archives for appropriate footage to use in the film, Hoover hoped to capture the dramatic images documenting the work of the CRB.  Her account books for her time abroad and Ashton’s correspondence with various companies and archives reflects the diligence of her efforts.  Ashton had experience with movie making having co-authored two screenplays for Hollywood, Who Knows [1917] and Humility [1918] as well as serving as a continuity writer and playwright for independent producer Eugene Spitz.  It became apparent that lacking a designated project leader, Ashton was forced to make decisions that others questioned.  George Barr Baker expressed his frustration to Larry Ritchie, a former secret service agent and Hoover confident, about the project:

“I still think that everybody but myself is wrong in the present attitude toward Mrs. Ashton.  The picture is better than we had any right to expect at so late a day, with no one of us expert in motion picture making.  She probably made a mistake in going abroad, and it cost a lot of money to find that out, but she did get some atmosphere, in spite of the fact that everybody over there seems to be sick of the C.R.B. past, and to resent having it brought up if it takes any time or trouble.  The Foundation office didn’t even concern itself so much as to give one of our American women students a list of where to look for lodgings, not to mention helping find them.
I’ll admit that Mrs. Ashton is exasperating, but so is anybody who starts out on an uncharted sea, without instructions and with a feminine temperament.
Things have gone better since her direction was placed under one responsibility (meaning you) but I think it will be an error not to go patiently on to a finish now.  I mean to a finished product according to her plan as indicated in her letter.
However, I’m a minority of one, and shall not feel sore whatever is done.  Only, do remember, that this picture is the Chief’s [Hoover] hobby; that it is one of his finest monuments; that it can be shown a great deal over the country; and that if we stop now, without a clear print, for the want of two thousand or twenty-five hundred dollars more, we shall have wasted a high percentage of past expenditures.  Whereas, with a finished print on file at Stanford, the Chief can go ahead with someone else any time without relishing having nothing at all.”

From May 14, 1923 until June 30, 1925, Ashton was paid a total of $17,675.00 to write the script and identify the footage used in the documentary.  Two different drafts of the screenplay exist, one untitled and another “Not Bread Alone.”  The original film comprised ten reels but was never publicly released.  The reasons for this will be addressed in the next blog post.

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