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The Great Depression and the Arts
A Unit of Study for Grades 8-12

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Abandoned farm in the dust bowl area. Oklahoma.
"Abandoned farm in the dust bowl area. Oklahoma." Arthur Rothstein, photographer. (Library of Congress).

Lesson One: Documentary Film—"The Plow that Broke the Plains"

Lesson Plan  |   Document  |   Handouts

  1. Lesson Objectives
  2. Background Information
  3. Lesson Activities (2 days)
  4. Extension Activities
  5. Resources

A. Lesson Objectives

  • To explain the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl on American farm owners, tenants, and sharecroppers.
  • To examine how the New Deal Resettlement Administration documented and dramatized the Dust Bowl.
  • To analyze documentary film focusing on the elements of script, music and visual imagery.

B. Background Information

Charles Dickens begins The Tale of Two Cities with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." The Great Depression was a devastating experience for many. The 1930s was a time of grinding poverty and suffering yet it was also a period of incredible creativity for the arts. Part of this creative effort was a movement to document the devastation brought about by the Depression.

This documentary movement is most visible in the many photographs taken as part of the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration (RA) and its successor the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Often reprinted, these photographs provide most people with their images of the Great Depression and the efforts of the New Deal to solve the Great Depression's problems. (See the Library of Congress's American Memory website America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945.)

Rexford Guy Tugwell, director of the Resettlement Administration (RA) and John Franklin Carter, the RA's Office of Information Director, decided that more than still photographs were needed to document and dramatize the Dust Bowl. They chose Pare Lorentz to produce a film documenting the drought conditions affecting the Great Plains. The result was what has become a classic documentary film, "The Plow that Broke the Plains." Shown first for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in March 1936, distribution was hampered by Hollywood executives who feared commercial competition and argued it was government propaganda. Eventually commercial distribution did occur. Documenting the serious conditions of the Dust Bowl and raising larger issues about the role of laissez-faire capitalism and individualism, "The Plow that Broke the Plains" became an effective tool in the New Deal's efforts to "fix" the broken Plains.

This lesson gives students the opportunity examine a film script to see how the problems and potential solutions to the Dust Bowl were presented by a New Deal agency.

C. Lesson Activities (2 days)

Distribute copies of the film script (Document) and the "Reading the Script" questions to students (Student Handout). Have students write their answers to the questions and conduct a discussion based upon their work.

After this analysis activity, students can view the film. The key task for students is to have them analyze the visual imagery and relate it to the script. View the film in sections based upon the script. Ask students to analyze the visual imagery, the music, and the text as a coherent, integrated document.

Have students write the answers to the "Making Inferences" questions (Student Handout). Conduct a discussion based on student responses.

D. Extension Activities

To extend the lesson focus, students can relate "The Plow that Broke the Plains" to 1930s films in general.

Have students view and compare and contrast Lorentz's film "The River."

Have students compare and contrast other films. Andrew Bergman's We're in the Money: Depression America and its Films provides categories and themes that are very useful for analysis. It is not necessary to show complete films in class. The most effective presentations are brief clips illustrating major themes of analysis. Students can select film clips which illustrate the themes identified below. Such an extended look at 1930s film would require research work done by students and/or teachers outside of class. A class period could cover film clips and analysis of a number of films. These can be student based presentations or primarily teacher led. Students can also be given research tasks to find and present other films on each genre.

Give the students the theme or themes, helping them to understand their basic meaning. Students would view the films for homework and select brief clips which illustrate the themes. Student reports to the class would feature film clips and explanations about how the film presents the particular theme. A number of these reports can be done in one class period.

You may wish to choose from the following:

  1. Gangsters
    Themes: Concern for law and violence; Mobility and the failure of legitimate institutions
    Film: "Little Caesar"
  2. Urban civilization
    Themes: The moral weakness of the city; The corrupt evil-doers who live in cities
    Film: "Lawyer-Man"
  3. Anarcho-Nihilist Comedies
    Themes: Comedies reflecting bitterness and despair of the 1930s; The purposefulness of chaos
    Film: "Duck Soup"
  4. Musicals
    Theme: Escapism but reflecting the facts of life of the Great Depression
    Film: "Gold Diggers of 1933"

E. Resources

The following resources will assist in the development of this lesson:

Bergman, Andrew. We're in the Money: Depression, America and Its Films. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1971.
Library of Congress. America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945
Lorentz, Pare. FDR's Moviemaker: Memoirs and Scripts. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1992.
Muscio, Giuliana. Hollywood's New Deal. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

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The Great Depression and the Arts

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