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Willard Van Dyke's 'Valley Town'

By Harrison Engle

From Willard Van Dyke’s Valley Town

In the 1960s, when I had just arrived in New York City, I spent a year as an assistant to Willard Van Dyke, the renowned social documentary filmmaker. It was then that I first saw Willard’s half-hour documentary, Valley Town (1940). This film was produced in association with New York University, and was intended to draw attention to the plight of unemployed workers in a Pennsylvania steel town caught by the rising tide of automation. Released just before American entry in World War II, the film was perhaps the last social documentary drawn from the concerns of the Great Depression and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Valley Town struck a chord with me when I saw it, and it remains vivid today. Rich in cinematic technique, the film has served as a quiet personal reminder that it is the creative aspects of documentaries that give them their lasting meaning. Van Dyke brought sensitive direction to a cast of real workers, and an active concern for human problems. The film was notable for its stunning black-and-white cinematography by Roger Barlow and Robert Churchill, crisp editing by Irving Lerner, and distinctive musical score by Marc Blitzstein, who had written the famous workers' opera, The Cradle Will Rock.

The boldness and originality of two sequences in particular stand out. At a stamping mill, among clouds of billowing steam, workers use tongs to throw around sheets of flexible new steel. The scene is energetic, lyrical and almost mesmerizing in its beauty. The music, images and editing play in perfect marriage and counterpoint. Later, as a factory worker walks home after looking for a job, his first-person narration ("thought-speech" was Willard's term) is delivered in blank verse. Seeing from the fear on her husband’s face that there is no job to support them, his wife sits staring at the empty table, then in voice-over, we hear her sing a poignant lament: “Oh, far away, there’s a place with work and joy and tears…far away, oh, far away from here…” It’s a wonderful, stylized moment that makes a leap from realism to art.

In 1967, I interviewed Willard about his work with his collaborators: “Marc suggested that we try a kind of recitative, as in opera, that would lead into a song once we got inside the man’s home. We worked closely that way—the director, the editor, and the composer—conceiving sections musically the whole time. Regarding the hand-mill sequence, it was shot as a ballet, edited as a ballet and scored as a ballet.”

Willard Van Dyke had been one of the cameramen on Pare Lorentz’s 1937 classic The River, with music by Virgil Thompson. He later co-directed, with Ralph Steiner, The City, a pioneering and humorous film about city planning, which featured a score by Aaron Copland. With today’s prevalence of “talking heads” and vapid “reality programming,” I miss the cinematic invention and powerful music of documentaries like Valley Town.

Though hard to find today, this evocative and stylish film is in the collections of the venerable Donnell branch of the New York Public Library and the Museum of Modern Art. The trip to Valley Town is worth taking.


Harrison Engle has directed many documentary and dramatic films and is a past president of IDA. He can be reached at