The Lost Documentary Film of the Commission for Relief in Belgium

Part 2

By Thomas F. Schwartz

                Though the original ten reel production never was released for general viewing, the existing scripts give a sense of its contents.  Because it was a silent film, the subtitles clearly describe the film footage that preceded it.  It begins by stating: “This is not a picture of actors presenting a play, but of millions of real men, women, and children engulfed in the movement of armies at war.  It is a record of the back-wash of modern war upon the helpless civilian.  In the dark fabric runs the golden thread of American charity, courage, skill and indomitable will.  That it deals with the martyrdom of Belgium and a part of France on the one hand, and with the great American impulse to help, on the other hand, is incidental.  The situations might have been reversed.  The facts are the thing.  The Four Horsemen came:  War, Pestilence, Famine, Death.  Civilization also came: Human Service, Healing, Food, Life—and for this purpose—that the prayer of nine million people, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ might not go unanswered.”  The film proceeds in three main sections:  the beginning of the war and German invasion of Belgium creating hunger among the general public; the food relief challenges and efforts for the Commission for Relief in Belgium; and the aftermath of the war and summary of the CRB efforts.

                Hoover’s close friendship with Louis B. Mayer at MGM allowed for a meeting of George Gay, former public relations agent for the CRB, and Louis B. Mayer.  Gay produced a two page memorandum of the meeting for Hoover.  Mayer viewed the first seven reels while his vice president, Irving Thalberg, viewed all ten reels. Gay writes: “As was expected these gentlemen were uninformed as to the C.R.B., having very vague notions of the operation.  They evinced immediate interest in the subject matter and as the projection proceeded began to ask many questions.  They commended many scenes, especially those portraying refugees, breadlines, sinking ships and were impressed by the pictures of ruins and battle fronts.”  But as Gay continued, “They were free with their criticisms, however, from a technical point of view.  The photography is bad and a large portion of the films is what they called ‘dupe’, which I understood to mean bad copy of worn out originals.  They are easy to spot as the light contrast is bad and the old scratches are apparent.  These men have educated the public to demand excellent photography and they go to any lengths to meet this demand.  Mr. Mayer would commend a section and Mr. Thalberg would remark that he ‘could do better on the lot.’  After spending two days at their studios I began to understand what Thalberg meant.”

                Both Mayer and Thalberg concluded that the film, as presented, could not be shown to the public.  The film quality was consistently poor and there were some noticeable storyline errors and lapses.  If MGM decided to recast the film as their own project, “they would reconstruct the picture entirely using the present film as an invaluable reference.”  MGM never pursued the project after this.

                The closest realization of the film is a 1928 promotional film by journalist Will Irwin called Master of Emergencies.  Created to advance Herbert Hoover’s presidential candidacy, the early sections of the film correspond to sections of Not Bread Alone.   Using the motifs in the script such as hunger as “the wolf at the door” the “four horsemen of war, pestilence, famine, and death,” the Irwin film contains the best evidence of portions using the original film.  In a January 10, 1929 memorandum on the Irwin film, it is clear that Irwin created Master of Emergencies from the original negatives of the CRB film.  According to the memo “Mr. Brown informs me that he discussed the re-assembling problem with Mr. Fox and others and if they re-assemble the original negative which we received from Stanford, it would mean that they would have to cut up the four reel Irwin picture, thereby destroying the original Irwin negative.  In view of this fact they have kept the Irwin negative intact, which means that the negative which we originally received from California is in piecemeal shape.”  With the original negative chopped up and all of the footage on unstable nitrate film it comes as no surprise that a copy does not survive.  One can view the early sections of Master of Emergencies at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d12XBYFmGWE to appreciate what Ashton and Hoover tried to capture and convey to the public about the CRB.

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