A People’s Convention (Union Films, 1948)

Produced by Carl Marzani.  Directed by Max Glandbard.  Script: Milton Ost and Irving Block.  Music: Serge Hovey.  Sung by the American People’s Chorus.  Narration: Herman Land.  Soloist: Ernie Lieberman.  Camera: Vic Komow, Jack Gottlieb, Leroy Silvers.  Sound: Richard Patton [Andy Cusick?].  Released: August 1948. 550 ft. A Presentation of the Progressive Party.  A Union Films Production.  HD-CAM transfer from a 16mm print in the Carl Marzani Collection, NYU Libraries. Preservation elements courtesy of the Media Preserve.  15mins.

Carl Marzani and the Union Films collective (Max Glandbard as director and Vic Komow as cameraman, Andy Cusick (perhaps with the nom de guerre of Richard Patton) made a numerous campaign-related films on behalf of Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party, starting with Time to Act (February 1948) and Wallace at York (March 1948).  In the wake of its Philadelphia convention in late July 1948, Union Films quickly released four substantial campaign-related documentaries for the Progressive Party: Dollar Patriots, A People’s Convention, Young People’s Convention (aka The Young People Meet) and People’s Congressman (aka The Marcantonio Story).

This fifteen-minute documentary provides an invaluable record of the Progressive Party’s gathering even as it combines “people’s songs” with film in an innovative, almost experimental manner. As with several earlier Union Films productions, there is some effort to theatricalize events. A People’s Convention has a protagonist, “Joe,” who is attending the convention and is shown in both the introductory and final shot, while making several appearances over the course of the picture. His presence, however, is quickly subsumed by the desire to document the convention, which was all the more urgent given the distortions that were being generated by the news media.

The soundtrack is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of A People’s Convention. It weaves together a song performed by the American People’s Chorus and soloist Ernie Lieberman with narration delivered by Herman Land.[1] Where song ends and narration begins is unclear: this mixture and the piece’s overall style evokes “Ballad for Americans,” which Paul Robeson had made famous. Certainly this soundtrack evokes the spirit of Robeson, who spoke twice and sang at the Progressive Party convention and has a brief on-camera appearance in this documentary as well. The composer Serge Hovey had provided the musical score for another Union Films production, The Investigators, made a few months before.

As many Union Films productions make evident, song played a particularly important role in the Progressive movement. (It is not by chance that both Paul Robson and Pete Seeger appear in A People’s Convention.) At political rallies, Robeson alternated between singing and political speech–an alternation that is also evident in three other Wallace campaign films.[2] As Robbie Lieberman has noted,

Songs were an integral part of the Wallace campaign. Sound trucks and caravans featured shows and music, and mass singing was part of every function. The Wallace campaign was often compared to a religious revival and singing played a large part in creating such an impression. The Progressive party and the People’s Songs [Inc.] shared a belief in the power of song.[3]

The short-lived but influential People’s Songs, Inc. (1946-1949), directed by Pete Seeger, backed the Wallace-Taylor ticket. Its members led mass singing at rallies. The Wallace campaign thus used Popular Front song as a weapon for Popular Front politics.

[1] The cover of Sing Out! (July 1951) uses a picture of Paul Robeson signing with the People’s Artists Quartet, one of whom is Ernie Lieberman. See his daughter’s book: Robbie Lieberman, “My Song Is My Weapon”: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-1950 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 145.

[2] For instances where Robeson combined song and speech at a Wallace rally in which he was the principal political figure, see “Robeson Flays ‘Truman Crowd’ at Local Rally,” Chester (PA) Times, Sept. 21, 1948; “Robeson Still Possesses Fine Singing Voice, But Propaganda About Reds Flavors His Speech,” Nevada State Journal, Oct. 14, 1948; advertisement, Cleveland Call and Post, Feb. 1, 1948, 7B (the ad was for a Henry Wallace for President event in Cleveland on February 8).

[3] Lieberman, “My Song Is My Weapon,” 132. The book provides a history of People’s Songs, Inc. Founders Pete Seeger, Earl Robinson, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Bess Hawes, and others, created the organization to disseminate folk music and spur progressive political action. Robeson was a member of its board.

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